Man of Fire: William Tecumseh Sherman in the Civil War is expected out in Spring 2022.
Finding Sherman in a Ford
I, of course, never met William Tecumseh Sherman – and yet I know him. This feeling is borne of years of study, but more importantly from helping to bring him to life on the stage.
My study of Sherman began as an undergraduate at SUNY Cortland twenty-five years ago when my mentor, Dr. Ellis Johnson, suggested that I read the general’s memoirs. Ironically, my impression then was that Sherman was vain, verbose, and that his memoirs sought to rewrite history. Still, I was intrigued and went on to read John Marszalek’s magnificent biography Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order. I can remember thinking that if I met Sherman that I would probably not like him. And yet, I could not help devouring every biography and book on the eccentric general.
Ulysses S. Grant, on the other hand, I have always liked and admired. In fact, I identify with him, I think, because our personalities are much alike. Pensive, quiet and very stubborn, Grant was a simple man that befriended the red-headed, talkaholic Sherman. It was through Grant that I came to appreciate Sherman. If Grant found something to admire in Sherman, he deserved a second look.
I realize now that my problem with Sherman was, in part, conceptual. While I could easily envision Grant and had a good idea of what he would be like in person, I could not say the same of Sherman. He was a mystery. Then I found him – sort of.
My close friend and colleague Tracy Ford agreed to portray Sherman in a play I wrote entitled “Now We Stand by Each Other Always.” Drawing heavily on memoirs, correspondence and primary sources in general, the play featured a conversation between Grant – whom I portrayed – and Sherman at City Point in March 1865. I watched in wonder as my friend became Sherman. BECAME SHERMAN. It was both eerie and very cathartic.
My Sherman book was in early development when the Elmira project came along. Asked to write a book for the ECW series about the POW camp along the Chemung River, I put aside my study of the unconventional general to write what became Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp – Elmira, NY.
When I returned to my consideration of Sherman, I first pitched a different book to Chris Mackowski, editor-in-chief of the Emerging Civil War series. It was to be a study of the evolving relationship between Sherman and Grant. But, when I sat down to write it was on the heels of an extended essay on Sherman’s memoirs I wrote for another project. Ideas were flowing and I immediately took the cue and began writing the manuscript of Man of Fire: William Tecumseh Sherman in the Civil War. It was straightforward biography – but I was inspired and now had a clear notion of the defining element in Sherman’s life.
Basically an insecure man who needed constant validation, Sherman spent his entire life searching for himself. Whose son was he? Was he a soldier, a banker, a lawyer, or an academy headmaster? He even struggled with religious identity. The search never really ended – though the insecurity over his career abated somewhat when he found his path in the midst of the carnage of war.
I remember standing at Sherman’s grave years ago while visiting St. Louis (he is buried in Calvary Cemetery). And though I had been studying the man for years, I wondered to myself, “Well, General Sherman…just who are you?” Are you a hero of the Republic or a loathsome racist? Were you a gifted intellectual or were you actually insane? Were you a forward-thinking total warrior or a vile terrorist who made war on women and children? I was perplexed. I remember thinking, “If only I could meet the man.” And then, I did…in a way.
Tracy Ford’s portrayal of Sherman on the stage showed me the way. Once I could envision the red-headed general – and suspend disbelief long enough to get a real glimpse of the man (much like reenactors get a period rush) – I suddenly understood the misunderstood man.
Man of Fire: William Tecumseh Sherman in the Civil War
by Derek D. Maxfield
Savas Beatie, 2022