Man of Fire: William Tecumseh Sherman in the Civil War by Derek D. Maxfield. Savas Beatie, 2023. Paper, ISBN: 978-1-61121-599-1. $16.95.
Derek D. Maxfield’s Man of Fire is the latest entry in Savas Beatie’s Emerging Civil War Series, which aims to supply general readers with short, accessible introductions to key facets of the nation’s fratricidal conflict. Only the fourth biographical study to appear in the series (joining Chris Mackowski’s narrative of Grant’s last days, Daniel T. Davis’s account of George Armstrong Custer’s Civil War exploits, and Sean Michael Chick’s life of Pierre Beauregard), Maxfield’s compelling book suggests that Emerging Civil War has yet untapped potential as a vehicle for biography. In a short compass, the author effectively introduces his subject and the many historical (and historiographical) controversies he raised.
The influence of historian John Marszalek’s Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order is evident throughout Maxfield’s book, which takes as its animating theme Sherman’s restless, lifelong search for himself. Adopted by a politically prominent and well-connected Ohio family at age nine, Sherman was afflicted with self-doubt at an early age. Sherman yearned to escape the Ewings’ shadow and to demonstrate that he was capable of accomplishing something on his own. He spent much of the antebellum years adrift, as an unlucky combination of business failures and sheer bad timing challenged his desire for personal independence.
On the eve of secession, Sherman scored an appointment as superintendent of the Louisiana Seminary of Learning and Military Academy. Once again, timing conspired against him. Sherman was utterly incensed by the brazen treachery of southern rebels who seized federal forts and stands of arms. Secession, he tellingly wrote, was “a crime against civilization.” Sherman resigned his post and returned to Ohio, uncertain about what the future might hold.
What the future held out most immediately for Sherman was command of a brigade at the first battle of Bull Run. Though he turned in a solid performance—something that few other federal commanders did that day—Sherman felt keenly the humiliation of the federal defeat. Opportunity next beckoned in Kentucky in the fall of 1861. But the demands of departmental command brought Sherman to the verge of mental and emotional collapse. No phase of the general’s career has invited more fevered conjecture. Maxfield, though acknowledging the challenge of diagnosing across the decades, wisely adheres to the most recent interpretation—advanced by biographer Brian Holden Reid—that Sherman was experiencing an “adjustment disorder.”
Sherman made a remarkable recovery from the malady and succeeded in feeding and supplying the Union forces during their effort against Forts Henry and Donelson. But his formative moment came at Shiloh, where his rock-solid performance proved essential to the come-from-behind federal victory and earned the notice of Ulysses S. Grant. During the grueling Vicksburg campaign and later at Chattanooga, Sherman’s record was more checkered. “1863,” Maxfield writes, “taxed the wiry general’s physical, emotional, and mental systems” (77).
Nonetheless, Sherman was well prepared for his most important wartime assignment—leading the drive of three western armies into Georgia in the spring of 1864. With remarkable efficiency, Maxfield narrates the campaign that culminated in the capture of Atlanta and the “March to the Sea.” He then recalls the drive north into the Carolinas, the controversy that attended the terms he proposed to Joseph E. Johnston at Bennett Place, and Sherman’s snub of his arch nemesis, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, at the Grand Review.
A brisk chapter treats Sherman’s postwar years. The general quickly produced his personal memoirs, perhaps hoping to head off further attacks from his enemies in the press. He participated in the activities of veterans’ groups and, with his daughter in tow, even retraced his steps from Atlanta to Savannah as an early battlefield tourist. He globe-trotted in an effort to escape an unpleasant marriage. Rather than revel in his rightful place within the pantheon of Union war heroes, he rummaged the embers of his past, still engaged in a melancholic search for himself. Maxfield’s portrait of the postwar Sherman is fascinating and deserves much fuller treatment. How did the general contribute to the politics of Civil War memory? How did the struggle over the meaning of the war intersect with Sherman’s own quest to find himself?
Brief appendices have become a hallmark of the Emerging Civil War series, but those selected for Man of Fire are particularly thoughtful. First, Maxfield makes a brief inventory of Sherman-related sites across the country. Then, R. Michael Gosselin, a professor of English at Genesee Community College, offers a compelling reading of Sherman’s Memoirs. On the printed page no less than the battlefield, Sherman was relentless; the general’s verbosity and “dissociative” language, Gosselin argues, supply keen insights into the complexities of Sherman’s character. Tracy Ford, who played Sherman (alongside Maxfield’s Grant) in a two-man theatrical show, offers a first-hand account of his quest to inhabit his character—and come to terms with the general’s vexing contradictions. Finally, Jessica Maxfield traces Sherman’s ever-evolving place in American memory.
By foregrounding the paradoxes that defined Sherman’s life, Derek D. Maxfield has brilliantly recovered the humanity of his subject. Neither blind to Sherman’s foibles and failures nor taken by the stubborn Lost Cause caricatures, Maxfield instead renders a portrait of Sherman as sensible as it sensitive. Readers unwilling to tackle Brian Holden Reid’s hefty The Scourge of War—the best of the modern scholarly biographies—should turn to Man of Fire for a fine overview of Sherman’s life and Civil War service.
Brian Matthew Jordan is Associate Professor of Civil War History and Chair of the Department of History at Sam Houston State University.