Citizen Sherman:
A Life of William Tecumseh Sherman
By Michael Fellman
Random House.
486 pp. $30

Go to Chapter One of Citizen Sherman

Go to Chapter One Front Page

Go to Style Section

Getting to Know The General

By John C. Waugh

Oct. 1, 1995

WE LIVE IN iconoclastic times. The aim of much journalism today-in television, newspapers, magazines and books-is to tell about people and tell it like it is. If it damages or destroys, then so much the better and too bad.

This tear-down approach pervades the present. But it also pervades what is written of the past. Iconoclasm has become as de rigueur in the treatment of people long dead as of people still living. One way to write revisionist history is to write a warts-and-all biography of an historical figure, digging as deeply as possible into his or her psyche, be it dark or sunny, and letting the chips fall where they may. It is called psychobiography and nobody is immune, not Abraham Lincoln, nobody.

And whether we like it or not, the result is often fascinating, sometimes titillating.

Michael Fellman's biography of William Tecumseh Sherman, one of the 19th century's foremost military icons, is no exception to this approach. Indeed Sherman is a perfect subject for this kind of psychobiographical treatment, since many believe there was a lot of psycho there.

Fellman not only rolls out all the available evidence, but is then unwilling to let the evidence speak for itself. He speaks for it, interprets it at every turn. That can be a dangerous game, for he could be wrong, and at times he may be.

But Fellman, a professor of history at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, comes heavily armed. He has most definitely studied and re-studied the evidence in the many years he worked on this book. There appears to be nothing written by or to Sherman that he hasn't read and analyzed, no scrap of existing evidence that he hasn't looked at. He makes a persuasive case and he does it in a fascinating and readable way.

The inner Sherman that emerges in this work is not the Sherman of the battlefield. Any reader seeking detail on the battles he figured in-Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Atlanta, and his slashing march to the sea-won't find it here. This is an expedition into the inner Sherman, not the story of his life so much as an analysis of it.

The inner Sherman that emerges isn't necessarily a man you would invite home for dinner, although he would doubtless be charming and endlessly interesting. Here is a famous and furious man, brilliant, insightful, garrulous, complicated, tightly wound, energetic, aggressive, salty, angry and racist. Here is a man who is grudge-bearing, yet often kind; insecure, yet positive about what the war was about, how to win it, and how it would end.

Though a northern man, he liked the South. He had lived in Louisiana in the years before the war and was loathe to leave it when war came. He was no abolitionist-not even an emancipationist. Indeed, he at first believed that slavery and the slave states ought to be left alone.

As it worked out, no general in the Union army left them alone less than he. He was one of America's first, and without question, its most merciless give-no-quarter generals. He was to become the South's chief terrorizer, a destroyer waging not only remorseless military, but powerful psychological warfare against its civilians as well as its soldiers. He said his aim was "to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and make them fear and dread us." As he began his famous march to the sea, he promised to "make Georgia howl." He was as good as his word.

The south still howls over Sherman. He lives on, as villainous in Southern folk memory as he was 130 years ago when he desolated Georgia and the Carolinas.

YET WHEN the war was over, when he had subjugated the South, humbled and demoralized it, his surrender terms to Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's army were surpassingly lenient. They were so beyond forgiveness, that Washington disavowed them and ordered them redone. Sherman's rage and terror against the South were solely measures to win the war. The Sherman that Fellman portrays harbored hatred for disunion, disorder and anarchy. He hated even democracy, much preferred military dictatorship.

He also hated his wife much of the time. Emerging clearly from Fellman's mass of evidence is a man caught in an unhappy marriage, who in his later years of fame, played around. He was a less than loving husband to his wife Ellen-they were often separated, writing jabbing, recriminating letters to one another, she giving as good as she got. He was, at the same time, a loving, if autocratic and sometimes disappointed father to their several children.

Fellman calls him "as famous an American man as ever lived," a "hero permanently affixed in the upper echelons of the American pantheon." If you want to see laid bare in detail the inner workings that drove this controversial icon to such heights, this is the book for you. WE LIVE IN iconoclastic times. The aim of much journalism today-in television, newspapers, magazines and books-is to tell about people and tell it like it is. If it damages or destroys, then so much the better and too bad.

This tear-down approach pervades the present. But it also pervades what is written of the past. Iconoclasm has become as de rigueur in the treatment of people long dead as of people still living. One way to write revisionist history is to write a warts-and-all biography of an historical figure, digging as deeply as possible into his or her psyche, be it dark or sunny, and letting the chips fall where they may. It is called psychobiography and nobody is immune, not Abraham Lincoln, nobody.

And whether we like it or not, the result is often fascinating, sometimes titillating.

Michael Fellman's biography of William Tecumseh Sherman, one of the 19th century's foremost military icons, is no exception to this approach. Indeed Sherman is a perfect subject for this kind of psychobiographical treatment, since many believe there was a lot of psycho there.

Fellman not only rolls out all the available evidence, but is then unwilling to let the evidence speak for itself. He speaks for it, interprets it at every turn. That can be a dangerous game, for he could be wrong, and at times he may be.

But Fellman, a professor of history at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, comes heavily armed. He has most definitely studied and re-studied the evidence in the many years he worked on this book. There appears to be nothing written by or to Sherman that he hasn't read and analyzed, no scrap of existing evidence that he hasn't looked at. He makes a persuasive case and he does it in a fascinating and readable way.

The inner Sherman that emerges in this work is not the Sherman of the battlefield. Any reader seeking detail on the battles he figured in-Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Atlanta, and his slashing march to the sea-won't find it here. This is an expedition into the inner Sherman, not the story of his life so much as an analysis of it.

The inner Sherman that emerges isn't necessarily a man you would invite home for dinner, although he would doubtless be charming and endlessly interesting. Here is a famous and furious man, brilliant, insightful, garrulous, complicated, tightly wound, energetic, aggressive, salty, angry and racist. Here is a man who is grudge-bearing, yet often kind; insecure, yet positive about what the war was about, how to win it, and how it would end.

Though a northern man, he liked the South. He had lived in Louisiana in the years before the war and was loathe to leave it when war came. He was no abolitionist-not even an emancipationist. Indeed, he at first believed that slavery and the slave states ought to be left alone.

As it worked out, no general in the Union army left them alone less than he. He was one of America's first, and without question, its most merciless give-no-quarter generals. He was to become the South's chief terrorizer, a destroyer waging not only remorseless military, but powerful psychological warfare against its civilians as well as its soldiers. He said his aim was "to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and make them fear and dread us." As he began his famous march to the sea, he promised to "make Georgia howl." He was as good as his word.

The south still howls over Sherman. He lives on, as villainous in Southern folk memory as he was 130 years ago when he desolated Georgia and the Carolinas.

YET WHEN the war was over, when he had subjugated the South, humbled and demoralized it, his surrender terms to Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's army were surpassingly lenient. They were so beyond forgiveness, that Washington disavowed them and ordered them redone. Sherman's rage and terror against the South were solely measures to win the war.

The Sherman that Fellman portrays harbored hatred for disunion, disorder and anarchy. He hated even democracy, much preferred military dictatorship.

He also hated his wife much of the time. Emerging clearly from Fellman's mass of evidence is a man caught in an unhappy marriage, who in his later years of fame, played around. He was a less than loving husband to his wife Ellen-they were often separated, writing jabbing, recriminating letters to one another, she giving as good as she got. He was, at the same time, a loving, if autocratic and sometimes disappointed father to their several children.

Fellman calls him "as famous an American man as ever lived," a "hero permanently affixed in the upper echelons of the American pantheon." If you want to see laid bare in detail the inner workings that drove this controversial icon to such heights, this is the book for you.

John C. Waugh is the author of "The Class of 1846," a study of that year's West Point graduates.

© 1996 The Washington Post Co.

Back to top