Thursday, May 29, 2014

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman

Author: Robert L. O'Connell
Genre:  Biography, History

Five Stars

America’s first “celebrity” general, William Tecumseh Sherman was a man of many faces. Some of them were exalted in the public eye. Others were known only to intimates—his family, friends and lovers, and the soldiers under his command. In this rich and layered portrait, Robert L. O’Connell captures the man in full for the first time. From his early exploits in Florida, to his role in California at the start of the Gold Rush, through his brilliant but tempestuous generalship during the Civil War, and to his postwar career as a key player in the building of the transcontinental railroad, Sherman was, as O’Connell puts it, the “human embodiment of Manifest Destiny.”

Here is Sherman the military strategist of genius, a master of logistics whose uncanny grasp of terrain and brilliant sense of timing always seemed to land him in the right place at the most opportune moments. O’Connell shows how Sherman’s creation of an agile, improvisational fighting force—the Army of the West—helped turn the tide of the Civil War and laid the foundation for modern U.S. ground forces. Then there is “Uncle Billy,” Sherman’s public persona, a charismatic hero to his troops and quotable catnip to the newspaper writers of his day.

Here, too, is the private Sherman. He was born into one powerhouse family—his grandfather signed the Declaration of Independence—and was adopted into another. His foster father, Thomas Ewing, was an influential politician and cabinet member who helped provide key opportunities for Sherman throughout his career. But Sherman’s fraught relationship with Ewing, coupled with his appetite for women, parties, and the high life of the New York theater, certainly complicated his already turbulent marriage to his foster sister Ellen, a relationship O’Connell likens to a mix of “gunpowder and gasoline”—altogether a family triangle that might have sprung from the pages of a Victorian novel.

As he peels away the layers of the Sherman persona, O’Connell dispels a number of common misperceptions about his subject. He sheds new light on Sherman’s relationship with Ulysses S. Grant, and also on his struggle against Nathan Bedford Forrest and the insurgency that was the other half of the Civil War along the Mississippi. Later he reveals Sherman’s fabled march from Atlanta to the sea not as a campaign of unmitigated destruction, as it is often portrayed, but the careful execution of a necessary piece of strategy calculated to scare the South back into the Union. O’Connell’s Sherman is no Attila, but a complicated soldier/statesman—perhaps the quintessential nineteenth-century American.

Warrior, family man, American icon, William Tecumseh Sherman has finally found a biographer worthy of his protean gifts. A masterful character study whose myriad insights are leavened with its author’s trademark wit, Fierce Patriot will stand as the essential book on Sherman for decades to come.


I am extremely interested in The Civil War, and of course, the generals that commanded during that time.  So, that is what initially drew me to this biography.  But what I came away with was a greater understanding not only of the man himself, but why he chose to do the things he did in the way he did them.  For all of you who only know of 'Sherman's march to the sea,' I will tell you that after reading this book, you will see him in a different light.

It begins with his being adopted into the politically powerful Ewing family, along with his brother John, how he was sent to West Point and continues on to his long and illustrious military career.  He was aligned with the Ewing family in more than this; he married daughter Ellen, and proceded to have several children; he genuinely loved his family.  The book details his desolation at the loss of his son, yet he continues on with his duty as a soldier even so; through his periods of what was considered insanity but which probably was not, and his alliance with another great Civil War general.

General Sherman was a brilliant strategist, and aligned with the above-mentioned general, Ulysses S. Grant, we have two of the strongest military figures in history.  Referred to as 'the drunk and the crazy,' together there is no doubt that they saved the Union and ended the war between the states.  That Grant trusted him above all others, and they understood each others' strengths and weaknesses speaks volumes.

Mr. O'Connell has put together a well-researched and extensive book on W.T. Sherman, and it should be an essential book to have for anyone who interested in the Civil War and the history behind its leaders.

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