William T. Sherman on the western railroads, 1878

A primary source by William T. Sherman

William T. Sherman to David Douty Colton, September 26, 1878 (Gilder Lehrman Collection)After Ulysses S. Grant’s election as president, William Tecumseh Sherman, known for leading the “March to the Sea” in the closing months of the Civil War, was appointed commanding general of the United States Army. Headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, Sherman’s command often sent him westward across the country on the lines of the transcontinental railroad, the first of which was completed in 1869.

In this September 1878 letter to David Douty Colton, vice president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, Sherman commends the “first class steel railroad across the Great Desert” of Arizona. The general recognized the railroad’s value to the military, which could now move large numbers of men and equipment across the country. Commending the “grand enterprise” of the railroad, Sherman wrote, “every mile of new Railroad south and East from Yuma, will be important in increasing trade and intercourse with our neighbors in Mexico, and thus cause friendly relations, and secure peace on that National Border.” He also noted that the railroad would be a “great civilizer” that would “enable the Military Authorities to maintain peace and order among Indians.”

A full transcript is available.


To the Military Authorities it makes little difference with which of these two roads you ultimately make connection, but meantime every mile of rail road you build Eastward, is of great importance to us; saves the costly and difficult transportation of stones by wagons, and the infinitely more tedious and painful marching of men over dusty roads, at long intervals without water and with scanty food.

A Railroad East and West through Arizonia, apart from its importance as a Commercial Route from the Pacific to the Atlantic, is a “great civilizer” and will enable the Military Authorities to maintain peace and order among Indians, as well as the Equally dangerous class of Robbers who of late have so much increased in members and boldness.

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