He is perhaps the most eccentric general of the Civil War. With his red hair, piercing eyes, and fidgety manner, William Tecumseh Sherman has been called a prophet by some and madman by others. But whatever the label, Sherman was one of the reasons the Union was preserved.
The latest brave soul to try to get to know Sherman is Robert L. O’Connell. His new book, Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, is aptly titled and well done. O’Connell seeks to come to terms with the general topically, instead of the standard chronological approach. The book is divided into three main sections: “The Military Strategist,” “The General and His Army,” and “The Man and His Families.” It is a veritable “three ring circus,” as O’Connell sees it, but “it’s too distracting to watch all simultaneously,” so he utilizes a sequential, topical method. The chief complaint about this approach is one O’Connell himself acknowledges in his introduction: many areas of overlap that can make the book seem repetitive. The three compartments he creates are almost impossible to separate neatly. Take, for instance, the influence of his surrogate father, Thomas Ewing. This man is ever-present in every sphere of Sherman’s life—personal, public and private. Ewing cannot be contained by compartments any more than cats can be herded (O’Connell xxi).
As O’Connell demonstrates, Sherman had a complicated relationship with Ewing. On the one hand, he was grateful for Ewing taking him in after his father died. Accepted into the fold, Sherman was always made to feel a full member of the clan. He subsequently worked to make Ewing proud of him and craved his approval. But, as a father-in-law, Ewing was domineering and selfish. When Sherman married Ewing’s daughter, Ellen, little did he know that the man he so admired would insist on keeping Ellen close to him all his life. As a result, Sherman‘s marriage was subject to the whim of Ewing. A natural tension between love and resentment characterized Sherman’s relationship with his father-in-law for the rest of Ewing’s life.
Another major contradiction in Sherman’s life was his long wait for career success. On the surface, a man of Sherman’s intelligence and talents ought to have been successful from the start. O’Connell suggests that Sherman did not achieve success until the Civil War, and even then it takes time to reveal that the voluble red-head was a master strategist. Here O’Connell explains that the reason it takes so long for Sherman to find his greatest talent was due to “ the sheer difficulty of what he was about to undertake—grope for, really . . . especially since his famous bouts with depression prior to the Civil War all seemed based on career frustration” (14). The author then proposes a fascinating, if odd, surfing analogy:
[C]onsider a hypothetical Sherman plunging down [a] . . . giant wave—only instead of merely riding it, he reaches out, manipulates it, and gradually bends it in a direction cunningly designed to smash the maximum number of the enemy’s sand castles lined up on the beach. Considering the degree of difficulty involved, this roughly approximates the military strategist’s task. (O’Connell 16-17)
O’Connell’s clever analogy about the difficulty of becoming a master strategist is only part of the picture. He suggests that Sherman is greater still because “he fought with a larger purpose, not just as a vision, but carefully calculated. And this is what separated him from most other warriors and all surfers.” O’Connell seems to be saying that Sherman was a military genius whose true nature could not be revealed until the circumstances were right. The greatest surfer is not acknowledged until he has ridden the biggest wave, and the greatest warrior cannot be revealed except in the maelstrom of war (16).
That Sherman’s talent was discovered amidst rivers of blood is true, but he also had help —specifically Grant and the armies of the west. Scholars have made much out of the Grant/Sherman partnership. O’Connell does not break any new ground here. He emphasizes that Sherman never wanted to be atop the command structure, preferring to be Grant’s “wingman.” At the beginning of the war, Sherman famously extracted a promise from Lincoln that he would not be placed in charge of anything. Clearly Sherman grows and accepts being in charge, as he will take over command of the West when Grant goes east to become General-in-Chief.
Where O’Connell makes a valuable contribution is his spin on the nature of the Western armies that did Sherman’s bidding. According to O’Connell, “The key [to the success of the western armies] was a new kind of military adaptability. Change came not only top-down from an innovative commander, but bottom-up from the soldiers themselves.” There was at once a strong democratic spirit animating Sherman’s boys, and while that sometimes spelled trouble, they willingly followed their “Uncle Billy.” Through their many trials and tribulations, “These reinvented soldiers were what the situation demanded—static firefighters, maneuver troops, amphibious assaulters, combat engineers, and masters of fortifications, at once wizards of supply and among history’s greatest foragers” (214).
The attention to the nature of Sherman’s troops is admirable. The entire second section of the book explores the evolution of the men in the Western armies. O’Connell clearly makes his point that while Sherman was an extraordinary general, it was the men in his armies that brought ultimate success. “It all got done because an individual picked up not just a gun, but a rein, an ax, a rail, or a clarinet and made it happen,” he writes (243).
In the third section of the book, O’Connell examines Sherman’s family life, which is the messiest aspect of the general’s world. At the heart of the problem is Ellen’s strident Catholicism, which Sherman did not share. Throughout their marriage, much to the dismay of his wife, Sherman resisted all efforts to convert him. Never a particularly religious man, he had been raised Protestant by his biological parents and developed a cynical view of the Catholic Church. The extent to which Sherman disliked his wife’s faith is evident in reaction to the news that his son, Tom, was abandoning a career in law to become a Jesuit priest. “Sherman was shattered,” O’Connell writes. “In a few moments, he saw his meticulously wrought future flattened by an avalanche of Catholicism, a tactical and strategic surprise that brought forth a lifetime’s worth of rage and resentment” (334). This episode is arguably the greatest personal crisis of his life. Uncharacteristically, the general retreated in the face of the enemy and not-so-quietly admitted defeat.
While other biographers have intimated that Sherman had extra-marital affairs, O’Connell lays it bare. That the Sherman marriage was unconventional cannot be doubted. The couple lived apart as much, if not more, than they lived together—even when it was not necessary. Many a military marriage is marked by separation as soldiers are assigned to distant posts. Of course, while Thomas Ewing was alive, it was largely his will that his daughter be with him that caused the separations, but they continued after his death when circumstances did not seem to necessitate it. Moreover, Sherman was a very emotional and impulsive creature. He loved nothing more than flirting with young ladies, regardless of the marital status. Ellen was quite aware of this nature and occasional reigned him in.
According to O’Connell, the artist Vinnie Ream and widow Mary Audenreid—who had been married to one of Sherman’s military aides—were conquests. In fact, the author suggests that the affair with Audenreid was especially noteworthy. The young widow was wealthy and willing. Over the course of three years, mainly in Washington, DC, the fling unfolded. But when Sherman retired to St. Louis, where Ellen and family were living, he was lonely and sent for her, even giving her a guest room over his office. “This,” O’Connell argues, “was not only reckless, it amounted to flaunting his mistress in front of Ellen on the flimsy grounds that she was a friend of the family, the cruelest sort of insult to a faithful wife of more than thirty years.”
O’Connell continues his assault on Sherman’s faithlessness after relating a dispute between Sherman and Ellen over her opening his mail. He reacted harshly, and Ellen promised not to do it again. When the general gloated over his triumph, O’Connell writes, “This was a matter of power and reveals the man at this coldest and most vindictive, taking cover behind Victorian conventions.” While Sherman might well be criticized for his ill-treatment of Ellen at times, the accusations of adultery remain unproven. The evidence might be read as suggestive of an affair, but it does not prove the fact—which is why previous Sherman biographers have been cautious on the subject (338).
Fierce Patriot is a solid book, and O’Connell tells a good story, but Marszalek remains the dean of Sherman scholarship. O’Connell’s approach is fascinating, but he does not offer anything truly new. Moreover, he relies heavily on Marszalek, as a cursory look at his notes reveals. That said, I did enjoy the book and it will have a place on my shelf near, but not supplanting, Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order.
Derek Maxfield is an assistant professor of history at Genesee Community College in Batavia, NY, where he is founder and coordinator of the Civil War Initiative. He holds an M.A. from Villanova University and is A.B.D. at the University of Buffalo.