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‘Fierce Patriot’ a revised look at William Tecumseh Sherman

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman

By Robert L. O’Connell

Random House

404 pages, $28

By Edward Cuddihy


Military history normally is written by the victors.

So Julius Caesar is the heroic general and the Germanic giants waiting in ambush on the east bank of the Rhine are the barbarians.

A puzzling exception to that rule is the American Civil War where beyond a few major memoirs by victorious generals – notably Ulysses S. Grant’s monumental work – much of the first cut of Civil War history was penned in the South.

A good deal of it was romantic fantasy. Confederate generals, despite all odds, showed clear superiority in brains, brawn and chivalry over their Union counterparts. Rebel soldiers all were young and brave, and Confederate officers never failed to outwit their prodding and witless opponents.

Southern generals like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are heroic figures while the likes of Grant and George G. Meade are decidedly middling.

Into this unwelcoming setting, we place Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. The mere mention of the name Sherman to a Western New York grammar-schooler of the 1940s led to an immediate association with “The March to the Sea,” that barbarous act of plunder and rampage that sent plantation widows fleeing their flaming mansions and forced genteel Southern belles to the streets to earn their crusts of bread.

That’s William Tecumseh Sherman, the devil incarnate, leader of a ravenous bunch of brutes from out West (which meant Ohio, Indiana and Illinois) on a campaign of butchery and carnage through the pristine pastoral South.

Over the past 60 years or so, the despoiled reputation of Sherman, like that of his boss, Gen. Grant, has been resuscitated by serious historians who paint canvases bearing little resemblance to “Gone with the Wind.”

Not long ago, there was historian H.W. Brands’ major biography of Grant, purposefully titled “The Man Who Saved the Union.” Now military historian Robert O’Connell has weighed in with a fresh look at Sherman. He titled his work “Fierce Patriot,” with the emphasis clearly on “Patriot.”

O’Connell’s Sherman, like Grant, was early to recognize this rebellion was not a political squabble that would be settled by rival West Point graduates in a few skirmishes around Washington, but a full-fledged war between brothers that was sucking the lifeblood out of the young nation.

Sherman’s ferocity was directed at the preservation of the Union, and his larger vision of Manifest Destiny, a concept that predated the Civil War. A West Point graduate, Sherman had served west of the Mississippi as the ribbon of Eastern settlers flowed inexorably into the prairie lands of Kansas, Nebraska and eastern Colorado. Then he was posted to California as federal peacekeeper during the gold rush.

He was a child of moderate wealth, and upon the death of his father, young “Cump” Sherman was adopted into one of the most politically prominent families of Ohio. He would eventually marry his stepsister Ellen Ewing and have a brief career in banking before returning to military life at the outbreak of war.

Sherman did not spring up from nowhere in the Army of the West. He was introduced to Abraham Lincoln in the opening days of the Civil War at a private White House meeting arranged by his influential stepfather, Thomas Ewing, and his brother John, a U.S. senator.

He led a volunteer corps at the first battle of Bull Run where, to his humiliation, his men were “chased off the field.” He was vocal in his criticism of the Union’s raw volunteer recruits.

Sherman’s command of Kentucky volunteers at Louisville also was disastrous, leading him to question his own ability. His detractors went further, questioning his mental condition, one describing him as “gone in the head.”

Sherman finally blossomed as a military strategist under the overall command of Grant. Sherman was a precise military thinker and a risk-taker, plus he had the uncanny ability to adapt and improvise on the spot.

Author O’Connell, a military historian, excels when describing battle tactics and weaponry. In addition to his numerous books, he presently is visiting professor at the Naval Postgraduate School.

O’Connell’s battle descriptions are scholarly in the finest sense of scholarly history: Highly detailed, precise and fully documented. His characters take on flesh and blood through letters and memoirs, but he never deigns to place thoughts or words into the minds or mouths of his characters, as has become the norm among some popular history writers.

His military knowledge shines through in his accounts of Grant’s and Sherman’s planning and execution of the battles of Memphis, Vicksburg, Nashville, Chickamauga and Atlanta, the names and places which turned the tide in favor of the Union.

But it is in his detailing of Sherman’s so-called March to the Sea where O’Connell displays his keen understanding of warfare, and a clear-headed vision of what President Lincoln craved but could not find in his Army of the Potomac.

O’Connell argues the South to the end clung to the illusionary belief that it was invincible on its home turf. Sherman, like Lincoln, understood there would be no Confederate surrender until the South understood it could not win, or until Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Lee came to realize the war was lost.

Sherman’s tactic, according to O’Connell, is as old as warfare itself: Scare the enemy out of the war. Show the planters and the merchants you can march with impunity right through the heart of the Confederacy, an unmolested army of 62,000 men, stretching five and six miles along the road.

To accomplish that, Sherman lived off the land and destroyed everything of possible military value along the way. That meant tearing up railroads, blowing up munitions stores, burning public buildings and manufacturing shops. The plan, according to O’Connell was to “utterly demoralize the Confederacy by making it look helpless.”

O’Connell maintains this was no undisciplined ragtag force of out-of-control marauders. There was devastation, but no mass killing of civilians, no execution of prisoners, no raping, none of the atrocities traditionally associated with shock warfare. To Sherman, the enemy soldiers and civilians were fellow Americans misled by delusional leaders.

The author does not whitewash the destruction of a large part of Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, in a firestorm. He only attempts to explain how the disaster occurred.

Above all, Sherman cared for his men. One wrote home that the best bet for not starving or getting shot “was to stick by Sherman.” Before long, they were calling him “Uncle Billy.” After Shiloh, another wrote: “I’d follow Uncle Billy to hell.”

O’Connell does not portray Sherman as anything close to aspiring to sainthood. He was a womanizer, openly cheated repeatedly on his wife, wrote disdainfully of the freed slaves and showed contempt for the Native Americans and the great Buffalo herds that fed and clothed them.

In many respects, Sherman, despite his physical age, was a throwback to the early 19th century, gaining national recognition at a time when the nation’s sensibilities were undergoing a transformation. Yet, he was just what President Lincoln needed during the darkest months of 1863-64.

He would live a very public life into the 1890s, but unlike Grant, he avoided politics – “If forced to choose between the penitentiary and the White House, I would say the penitentiary, thank you.” – and he despised the press. But to tens of thousands of men and women across the North, he remained a hero to his death.

Now, 150 years later, that delicate structure of heroism is in the process of being rehabilitated. And in the future, “Fierce Patriot” undoubtedly will be looked upon as one of the key works in Sherman’s rehabilitation.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.