Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Fierce Patriot:TheTangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman by Robert L. O'Connell: Book Review

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman by Robert L. O'Connell (Random House, 2014, 432 pages, $28.00/$11.84) distinguishes itself for its unusual structure, great clarity, insight into a seminal figure in the creation of our country, and wonderful examination of the Civil War which, by focusing on the efforts of one of it's crucial leaders, brings the larger picture of the war into clearer light. This is one of the best biographies I've ever read, well deserving of the attention of anyone interested in the Civil War or the the development of modern America. I recommend it most highly! William Tecumseh Sherman led a complex, convoluted life. By breaking his life into three often overlapping components to deal with each separately, O'Connell does the reader a huge favor, providing clarity of vision to this intriguing, and often contradictory, character. Perhaps the most successful general of the Civil War, if not in all American history, Sherman participated in many crucial events of the nineteenth century: Indian removal and decimation in Florida and then the West, fighting to maintain the Union by waging total war in his march through Georgia and then north to Virginia, building the transcontinental railroad, and creating an unforgettable historical character. However his comments and focus were kept on larger strategic issues rather than on slavery, human treatment of Native Americans, or the nobility of the common soldier. O'Connell urges readers to judge Sherman by his behavior towards others rather than his remarks about them, and consistently points out the contrasts.


O'Connell chooses to illuminate Sherman's character and achievement through adopting an unusual structure. Conventional biography often begins with a rather long (and often mind numbing) discussion of the central character's genealogy, childhood, upbringing, and development before getting to the elements that created the character interesting to history or seminal events. O'Connell divides his story into three major sections: The Military Strategist, The General and his Army, and The Man and His Families. While in practice these categories may overlap and are not exclusive, they give him a chance to keep focused on the elements he wants to emphasize. By leaving much of the genealogy and family history to the third section, he makes that section more interesting and more relevant to the larger story. Such a turnaround may slightly challenge the reader, but may stand as a larger barrier to an academic researcher seeking a new interpretation of an important historical figure. O'Connell pulls this all off by providing lucid writing, keeping focused on relevant detail in each section, and adding clarity and focus to Sherman's life as well as the Civil War itself. This is a highly admiring biography which never hides from the warts on Sherman's character, giving it still greater credibility.

Sherman Gazes Over Atlanta

As a strategist, Sherman seems to have been capable of almost always keeping his eye on the larger objectives, not letting smaller distractions (like Indian welfare, the abolition of slavery) get in his way. However, when his behavior is examined, he treated others with dignity and respect while always remaining flexible enough to take advantage of what they had to offer. His treatment of African Americans is perhaps the best illustration of this. Sherman was slow to get behind abolition as a goal. However, when he realized during his campaigns in the West (Tennessee, Mississippi) and during his march to the sea that freed slaves were both a good source of labor and information, he was quick to exploit these sources. While, as a West Point professional, he was slow to accept the strength and ability of citizen soldiers, he soon adapted to their valor and adaptability in bringing typical American ingenuity to the new demands of a changing technology of warfare. In his famed march through Georgia and then northward across South Carolina and North Carolina, he is often wrongly accused of wantonly destroying property and lives. Rather, once successful, he always treated vanquished enemies with dignity and respect, often providing food and other kinds of support. He was a master of military psychology who understood that to defeat the Confederacy and bring it back to the Union, he needed to break its spirit as well as defeat it militarily. Similarly, his knowledge of terrain and his vision of a unified continent, sacrificed Indians and buffalo to the vast expansion of the territorial United States, leading it to become a continental power.

Augustus Saint Gauden's Sherman Monument
Central Park in New York City

Sherman was well-liked by his peers and beloved of his men. Perhaps the source of this admiration grew from the fact that he was wary of wasting lives, not willing to throw masses of human capital at loosing positions, unlike Grant, who used his army like a battering ram. With the possible exception of the Kennesaw Line in Georgia, his troop movements conserved lives while gaining territory and defeating the enemy. He recognized innovation coming from below, even encouraged it, earning him the love of his troops and the sobriquet of “Uncle Billy.” Later, as General of the Army, he continued to burnish his own reputation by maintaining the pride and patriotism of the veterans of the Union Army well into the 1880's. While often mentioned as a presidential candidate, Sherman, who preferred to lead from a secondary position, never considered a political career or sought the top job.

The third section of this highly readable biography focuses on the complexities of an extraordinairily complex family life. Brought into the home of the powerful Ewing family as a foster child while still young, Sherman was both influenced and challenged by Thomas Ewing. Matters became increasingly complicated when he fell in love with and later married his foster sister, Ellen. There ensued many years of competition for “custody” of the daughter/wife as Ewing sought to control Sherman's career through her. As with many 19th century people, Sherman's family was often devastated by the death of children to disease. A complicating factor was the competition that developed between the largely non-religious general and his ardently Catholic wife. Through many long and difficult separations, the couple remained together, even though Sherman had friendships (and perhaps more) with a number of women through the years.

Robert L. O'Connell

Robert L. O’Connell has worked as a senior analyst at the National Ground Intelligence Center, as a contributing editor to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, and most recently as a visiting professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Of Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression; Sacred Vessels: The Cult of the Battleship and the Rise of the U.S. Navy; Ride of the Second Horseman: The Birth and Death of War; Soul of the Sword: An Illustrated History of Weaponry and Warfare from Prehistory to the Present; and the novel Fast Eddie.

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman by Robert L. O'Connell (Random House, 2014, 432 pages, $28.00/$11.84) is a highly readable and tightly written biography of one of the most important figures in American history. O'Connell makes Sherman eminently likable without ever seeking to hide or disguise his faults. The structure of the biography makes it easier to understand the vastly complicated life Sherman led and seems, upon consideration, to be a logical way to build the story of an important figure. I read the book in an electronic galley provided by the publisher through Edelweiss on my Kindle.