Lancaster, OH: Sherman House Museum

I’ve been dying to see more presidential sites in Ohio, but none of them are anywhere near where my parents live. So, knowing we’d be in Columbus, I was googling attractions down there, hoping to find some previously overlooked presidential site (Taft’s house is the dream, but it’s all the way in Cincinnati), and I found what I guess is the next best thing: the childhood home of another famous Ohioan, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, which contained furniture once owned by the Grant family (as in Ulysses S). Granted, it was in Lancaster, which is about 30 miles south of Columbus, but 30 miles is nothing in America, and if we’d come that far south, why not go a bit farther?

Like the more famous Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Lancaster, Ohio appears to be mostly a farming community (judging by all the cornfields), but going by the lack of buggies, I don’t think the farmers here are Amish (Ohio’s Amish communities mostly live further north). I did guess that Lancaster’s downtown would be historic and adorable, and I was not wrong. This included Sherman’s house, easily identifiable by the cannon mounted out front.

  

Unfortunately, I don’t have many pictures to show you because when we walked in, there was a tour already in progress (with only one other couple on it), which we joined immediately after paying ($6, or $10 if you want to see the nearby Georgian Museum (which was confusingly built in 1832) too, but we only had time for the Sherman House), so we weren’t sure whether you could take pictures or not until we got to the museum space upstairs, so we didn’t (but as we were leaving, I spotted a sign that said non-flash photography was fine, so turns out we could have after all). The house is only viewable via guided tour, which I was initially fine with despite our tight schedule (we had to meet my uncle for happy hour in Columbus that afternoon), because I didn’t possibly think it could take more than an hour. How wrong I was.

  

Anyway, our tour guide was affable enough, showing us around and pointing out any special features of the rooms, but it felt more like any generic historic home tour until we got to the Sherman Museum upstairs. He did talk a bit about Sherman’s family, but because I didn’t know a whole lot about Sherman’s background, I didn’t really know who he was talking about until I saw the family tree quilt in the museum. But apparently, like most families who emigrated to Ohio when it was still the Western Reserve, Cump’s parents (Cump was Sherman’s childhood nickname, apparently derived from the Tecumseh bit of his name (itself taken from the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, who Cump’s father admired), and I like it, so I’m going to use it) came out from Connecticut in the 1810s and lived a pioneer lifestyle for a while until Ohio began to develop and grow, and they were able to double the size of their house. However, with eleven children, it would still have been quite a small house, and after Cump’s father died middle-aged and in debt (he was a lawyer who served on the Ohio Supreme Court, but had apparently loaned out money to tax collectors who worked for him who had yet to repay him), his mother was forced to allow most of her children to be raised by family and friends, including Cump, who was taken in by wealthy neighbour Thomas Ewing, as Cump was reputedly the most intelligent child.

  

Cump grew up to attend West Point Academy, where he excelled but had a lax attitude towards the rules, which prevented him from graduating at the top of his class. He married Ewing’s daughter Ellen, his foster sister, and they seem to have had a somewhat acrimonious marriage as all Ellen wanted to do was move back to her hometown of Lancaster, whereas it seemed Sherman couldn’t get the hell away from the place quickly enough. After serving in the Second Seminole War, he was denied the chance to see active duty in the Mexican-American War, which left him so salty that he resigned his commission and became a banker in San Francisco instead. The bank failed in the financial panic of 1857, and he subsequently became the head of a military academy in Louisiana, which he was happy enough doing, but then the Civil War happened.

This is where the story of Cump gets kind of shady (if fighting in “Indian Wars” wasn’t shady enough). He wasn’t actually opposed to slavery at all; in fact, he offered to buy Ellen slaves when they moved to Louisiana, but she refused because she didn’t think it was a good business transaction, bringing her white servants from the North with her instead. He only fought on the side of the North because he believed so damn much (to hear our tour guide tell it) in the Union, and he didn’t think the South had the right to secede. So yeah, he would have totally been a slave owner if his wife hadn’t opposed it on financial grounds. He’s not exactly an abolitionist hero or anything. His whole famous Union Army career followed, including the March to the Sea, etc. etc. – it’s all detailed here in the small museum, right down to the replica of his army tent, which included a writing desk and chest that actually belonged to him.

  

The most interesting thing in the museum, for me, was the picture of Sherman with Father Pierre De Smet, because I am a huge Laura Ingalls Wilder nerd, and the town she lived in in Dakota Territory was named De Smet for this priest. Cump met him in his post-war career, which included more “Indian Wars” out west (of course, because I guess being named after a Native American means you should kill as many of them as possible. One of his “brilliant” ideas was to kill all the buffalo so that the tribes would starve. Ugh). After he’d had his fill of killin’ he moved to New York, and was the person responsible for deciding that the Statue of Liberty should be placed on what became Liberty Island. This was also where he acquired the Grant’s parlour furniture, which is indeed in Sherman House’s parlour – probably the most interesting room in the house itself, containing as it does photographs of the family using the furniture, the last portrait of Sherman painted from life, and a partial set of Shakespeare themed chairs that Sherman had made for his home in New York (it sounded pretty swanky). The rest of the house was fairly standard historic home, as I said, with the obligatory “guess what this old-timey object was” game in the kitchen, and stenciled walls in one of the bedrooms upstairs in which a mistake had deliberately been made in the print, to show that “no one is perfect except God.” Our guide was fine (except for a few odd, slightly sexist jokes, like when he said I should cover my ears so I wouldn’t be shocked when I “learned” that poor people in the 1800s only owned one pair of shoes), but very talkative, especially at the end of the tour, when he talked for about half an hour to give us the entire rundown of Cump’s life story (which is probably the same thing I’ve done in the post, sorry about that), which meant we were late meeting my uncle, but it wasn’t really the guide’s fault since we didn’t say we were in a hurry or anything, and he was just trying to be informative, which he certainly was…just a little TOO informative.

  

So I basically learned that Sherman was a fairly terrible human being who only fought on the side of the North because he loved the Union more than practically anything, but I guess by the standards of the time, he was fairly normal, and certainly better than some, because despite his personal views on slavery, he did help win the Civil War (but then killed a bunch of Native Americans…OK, he was mostly terrible). Despite his many, many flaws, it was neat getting to see the house he grew up in, because I am quite interested in the American Civil War from a social history perspective, though it did seem like all his personal possessions were in the museum rooms or the front parlour, and everything else was either stuff owned by his parents (which was fine) or just items from the right time period that had been donated. Surprisingly, for a town this size, Lancaster does have a genuine museum “district” which in addition to Sherman House and the aforementioned Georgian House also includes the Ohio Glass Museum and the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio, which was free and hosting an exhibition on Victorian photography that I would have loved to visit if we hadn’t already been running extremely late, so I think this town is well worth a visit (via my uncle’s partner, I also found out that they have a very tasty looking doughnut shop, which I unfortunately didn’t learn until it was too late). Sherman House was an interesting experience, albeit not quite what I was expecting….just make sure you leave yourself plenty of time if you’re planning a visit. Lancaster is quite near to Hocking Hills, which I still haven’t been to (and wasn’t visiting on this trip, hiking in 90+ degrees Fahrenheit?! No thanks!), but it’s an area pretty well known for being gorgeous, so you can probably do an extended trip and see all this stuff if you fancy it. 3/5 for Sherman House.

 

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14 comments

  1. Since I went to Grad school in the South I may be a bit biased, but wasn’t Sherman the one who burned Atlanta to the ground?
    (I know, I know, I’m partial…)
    Thanks for the post anyway.
    🙂

    1. I think that’s still a hotly contested issue, and consensus these days seems to be that Sherman only ordered the destruction of part of the city, but then failed to discipline his men when they got fire-happy. So yes, sort-of!

      1. Well, that is the story I heard in the South. But then so much (his)story tends to be re-written… Let’s leave it at that. 🙂
        Be good.
        Brian

  2. I suppose you can only go so far in making allowances for the standards of the time – in this case, he sounds interesting but definitely not very nice. I love the house, I would have enjoyed looking round that and Lancaster sounds a good place to visit. I find tours like that with a very small number a bit intense though. The pressure to keep an interested look on one’s face (and think of the odd question which is not totally stupid) can be immense.

    1. He’s definitely an interesting and complex man, and I’d love to hear more about his marriage…the guide paraphrased some of their letters, and there were certainly some issues there! But yeah, he’s certainly no hero, to say the least.
      Lancaster was a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live down there, even though there were some gorgeous historic houses for sale on the street behind Sherman’s house, and I bet they were dirt-cheap relative to anything in the UK. And yes, I get nervous about small tour groups too, but I guess the benefit is that you don’t have a million people asking dumb questions. And the guide was talkative enough that there weren’t really many pauses where he expected us to ask them either.

  3. Hocking Hills is gorgeous! Very beautiful in the Autumn. I’m pleased with the amount of information you shared about the Sherman House. I have debated on touring the place. I think you may have persuaded me. Hope you enjoy/enjoyed the rest of your time in Ohio!

    1. Well, I hope you enjoy it if you decide to go! Thanks, I always enjoy my time in Ohio because all my family and a lot of my friends live there, so it’s always nice to see them (and to eat ice cream and doughnuts, because the UK doesn’t do those things particularly well!).

  4. As always, this one was so much fun – and you’ve taught me a good bit I didn’t know. In this case, actually an “awful” bit – I’d never heard that about Sherman wanting slaves. And the Indians Wars – just horrible. But I have to admit, I do love the nickname “Cump.” It’s such a silly, satisfying sound. Makes me want to name something that.
    A great, great, great (maybe one more in there) uncle of mine rode with Sherman at Shiloh and was struck by a bullet that supposedly knocked the cigar out of Sherman’s mouth. My ancestor lived – it just got him in the thigh or something fairly harmless (all things considered.) Anyhow, that story has always made me kinda perk up when Sherman’s mentioned, so I was really excited to see that you’d visited the museum. Wish I’d been along too. Also I’d have loved to see your expression after the guide made that tedious shoe joke 🙂

    1. You seem to have some kind of family connection to every famous historical American I blog about! I’m really kind of jealous. None of my ancestors were even in America til the 1910s, and I have literally no idea what they got up to in Poland. But your story is great, especially since it involved Sherman’s cigar!
      Cump is a great name, though it does sound a bit like Trump…maybe something about that “ump” noise makes people with those names jerks?
      I feel like I probably had a strained smile on my face when he said that, and I immediately thought, “well, there’s something I’ll have to mention on the blog.” Still not as bad as the guy at the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, MA who said that Marcus would have to drag me away from the shop and force me to look at the museum, because why would a woman actually be interested in history?! Ugh.

      1. Ha! I’m sorry, I think that’s got to be the last one. My Dad’s family did arrive pretty early but I don’t know how they always managed to get underfoot, historically. But my mother’s father, like yours, came in the 1910s (he was Russian from the Ukraine) and didn’t bring many stories of his family. Maybe it’s a Slavic thing.
        Criminey – that Pilgrim Hall guy has to be, officially, the worst.

  5. Cool house – that’s one of my fav architectural styles, but wow, not much of a hero. At least you got a very honest interpretation. And my god, I can’t believe that shoe comment and I’m equally appalled by your experience in Plymouth. I can’t recall a similar museum experience, but I have shocked people with my preference for reading non fiction/history books since that’s mostly male dominated…so ridiculous. I’ve also surprised people with my interest in facial hair history – “but you don’t have one..” um…and?!
    That Decorative Arts Center sounds really interesting!

    1. I seem to get comments like this all the time from older men. Which is weird, because in my experience, history seems to be a field that attracts lots of women, at least these days. The vast majority of the professors in the history department where I did my Master’s were women, as were the students on my course (11 women, two men). I mainly read history books too, and I’ve never had anyone comment on it, but I guess people are making sexist comments to you based on your reading rather than your museum visits – it’s always something! And the history of facial hair is really interesting! Why should it matter whether or not you have facial hair yourself?!

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