Robert L. O’Connell says at the outset of this interesting, if peculiar, study of the life of William Tecumseh Sherman that many in the “string of biographies” of him “share a staccato, even frantic, quality as they jump from topic to topic, racing to keep up with one frenetic life story.” How this can be said of the most recent and best of these, John F. Marszalek’s “Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order” (1993), is a mystery to me, but in any event O’Connell continues: “The more I studied the secondary literature and recalled my exhausting swim through the primary documents, the more I became convinced that any attempt to confine Sherman to a single chronological track was bound to create confusion. Instead, it seemed to me that three separate story lines, each deserving independent development, emerged out of the man’s life.”
Thus “Fierce Patriot” is divided into three sections. The first deals with Sherman’s emergence as a master military strategist, beginning with his apprenticeship as a junior officer in Florida in the Second Seminole War, continuing with his frustrating but instructive service in California at the time of the Gold Rush, and climaxing with his brilliant generalship in the capture of Atlanta and the subsequent March to the Sea. The second involves his relationship with the troops he commanded in the Civil War, and the third explores his personal life, with particular emphasis on his marriage to his foster sister, Ellen Ewing, and his relationships later in his life with other women. “Sherman boils down to a sort of three-ring circus,” O’Connell writes; “each is interesting, but it’s too distracting to watch all simultaneously. A sequential offering, on the other hand, has the potential to do justice to all three successive stories of Sherman — the strategic man, the general, the human being.”
This strikes me as having less to do with a plausible theory about understanding Sherman and his life than with a desire to separate “Fierce Patriot” from the competition. But Martszalek’s “Sherman” alone is enough to refute O’Connell. It explores each of these themes as it arises during Sherman’s life and develops them as that life develops. There is absolutely nothing “staccato, even frenetic” about it. Instead it is a model of traditional biography: thorough but not exhausting, sympathetic to but scarcely uncritical of its demanding subject, speculative and interpretive when the facts allow but discreet when they do not. In saying this, I suppose I open myself to the charge of preferring a conventional, chronological biography to a thematic one, but in O’Connell’s hands the thematic approach works only sporadically: He is good at analyzing Sherman’s emergence as a strategist and at portraying the deep affection in which he and his soldiers held each other, and his narrative of the March to the Sea is perhaps the best I have read about that ever-controversial subject, but his examination of Sherman’s private life comes far too late and is scanty at best, unreliable at worst, in its exploration of Sherman’s alleged extramarital affairs.
Sherman was a piece of work. His father died suddenly in 1829 when Cump, as the boy was known, was only 9 years old, and he was taken to live as a foster child by his father’s close friend Thomas Ewing in Lancaster, Ohio. This left Sherman with insecurities and resentments that haunted him right to his death in 1891; he was subject to deep spells of depression that rendered him, in the eyes of some, mentally unbalanced. He had a fast mind and an even faster tongue. He was “an almost compulsively gregarious individual who normally treated other people, even adversaries, courteously and reasonably,” but he also had “a sardonic, at times even self-mocking, sense of humor.” Interestingly, and revealingly, O’Connell tells us this not in the final section but in his introduction; this anti-biographer seems to understand that the reader wants to get a picture of the subject before the story gets underway, so he gives us what is, indeed, a highly conventional picture.
From there he moves directly to Sherman the military strategist. This arena, he says, “is among the most complex, esoteric, and unlikely of all human pursuits,” not least because it involves “the nearly preposterous notion that a single individual can enlist and synchronize the lethal aggression of his own militarized multitudes . . . in a way that will inflict defeat not just on the enemy’s forces, but on his will to be anything but abject.” True enough, yet a number of people have mastered it, among them Sherman and his close collaborator, Ulysses S. Grant. O’Connell writes:
“Sherman and Grant. Grant and Sherman. The names are linked inextricably. They should be, since it was this alliance that eventually won the Civil War in the field. At the end they were the strategists in charge, a unique team. Other generals in the war worked well together — Lee and Stonewall Jackson are obvious examples — but always in the conventional commander-subordinate mold. Sherman and Grant were different; their relationship was more complex. True, Grant remained in charge, but Sherman wanted it that way. There was a give-and-take to the way they eventually operated that is best described as collegial. They were friends. They were fellow strategists. Each had the other’s back. Nobody epitomized the relationship better than Sherman himself: ‘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.’ For two vulnerable men, it was a unique and effective shield against attack, but it was also strong because it was based on mutual dependence.”
As Sherman learned from experience, certain characteristics emerged in him. He believed in divide-and-conquer, a principal strategy behind the capture of Vicksburg, which put the Mississippi between the Confederacy and its supporters in the West. He “knew when he was beat and moved quickly to cut his losses,” or, as the saying has it, to cut and run. Most important, “more than any Northern general, even Grant, Sherman waged war on political and psychological levels; his overarching and everlasting aim was to destroy the rebellion and drive its member states back into the Union.” Hence the March to the Sea and then onward into the Carolinas, in which “inflicting defeat was . . . more about imposing despair than it was about destroying armies.”
War is, well, hell, as Sherman said, if not in quite so few words, and he taught the volunteer soldiers in the Army of the West how to make it hell on the enemy. Himself a West Pointer, he was at first contemptuous of the volunteers, but by May 1862 he was convinced that “our army is now composed of all the best troops & men in the West.” The terrible fight at Shiloh was what persuaded him of that and also hardened his strategic skills for the other fights ahead. To his men he was “Uncle Billy,” a persona he carefully cultivated but one that, as an expression of their feelings for him, was truth pure and simple.
As to Sherman’s private life, his long marriage was mutually fulfilling but passionately disputatious, especially as regards Thomas Ewing’s persistent attempts to keep his daughter by his side in Ohio while her husband pursued a military career that, until success was at last achieved, Ewing regarded with disdain. Sherman had always “been intensely aware of women, particularly attractive women,” and as the years went by and Ellen grew increasingly stout, his eyes roved elsewhere. It is common knowledge that in 1873 he was taken with the fetching young sculptor Vinnie Ream (her bust of Lincoln is in the Capitol rotunda), but on what grounds does O’Connell insist that after their initial meeting, “within days, the two were lovers”? There is nothing in his notes to indicate the source of this, and by contrast Marszalek says only: “Since Sherman was so open with his flirtations and he had a reputation for kissing young women, no one ever accused him of having a serious affair. Clearly though, he enjoyed younger women, and there must have been some flings. . . . His need for Ellen, however, precluded any permanent dalliances.” This probably is about as close to the truth as reliable evidence permits, and thus as far as any responsible scholar should feel entitled to go.
The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman
By Robert L. O’Connell
Random House. 404 pp. $28