It appears I’ve caused a bit of a ruckus at LSU.
This isn’t the first time, of course. I’ve made some commotion at my alma mater before, but it was usually as a student — and it likely involved several bottles of bottom-shelf whiskey.
This time, it involves Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.
A few weeks ago, I sponsored a lecture at LSU featuring the historian James Lee McDonough, who's just written a fascinating new biography of Sherman, the Union general who famously burned Atlanta to the ground — and who, less famously, served as LSU’s first president during the antebellum years when it was called Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy. (Sherman hated the name.)
During the lecture, I mentioned that LSU has never recognized Sherman, its first leader, and that the school should name something after him. I proposed the Parade Grounds and hoped that the university and its alumni might take my idea under consideration.
Whether it’s convenient for some or not, it remains historical fact that Sherman shaped our country and our university in important ways. The great historians Basil Lidell Hart and Shelby Foote dubbed Sherman “the first truly modern general,” and as head of LSU during its first years, he, more than anyone, helped get the school off the ground.
Sherman served as “superintendent and professor of engineering, architecture, and drawing” at a time when LSU was nothing more than a single building populated by 40 ill-mannered students. “Of course,” Sherman said anyway, “I promise to be a father to them all.” And he was.
Sherman was beloved and respected during those early days of LSU. He was responsible for recruiting the school’s first professors and procuring its first uniforms, which, he made sure weren’t too stuffy in the swamp heat. A Northerner, Sherman stayed behind for weeks after Louisiana seceded to make sure the school’s finances were in order.
Even after the war, Sherman remained popular at LSU. In 1878, he returned to New Orleans, accompanied by the Confederate General John Bell Hood — no Yankee sympathizer —and then went back to campus, where he was met by throngs of awaiting students. He stayed up half the night, talking with them, and he still called LSU “my school.” (During Mardi Gras that year, the people of New Orleans would bestow an additional title on Sherman — “The Duke of Louisiana.”)
LSU already remembers plenty of Confederate officers like the admiral Raphael Semmes and the soldier-turned-LSU president David French Boyd. Their names are emblazoned on campus, and I’m not proposing that we change that.
But we should add to them.
We shouldn’t act like ridiculous caricatures of Southerners and blot out the accomplishments of an historic individual just because he was a Yankee.
By the way, David French Boyd, one of the most influential people in the history of our university and a dedicated Confederate, would probably agree with me. He taught with Sherman before the war at LSU, and Sherman later helped spring Boyd from a Union prison. For years, Boyd recalled how reluctant Sherman was to leave LSU for war. “I remember well how it grieved you to leave us,” he wrote Sherman, “and how sorry we were to see you go.”
Above all else, putting Sherman’s name on a plaque would help us remember this — that war makes for complex friendships, and some of them happened here at LSU.
That said, I recognize there are still people whose minds are stuck south of the Mason-Dixon line in the year 1875. I understand that, a century and a half later, some folks still think the man who brought total war to the South — albeit to preserve the Union and free the slaves — was an unforgivable villain.
So, for them, here’s my final argument, and it has to do with another tough Union general.
Let me ask: Where is Ulysses S. Grant’s presidential library?
If you guessed Mississippi State University, you’re 100 percent correct.
That’s right: Ulysses S. Grant may have starved Vicksburg so thoroughly that its people ate rats and refused to celebrate the Fourth of July again until after World War II. But Mississippi is still able to recognize that Grant was an important part of history, and if Mississippi can honor Grant, shouldn’t we be able to honor Sherman?
All of this brings me to the most painful sentence an LSU Tiger has ever scrawled in the long history of the written word:
It’s time for LSU to follow Mississippi State out of the dark and, finally, adopt a more enlightened view of our past.
Political consultant James Carville lives in New Orleans.