As the Civil War begins, William T. Sherman is a respected military leader known for being a shrewd tactician. But the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run plunges Sherman into self-doubt; self-doubt that culminates in a nervous breakdown and ridicule in the press. Sherman recovers at home in the care of his wife but remains a military outcast until Ulysses S. Grant assumes a command post in the Union Army.
Grant believes in Sherman, and together they turn the tide for the Union at the Battle of Shiloh, earning an unlikely but resounding victory. After a series of impressive victories in Tennessee, Grants chooses Sherman to lead an invasion of the South where he employs brutal "scorched earth" tactics – including burning the city of Atlanta — to destroy the South's ability and will to fight.
Following the war, Grant chooses Sherman to lead the U.S. Army in its new conflict against the Indian tribes of the West. Sherman takes the same aggressive stance against the Indians that he did against the South, saying, "The more Indians we kill this year, the fewer we'll have to kill the next."
As unrest in the South forces the Grant administration to forge tenuous peace with the hostile Indian tribes, Sherman becomes Grant's key policy enforcer, engaging directly in treaty negotiations. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills changes everything though... and Sherman goes back on the war path.
But Sherman's choice of General George Custer to head the U.S. forces in the war against Sioux Indians Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse leads to the infamous debacle at the Battle of Little Big Horn. In response, Sherman uses his "scorched earth" tactics on the Indians, systematically eliminating the buffalo, their major source of food. Within a year of Little Big Horn, his strategy pays off with Crazy Horse's surrender and Sitting Bull's fight to Canada.
In later years, Sherman expresses regret over the treatment of Indians and distaste for armed conflict in general, uttering the famous quote "War is Hell." Sherman would also say "You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it."