Monday, March 28, 2016

'Our only true celebrity general'

It's hard to imagine a more American man than Sherman. And although he died over 120 years ago, it's a safe bet that should Uncle Billy be brought back to life tomorrow, after a short orientation with the requisite hardware and software, he'd find himself right at home.
Robert L. O'Connell, Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman

William Tecumseh Sherman was the third most famous general to come out of the Civil War, after Grant and Lee, yet he was arguably the most successful. He may not have won as many famous battles as the others, but his march across Georgia broke the back of the South with amazingly few casualties on either side. His success, not just in war but in most other aspects of his life, had much to do with his adaptability, which is what Robert L. O'Connell is getting at in the above lines from his superb 2014 biography, Fierce Patriot. When circumstances changed, he changed with them.

Another key trait was his outgoing personality. He was a non-stop talker whom people actually liked, and he was skilled at making persuasive arguments. His men loved him. Other officers loved him. President Lincoln loved him. Women loved him. He could easily have been elected president, but didn't want the job. Nor did he want to be the Union's top general. In both war and peace, he was comfortable serving under Ulysses S. Grant.

Most biographies begin at the beginning of the person's life and follow that life right up to death. O'Connell approaches Sherman differently, and it works amazingly well. He divides the general's life into three aspects and then examines each aspect in detail, even though this approach sometimes takes him over the same material more than once. These three parts are Sherman the Strategist, the General and His Army and the Man and His Families, with the first of these taking up eight of the 12 chapters in the book. This first part covers not just the war but also the years spent developing his strategic way of thinking, from his West Point days to his experience as a banker during the California Gold Rush.

The second part reflects on his relationship with his troops, which led to his Uncle Billy nickname. The final two chapters review his complex family life.

His father died when Sherman was young, and the family had to be divided because his mother couldn't support all the children by herself. That's how John, later a prominent U.S. senator, ended up in Mansfield, Ohio, while William was raised in Lancaster, Ohio, by a prominent lawyer named Thomas Ewing and his wife. He later married Ellen, one of the Ewing daughters. She was devoted to her daddy and for years lived more with him than with her husband. It took becoming a Civil War hero for Sherman to become the dominant male in the family, although even then their marriage seemed to require long periods of separation to thrive.

O'Connell's book contains plenty of fascinating detail. He compares military strategy to surfing, and makes the most of that analogy.  He calls Sherman "a prodigy of geography" because of his ability to visit a place once and then remember the exact terrain years later, a useful skill for a general. He tells how just before the Civil War broke out, Sherman organized a military academy in Louisiana, training officers for what would soon become the Confederate Army. Escaped slaves played an important role in Sherman's success in Georgia and elsewhere, providing invaluable information about the whereabouts of food and Rebel soldiers, yet Sherman never gave them any credit. After the war, Sherman encouraged the slaughter of buffalo as a means of pacifying the Indians. And much more.

Fierce Patriot makes fine reading.

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