Magazine | July 21, 2014, Issue

Shaper of Modern America

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert L. O’Connell (Random House, 432 pp., $28)

Docents at William Tecumseh Sherman’s boyhood home in Lancaster, Ohio, treat visitors to a telling anecdote from the general’s youth. The ginger-complected Sherman was so incensed when a foster brother christened him “red-haired woodpecker” that he furiously concocted a chemical treatment and dyed the offending mane . . . green.

“Dirty, ragged, and saucy,” is how Sherman characterized his army. The description could be applied to its leader as well, with “theatrical,” “mercurial,” and “ferocious” appended for good measure. Cump, as intimates called him, was a grand character in an era populated by them. But the full scope of his personality and the reach of his life are less understood and contemplated than those of many other primary players of the Civil War.

That’s why Robert L. O’Connell’s new biography is so welcome and valuable. “Biography” is actually something of a misnomer in this case: O’Connell, a military historian and the author of The Ghosts of Cannae, has written a study that has little relation to the 800-page lives that come and go with such frequency and seem designed for coffee tables rather than actual reading.

Fierce Patriot, in contrast, is relatively brief and avoids overly florid prose or endless detail (if you are interested in the chronology of Sherman’s ancestors going back generations, look elsewhere). In their place is an engaging series of chapters (occasionally not in chronological sequence) that explain what a fascinating and complex life Sherman led and, most strikingly, make the persuasive argument that his fingerprints can be found on America even today.

Naturally, much of the book is a contemplation of Sherman the soldier. This life begins at West Point, from which the young cadet emerged with a very defined idea of his place in the Army, and it was not a position of absolute command. Writes O’Connell: “If you can say one thing about Sherman with certainty, it’s that he never wanted to be ultimately in charge.”

It was a career that quickly built up a head of steam, but eventually derailed. O’Connell takes readers on a brisk tour, illuminating the skills Sherman developed at each post and would put to later use. Service in Florida during the Second Seminole War was a primer in asymmetrical warfare; travels across South Carolina and Georgia cultivated an unrivaled sense of southern geography. (A posting in the Mexican War — he sailed to California to perform administrative tasks — led to Sherman’s  sending an oyster can full of gold nuggets dredged from the Sacramento River to federal authorities in Washington, which helped set off the Gold Rush of 1849.)

One cause of Sherman’s rise, as O’Connell explains, was family. When Sherman’s father, Charles, died in 1829, Thomas Ewing, a successful Ohio attorney and future cabinet secretary and senator, adopted nine-year-old Cump. This provided not only future political connections, but also a life partner in the form of Ewing’s daughter Ellen. It was an awkward but enduring union: She was a devout Catholic; he had little use for church. She loved Lancaster; he could not wait to leave home and had little desire to return. The Ewings hoped he would abandon the Army and prosper elsewhere; he had no such desire.

Sherman lost this last struggle, resigning his commission in 1853 and heading to San Francisco to manage a branch of the Lucas and Turner Bank, the first of many ill-fated business ventures that sent him spiraling into depression. By 1858, he was back in Lancaster and, by his own admission, washed up.

O’Connell does not hesitate to put his subject on the therapist’s couch or to point out his faults. As secession approached, Sherman’s view of events was obscured by what O’Connell calls a “strategic blindfold”: He was oddly comfortable with slavery and completely failed to anticipate the rebellion. In fact, in a bit of history that might jolt some, as the Civil War approached, Sherman happily headed south to found the Louisiana Military Seminary and, in the process, even procured muskets that would be used by the Confederacy.

But once the shells fell on Fort Sumter, there would be, from Sherman’s perspective, no mercy for the South. This — the Civil War — is where both the book and its subject reach their apexes. O’Connell’s treatment of the many battles Sherman participated in is well wrought, but even more interesting is how the historian traces the evolution of Sherman’s mind and personality as the war progressed. In the earliest days, from First Manassas to Western Kentucky, he was irascible, threatening unruly troops at gunpoint, unsettling superiors, and shocking reporters. “Sherman’s gone in the head, he’s looney,” observed one War Department official. Whispers of insanity spread; depression returned and his career was on a deathwatch. His frenemy Henry Halleck, a fellow cadet at West Point and the overseer of the Department of the Missouri, intervened and brought Sherman to St. Louis. Lincoln, who knew something of melancholy, approved the reprieve.

#page#There Sherman crossed paths with another peculiar Buckeye. O’Connell pays special attention to the relationship between Sherman and Grant, one of the most important collaborations in America’s history. They were a perfect match: Sherman, always happy to play second fiddle, was the wingman, and Grant, the demanding taskmaster, the decider. Where Sherman had been accused of lunacy, Grant was labeled a drunk. The two bonded at once, provided a support system for each other, and by the spring of 1864 they held the reins of the North’s war efforts.

Any consideration of Sherman, of course, demands a focus on the blaze of destruction he lit, from Atlanta to Savannah to the Carolinas, which brought the Confederacy to its knees. Readers will not be disappointed. Spread out across two chapters — one a straight history of the march, another that reads like a travelogue — O’Connell uses a mix of observations and firsthand accounts, drawn from the recollections of Sherman’s men, to give a sense of life on the journey and to emphasize the strategic relevance of the action of a stripped-down elite fighting force — O’Connell compares it to a voracious human land shark — in torching Atlanta, abandoning its supply lines, and then vanishing into the Deep South.

The high-water mark of Sherman’s strategic powers, it was a campaign based on theatrics and psychology. When the general and his men headed out of a town, they left smoldering ruins in their wake; state capitols were smashed, homes were raided, farms were pillaged. The image of the South was defaced and vandalized, and its people left demoralized. Sherman’s aim was not to bring bloodshed — in fact, his men showed considerable restraint — but rather to send a message: The end of the rebellion was nigh. It was a memo that was received loud and clear, and, the author argues, represented a form of warfare that provided a blueprint for our nimble, adaptable, modern military.

It was a considerable accomplishment, but, O’Connell argues, not Sherman’s most important one. This honor is reserved for his primary postbellum project — overseeing the construction of the transcontinental railroad. During the war, Sherman marched his men to the sea; after it, he marched the reunited nation to the ocean. As head of the Department of the Missouri, Sherman was, in O’Connell’s words, “Manifest Destiny’s chief of operations,” ditching the nation’s capital, shrugging at Reconstruction, and gathering up remnants of his old army to link bands of steel from coast to coast. It was the accomplishment he was most proud of, and one that O’Connell argues is the crown jewel of his legacy.

Of course, it came with a cost. In this endeavor, Indians replaced Southerners as the object of Sherman’s fury. Westward expansion, he reasoned, required their removal. This goal was accomplished by annihilation of their source of sustenance, the bison, 3 million of which were slaughtered between 1872 and 1874 — at Sherman’s urging. This is no doubt a blemish, but O’Connell provides a provocative rebuff to those who would condemn Sherman from the comfort of the 21st century. National expansion and its consequences for America’s indigenous population were an act of a tragic play staged repeatedly since the Neolithic period: herders overpowering hunters. Sherman accelerated a predestined process; we may complain about ill-gotten territory, but, as the author says, “nobody is talking about giving back the place.”

There were many more sides to the man. The philanderer: He was romantically entangled with the youthful sculptor Lavinia “Vinnie” Ream. The post-war celebrity: He toured the country, speaking endlessly, maintaining his brand, the crusty general in the rumpled Brooks Brothers suit. And political recluse: The presidency could have easily been his, but he curtly declined. It is all here, in a book that manages to be accessible, funny, and fascinating. And idiosyncratic references to Daffy Duck, Muhammad Ali, Monty Python, and big-wave surfing come and go, drawing analogies that always, no matter how incongruous at first glance, make their mark.

Sherman’s standing in American history is formidable. And his importance prefaces and passes the war with which we always associate him. His life was one of odd contradictions: the Union warrior who never saw the war coming; the man who brought the South absolute war, then tossed it the most generous terms of peace; the West Point man who turned up his nose at volunteer soldiers, then won the war with them. It is hard to imagine any other biography capturing it all in such a concise and enlightening fashion.

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War has brought and will continue to bring a flurry of books about that well-trod subject and its many actors. Robert L. O’Connell’s Fierce Patriot will be required reading long after the anniversary passes.

– Mr. Cole, a former adviser to Governor Mitch Daniels, is a writer in Bloomington, Ind.

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