FIERCE PATRIOT: THE TANGLED LIVES OF WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN by Robert L. O’Connell

 

(The Shermanesque  Stance!)

According to Robert L. O’Connell in his new book AMERICAN PATRIOT: THE TANGLED LIVES OF WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN, the life of the Civil War hero should not be portrayed in the traditional fashion by preparing a chronological narrative because its results would be too cumbersome.  Instead, the author has produced a fascinating book that consists of three parts that add up to a biography, but is organized in a rather confusing manner.  What the author has written is a “pseudo-biography” that covers Sherman’s life in excellent detail with a great deal of analysis.  I understand that historians are always looking for a fresh approach toward their subjects that have been dealt with previously, but at times they should not try and reinvent the wheel.  Again, let me reiterate, I enjoyed the book and took away a great deal, but at times I would have hoped the material in the last section of the narrative could have been included in the lengthy first section to form greater coherence.

O’Connell begins by arguing that Sherman’s life brings with it an enormous amount of documentary material stemming from his own writing, an extensive oral record of his statements, and the voluminous material produced by the Civil War.  The author concludes that it is almost impossible to produce a definitive one volume biography of Sherman.  In addition, the difficulty is enhanced because of the many myths associated with Sherman from the accusation of being a war criminal, a racist, and a very class conscious individual who supported the business classes.  The author concludes that there is evidence for each of these myths, but there is also material that disproves them, particularly when we apply twenty-first century standards to nineteenth century figures.  For O’Connell, Sherman falls into a category below Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and FDR as individuals who were responsible for furthering American growth and making transcontinental consolidation possible, and the author’s resulting effort accurately proves that point.

In preparing the book O’Connell has decided to portray three story lines.  The first, “if Jefferson was the architect of continental expansion, Sherman would become his general contractor.” (xviii)  By the time Sherman retired from the army in 1884, he “had become virtually a human embodiment of Manifest destiny.  Florida, California, reclaiming the Confederacy, winning the west.” (xix)  Second, the co-evolution of the army of the west and Sherman as its commander as he taught legions of men “the most valued of military skills: the ability to adapt,” and the ability to adjust on the fly after much trial and error.  Thirdly, Sherman created a model “of how to grab and hold on to fame in America, one that still works today.” (xx)  For O’Connell, Sherman’s life boils down to a three ring circus, each fascinating, but they must be dealt with separately or components of his life become too distracting.  As a result he sticks to a section describing Sherman as a military strategist, another as a general, and he concludes with a section of Sherman as a human being after retirement.  My problem is that these sections continuously overlap and there are parts of the book that the reader is told that what he is writing about will become much clearer later.  I admire O’Connell’s effort, but John F. Marszalek’s SHERMAN: A SOLDIER’S PASSION FOR ORDER did an admirable job of creating what O’Connell discounts.

O’Connell begins by lecturing the reader on the concept of military strategy and concludes that Sherman’s ultimate career goal was national consolidation of the central bond of the North American continent and Manifest Destiny.  He further concludes that he never wanted to be in total command during his military career, as it was difficult enough being in charge of strategy.  These conclusions are well supported in the first two-thirds of the book that make up section one.  O’Connell is on firm ground with his theme and goes on to support his argument as he takes the reader through Sherman’s career at West Point, the Second Seminole War of 1835-1842, a stint at on the Sullivan Islands across the harbor from Charleston, South Carolina, as a recruiting officer in the Pittsburgh region, a stationing in California, and investigating corruption in New Orleans.  What should be apparent is that the most important activity of this time period was the Mexican War, which Sherman missed out on, while others from his graduating class at West Point began to earn their reputations.  As a strategist what was most important for Sherman at this juncture of his life was his discovery of the importance of the Mississippi which fit his world view as he would describe the region as the “spinal column of America.”  Sherman’s love for geography and topography was born at this time and along with a photographic memory for detail.  This would allow him to remember almost every aspect from each area that he transverses in his career fostering the development of a data base that in part explains his success as a strategist during the Civil War.

(The Union siege of Vicksburg, July, 1863)

It is O’Connell’s discussion of the Civil War that is the strongest part of the book.  O’Connell does pepper this section with details concerning his upbringing, his relationship with the Ewing family, his marriage and raising a family all of which are important enough, but detail later in the book clarifies a great deal of what is discussed here.  In a sense the Civil War saved Sherman’s career.  By the early 1850s Sherman leaves the army and tries his hand in the private sector.  His father-in-law, Thomas Ewing, a cabinet officer, politician, and wealthy individual wanted him to take over  a Salt Mine he owned near his home in Lancaster, Ohio which became part of a tug of war between the Ewing family and his wife Ellen, and what Sherman wanted to do with his life.  The Ewing-Sherman relationship at times dominates the narrative as Sherman tries to be his own man and continually win over his wife.  The period preceding the Civil War was probably the worst period for Sherman.  His career as a New York banker ended with the crash of 1857.  He returned to California as a banker but due to the economy the venture was a failure.  He finally gives into Thomas Ewing’s urging and runs one of the the family businesses in Leavenworth, Ka.  It became increasingly clear to Sherman the only arena that he felt comfortable in was the military and after the election of Lincoln he rejoins the army and with secession his career is saved.

The author spends a prodigious amount of time discussing the major battles that Sherman was involved in.  The reader witnesses how Sherman trains and develops the army of the west and making it into one of the best fighting forces in American history by the end of the war.  We witness how Sherman cultivated his soldiers to believe in him and how he developed his command.  The knowledge of American geography is applied and we see his strategy unfold.  O’Connell delves into the egos of the period, be it Sherman, Henry Halleck, Simon Cameron, Edwin Stanton, Ulysses S. Grant and others and the personality conflicts that were readily apparent.  Sherman’s logistical genius greatly assisted Grant in Tennessee resulting in the Sherman-Grant relationship that was based on mutual trust.  Sherman was content to being Grant’s “wing man” or second in command and the relationship flourished.  Sherman suffered from depression and Grant tended to imbibe a bit too much as Sherman described their relationship, “he stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk, now sir we stand by each other always.” (95)

For Sherman the battle of Shiloh in April, 1862 was a major turning point.  Shiloh was a success because Sherman was able to blunt the south’s effort to recover the initiative in the Mississippi Valley and opened the way for a rendering of the military balance in the west and securing Sherman’s reputation.  The theme of securing the Mississippi so crucial to Sherman’s thinking is explored in the run up to and final battle at Vicksburg a year later, culminating in a union victory in July, 1863.  Sherman’s audacious strategy was key and as 1864 approached Sherman was aware of the south’s tenacity so he convinced Grant that the best way to defeat the south was “to attack southern morale and its relationship to crushing the rebellion….Both understood the psychological effect of their blue-clad armies barging across the landscape, taking what they wanted, and wrecking anything that looked Confederate,” (132) they would engage the Confederate field armies and destroy them, killing rebels, and getting into their heads.  Grant would be the battering ram in the East, and Sherman would employ his mastery of operations and strategy as he marched toward Atlanta.  O’Connell’s discussion of the march to the sea is excellent.  We are placed inside Sherman’s mind as well as the Confederates he fought.  The detail is exquisite and is one of the major highlights of the book.  The burning of Atlanta, the seizure of Savannah, and the march into South Carolina for revenge against the heart of the enemy as it burns Columbia rather than Charleston and the move into North Carolina where Sherman softens his approach are all described.  The success was based on foraging and living off the land as well as engineering genius, but as with other topics there is greater detail about the “bummers” (foragers) in a later part of the book.  The author concludes this section of the book with a discussion of Sherman’s post war role in implementing the transcontinental rail road, a goal that he had set earlier in his career and fit right in with his belief of continental expansion.

The final third of the book is broken down into two parts.  The first explores Sherman’s soldiers and their relationship to him.  O’Connell describes the intricacies of the army of the west and its conduct during the Civil War.  We learn what fighting was like at Shiloh and Vicksburg.  We learn what it was like marching 120 miles on the way to Atlanta, and fighting an insurgency through the eyes of the participants.  Shiloh is explained through the vision of a seventeen year old drummer boy, and the life of a “bummer” is explored through their own eyes as they faced the difficulty of locating food for an entire army.  The author also explains the role of the new technology developed during the war and how it affected Sherman’s strategy and how his soldiers adapted to it.  Basically, this section is a history of the army of the west from its inception, training, skill set and application in battle, all information that could have been integrated more effectively in the first section of the book.

(Statue of William T. Sherman, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, located at 59th Street and 5th Avenue entrance to Central Park, NYC)

O’Connell brings his narrative to a close by describing the difficulties that marrying into the Ewing family presented.  His wife Ellen’s constant pressure to have Sherman convert to Catholicism irked the general and made him feel as if there was a papist plot against him.  Ellen’s need to spend meant that throughout their marriage there was always pressure on Sherman to make a great deal of money.  The competition between the legacy of Thomas Ewing and Sherman’s career path is a key component as to what drove Sherman a good part of his life, when finally after the Civil War he could feel that he was finally the dominant figure in the eyes of his wife.  O’Connell weaves in at least two of the affairs that Sherman was involved in during his marriage, but concludes the thirty year bond between Ellen and her husband always remained strong.  The author closes with a discussion of Sherman’s “rock star” career after the Civil War and how the public fed his need for approval.  There are components in the book that border on “psychohistory,” but the author’s conclusions in that area are a bit flimsy.  Overall the book is quite interesting and if one can deal with its organizational flaws it is well worth reading.

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