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Monday, December 13, 2010

General W.T. Sherman and the Bowie Knife

William Tecumseh Sherman (1820 - 1891) had an interesting pre-Civil War career, bouncing around between a number of jobs. Among other things, he made an official expedition to California in 1848 to survey the territory and to verify that gold had indeed been discovered. In 1859, he accepted a position as superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy, the kind of institution where parents sent their boys as a last resort. (It later became Louisiana State University.)  In January, 1860, Sherman was forced to expel a student who had drawn a knife on another. He described the weapon as a "dirk knife . . . of the bowie pattern," illustrating how vaguely defined those terms were in the 19th century. Here is the letter Sherman wrote:
Jan. 30, 1860.
A case has this day arisen requiring my prompt action under the paragraph of regulations quoted below: "In extraordinary cases of resistance to authority, calling for immediate action, the superintendent may adopt the measures necessary to maintain order and good discipline, but in all such cases he shall forthwith submit to the Board of Supervisors his report in writing of all the facts and reasons for his action."
Cadet D. F. H---h was reported to the commandant of cadets, by Cadet S. M. H---s, acting as sergeant for some delinquency. He made an excuse in writing, which the commandant of cadets referred to Mr. H---s for explanation. Just before drill this p.m., Mr. H---s spoke to Cadet H---h about the excuse; some words passed resulting in Mr. H---s using the word "lie." H---h retorted the same when H---s struck. H---h then went to his room and returned with a dirk knife, and renewed the altercation with the knife open, and threatening to use it. I have the knife and it is of the bowie knife pattern. Mr. Smith happening to be near, interfered and caused Mr. H---h to go to his room and remain there during drill. At the moment I was showing some visitors through the building. As soon as the matter was reported to me, I forthwith informed Mr. H---h that no possible cause or provocation could justify or palliate the use or display by a member of this Seminary of a deadly weapon: and that he must leave. I made an order to that effect, and although I told him he could remain till morning, still he preferred to leave to-day. I will to-morrow cause the whole truth to be determined and recorded, and if Mr. H---s is to blame, he too must be punished according to the degree of offence. The word "lie" must never be used here, with impunity, but I assert the broad principle, that no word, or even blow must for a moment give a pretext for the use of a deadly weapon.
ORDER OF DISMISSAL SEMINARY OF LEARNING, January 30, 1860. ORDER No. 9. Cadet D. T. H---h, having in an angry controversy with another cadet drawn a dirk or a bowie knife, is hereby summarily dismissed.
The superintendent in this connection does not deem it necessary to look to the provocation. Here no possible provocation can justify such an act.
W. T. SHERMAN, Superintendent.
Both Union and Confederate troops often equipped themselves with personally owned pistols and bowie knives, adding a considerable amount of weight to their already cumbersome weapons and accouterments. John T. Taylor described the arms with which he equipped himself for war:
Having entered the service with a firm resolve 
to do my part in putting down the rebellion, I at once 
armed myself with an Ames saber, regulation size, a Smith 
& Wesson carbine, a brace of pistols, a belt pistol, and a 
Bowie knife with a seven-inch blade.
Just before Shiloh, Taylor had a heated exchange with a superior officer and shortly afterward was summoned to meet with General Sherman. As he made his way to the meeting he wondered if he was to be disciplined for that incident. He writes:
I advanced upon him with some trepidation. Saluting 
him, I said, "General Sherman, I am the lieutenant of Company G, 5th Ohio Cavalry, ordered to report to you."
The general eyed me very closely for a moment. I thought he was recalling to mind the language I had applied to the adjutant of my regiment, for I believed the matter had been reported to him. I learned from the general afterwards that he was wondering how I managed to bear up under so many arms.
Sherman's purpose in meeting Taylor was to ask him to serve as his aide-de-camp. Taylor accepted.

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