Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman by Robert L. O’Connell. Random House, 2014. Cloth, ISBN: 9781400069729. $28.00.
It is a respected aphorism that each generation possesses the inherent right to interpret the past based upon its own standards of evaluation. Nonetheless, one wonders whether the two most recent generations have overstayed their welcome when it comes to appraising the battles and leaders of the Civil War. Yet Robert L. O’Connell’s Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman is evidence of a delightfully fresh approach to a Civil War commander about whom much has been written. The author’s sprightly prose elevates his work above the mundane, sometimes dull doldrums of academic tomes without forfeiting the scholarship that would otherwise render it strictly for popular circulation.
O’Connell eschews a strictly biographical or analytical study of Sherman’s military career and instead focuses on three specific aspects of this complex and idiosyncratic man. The author seeks to determine what made Sherman tick as a strategist, as a leader, and as a family man.
In the first part, O’Connell traces the evolution of Sherman the military strategist, placing a good deal of emphasis on the general’s dedicated attention to topography and geography. This penchant for detail was something that originated in his antebellum service along the Mississippi Valley, and from his willingness to volunteer for expeditions into the interior from his posting on coastal South Carolina. Aided by notes and a near photographic memory of the environment, Sherman would later use this knowledge to good effect during his campaigns in both Georgia and the Carolinas. Before embarking upon his celebrated March to the Sea, he poured over agricultural reports to determine some of the most fruitful Georgian counties through which he would drive his armies. This served the logistical need of both feeding his forces and denying the enemy sustainable provisioning.
The second matter that O’Connell explores is the development of Sherman as a leader of men. Like most West Point graduates at the outset of the war, Sherman was aloof from and very dismissive of the ranks of volunteer citizen-soldiers. But over the course of several years, both Sherman and the men he would command had demonstrably matured in skill and mutual admiration. By the time he stepped off on his march to Savannah, the men had become increasingly familiar with their commander and invented a role for Sherman as “Uncle Billy.” It was a role that Sherman relished. Together, “Uncle Billy and his boys scared the hell out of the Confederacy” (267).
Finally, O’Connell investigates Sherman’s personal life and family life. Again, there was nothing simple or uncomplicated about these private aspects. Sherman was such an excitable, voluble, and opinionated man that he became virtually unhinged during his first major command in Kentucky. As a military leader, he preferred to be the second in command. Ulysses S. Grant proved to be the ideal superior for Sherman; even-keeled, thoughtful, and nurturing, Grant helped to restore Sherman’s confidence following his breakdown in late 1861.
Sherman’s family life was a chronic source of bewilderment to him. Much of his life before making the grade as a successful commander was spent trying to demonstrate to his stepfather Thomas Ewing that he was a man of merit. In a somewhat uncommon practice, Sherman married his half-sister, Ellen Ewing. Although he remained essentially dedicated to Ellen throughout their long wedded life, there were several occasions upon which he entertained dalliances with younger women. Ellen’s unswerving devotion to Catholicism and her pressure upon him to take to the faith were constant irritations in his life. He was entirely bollixed when his son Tom, for whom Sherman held out the high hope of a successful career in law, elected to enter the seminary and become a Jesuit priest.
Yet for all the disappointments and complexities of life, Sherman did not shrink from living it to the fullest. His days were emblematic of the era. His years were spent in an America that was robust, energetic, optimistic, and pragmatic. If there can be anything like the quintessential American of the time, then, Sherman comes as close to fitting the bill as one is likely to find (347).
This is a decently researched study. By his own admission, O’Connell acknowledges that he is a relative novice to the domain of Civil War scholarship. While he does employ some of the standard primary source material, he also leans on several reputable Sherman scholars. The most distinctive feature of this study is O’Connell’s masterful prose. It is graceful, witty, and incisively direct in its description. His writing is liberally peppered with comparisons and analogies, which, for the most part, are instructive and humorous. Most memorable is his comparison of the disabled but pugnacious John Bell Hood to the Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail: “missing all his limbs and squirting blood but still fulminating aggression” (145). On occasion, this predilection for analogies can be overdone. His comparison of Sherman’s military strategy to big-wave surfing, for example, is contrived, obscure, and obfuscates the point (15-17). The reader comes away only with the impression that O’Connell likes surfing.
Scholars are likely to come away from this study with a few fresh perspectives on Sherman the man and leader. Others will find this a very readable study of the great warrior Sherman. But all will find this book mildly provocative, delightfully written, and highly insightful. And, in the end, this is all we can ask of a good book.
Thomas J. Rowland is Senior Lecturer at University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, and the author of George B. McClellan and Civil War History: In the Shadow of Grant and Sherman (1998).