General Sherman in Old San Francisco

Other than Union-stationed Fort Point, gathering specifics about San Francisco’s direct involvement and vibe during the Civil War can take a bit of digging. A good place to start is this link, but what is most important to ascertain, and what won’t come as any surprise, is that while in 1861, San Francisco, and California in general, was home to many a Southerner, the state ultimately voted for Lincoln and the preservation of the Union. Keep in mind, the political landscape of the Civil War, and the Lincoln Administration’s support, was also what began the process of the Transcontinental Railroad. That said, one of San Francisco’s most interesting ties to the Civil War comes in a We Knew Him Way Back When sort of way. Meet General Sherman, one-time San Francisco banker.

William Tecumseh Sherman

Born in Ohio, it was at the ripe age of 27, in 1847, that Army lieutenant William T. Sherman came to be stationed in Monterey, Calif. during the Mexican-American War. Visiting newly-named San Francisco that same year, he found the backwoods hamlet a “horrid place,” and wished to get out of there at first chance. When gold was found at Coloma in 1848, Sherman traveled with Colonel Richard B. Mason to the gold fields, working up an official report of the find for President James K. Polk. In 1850, the Army sent Sherman back east, but with the transpirings in California having planted visions of opportunity, in 1853, Sherman resigned from the Army and moved his wife and newborn daughter to San Francisco, where he managed a branch of Lucas, Turner & Company, a St. Louis-based bank owned by his father-in-law’s brother.

After buying a lot from James Lick, at the northeast corner of Jackson and Montgomery streets, construction of “Sherman’s Bank” began in 1853 and cost $53K. The bank opened for business in July 1854, and though business began with a boom, it didn’t remain that way. For while able to navigate the post-gold rush depression and financial crisis of 1855 better than most banks, as commerce began moving toward the new Market Street, away from the older downtown area, Sherman decided to close the branch just three years after opening. That said, “Sherman’s Bank” has survived (except for the third story) multiple earthquakes and fires over the years, and stands as one of the oldest buildings in San Francisco.*

Sherman's Bank - 2012
Sherman’s Bank building today, built in 1854 (click for larger).
1906, Sherman's Bank at center w/ original third story (was removed after 1906 quake for safety reasons)
March 31, 1906, Sherman’s Bank at center with original third story (was removed later that year after earthquake for safety reasons).

After moving back east and dabbling in various ventures, in 1859, with encouragement from Major D.C. Buell, Sherman and family moved to Louisiana, where Sherman took the role as first superintendent of Louisiana State University.^ In 1861, however, when the Civil War broke out, out of refusal to “do any act or any thought hostile to or in defiance of the old Government of the United States,” Sherman returned north to rejoin the U.S. Army as a colonel. It was just a few years later, in 1864, when General Sherman led his now-famous campaign through Georgia, annihilating everything in its wake, Sherman’s “March to the Sea” as it has come to be called, emblazoned into pop culture via the 1939 blockbuster film, Gone with the Wind.

In 1876, as Commanding General of the Army under President Ulysses Grant, Sherman returned to San Francisco for a visit, and was welcomed as Local Boy Done Good and hero. In 1884, Sherman retired from the Army, living out his days in New York City, where he died at the age of 71.

*The building is currently home to William Stout Architectural Books.

^It was then called Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy, and was located in Pineville, not Baton Rouge.

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