Review of “Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman” by Robert L. O’Connell

This tribute to Sherman is so much more than a biography. O’Connell provides a truncated history of the Civil War, an excellent analysis of the army and its strategy and tactics, and a fascinating look at the role Sherman played in the development of the American West following the hostilities. Finally, he shows the way religion tore apart Sherman’s family creating a generational ripple that was undoubtedly the country’s loss as well as Sherman’s.

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O’Connell makes a compelling argument not only for Sherman’s criticality to Union victory in the Civil War, but also that Sherman needed to be second in command to feel the comfort and freedom to express his strategic brilliance. (One thinks of George Washington as General of the American Patriot Army, in horror of the possible repercussions of being in command, and constantly writing to Congress that it wouldn’t be his fault if they didn’t win.) O’Connell avers that it was the team of Sherman and Grant, whose strengths complemented each other, that was the key to Union victory.

1864 Portrait of General Ulysses Grant by Matthew Brady

1864 Portrait of General Ulysses Grant by Matthew Brady

Among the personal characteristics of Sherman that O’Connell points to as contributing to his success, he includes his West Point training, his personal charisma, his intellectual energy, and his past work experience which gave him intimate knowledge of the American terrain, an excellent command of logistics, an appreciation for the strategic importance of both the Mississippi and railroads, and an understanding of when it was best to quit and cut his losses.

1864 Portrait of William Sherman by Matthew Brady

1864 Portrait of William Sherman by Matthew Brady

Beyond the team of Sherman and Grant for the success of the Civil War, O’Connell credits Lincoln’s political brilliance and his insight into his generals (even if he didn’t always have the political capital to change them around); the importance of defected slaves who not only performed hard labor for the Union Army, but served as a network of intelligence about Confederate movements, Southern topography, potential ambushes, arms caches, and so on; the transition to rifled instead of smoothbore weapons; and to the significant role played by psychological warfare.

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War by Matthew Brady

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War by Matthew Brady

For those of us who always wondered about the sanity of generals who ordered open-field, close-range infantry attacks, O’Connell points to the revolution in firearms that took place in the middle of the Civil War. Just prior to that time, weapons consisted of smoothbore guns with inferior slugs that used flint for ignition. By 1862, however, many soldiers on both sides obtained rifles with Minié balls and percussion cap ignitions, even if they had to buy them with their own money. The accuracy range of these rifles exceeded that of cannon. The dynamics of the battlefield had suddenly shifted from what made sense when most of the officers had been trained at West Point or fought in the recent war in Mexico. Then, frontal assaults worked brilliantly. Now, they heralded slaughters. But it took the officers a while to adapt.

Rifled minie balls

Rifled minie balls

After the Civil War, Congress created the rank of General of the Army for Grant and promoted Sherman to Lieutenant General. When Grant became president in 1869, Sherman was appointed Commanding General of the United States Army and promoted to General of the Army.

The Central Pacific's engine Jupiter and the Union Pacific's engine No. 119 meet on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah.

The Central Pacific’s engine Jupiter and the Union Pacific’s engine No. 119 meet on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah.

One of Sherman’s main assignments was to protect the construction and operation of the transcontinental railroads from attack by hostile Indians. Sherman employed many of his veterans as railroad workers, since they had years of experience with the speedy breaking up and bending of track. In addition, Sherman orchestrated the killing of some five million buffalo between 1867 and 1874, reasoning that if all the buffalo were extinct near the railroads, the Indians would have no reason to approach. O’Connell does not deny that Sherman, like almost everyone else at the time, had Indian exclusion as a goal. He wrote to Grant, after a battle in 1866 between the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians and soldiers of the United States Army in which all 81 army men were killed by the Indians, that “we must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women and children.”

He did occasionally express some sympathy for Native Americans. He wrote his wife:

I don’t care about interesting myself too far in the fate of the poor devils of Indians who are doomed from the causes inherent in their nature or from the natural & persistent hostility of the white race.”

But as O’Connell observes, the Indians were doomed whether Sherman were involved or not; “Sherman’s masterful planning only made it more sudden.”

Buffalo Skulls 1870

Buffalo Skulls 1870

O’Connell doesn’t spend a great deal of time on the relationship of Grant and Sherman, but documents the closeness they had during the Civil War (Sherman recalling, “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”), as well as the fact that it was not maintained afterward, much to Sherman’s sorrow. But in Grant’s last year, Sherman went to his side repeatedly, helping to restructure Grant’s debts. He served as one of Grant’s pallbearers.

Sherman died in New York in 1891 at age 71. This book is a fitting tribute to a man who, as O’Connell documents, contributed so much to America’s survival in war and to its profile in peace.

Portrait of Sherman after 1865 from the Brady-Handy Collection

Portrait of Sherman after 1865 from the Brady-Handy Collection

Evaluation: This highly favorable, though not hagiographic biography of William Tecumseh Sherman is eminently readable and consistently interesting.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Random House, 2014

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