William Tecumseh Sherman: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: April 29th, 2017 by bobmorris

William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country: A Life
James Lee McDonough
W.W. Norton & Company (June 2016)

“War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” William Tecumseh Sherman

As I often do, I read this one in combination with another, Ronald C. White’s American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses Grant. Each is volume probably one of the primary sources both to scholars and non-scholars such as I, for gaining a greater understanding and appreciation of one of history’s greatest generals.

A Wiki briefing: “William Tecumseh Sherman (1820–1891) was an American soldier, businessman, educator, and author. He served as a general in the Union Army during the American Civil War (1861–65), for which he received recognition for his outstanding command of military strategy as well as criticism for the harshness of the “scorched earth” policies he implemented in conducting total war against the Confederate States.

“Sherman began his Civil War career serving in the First Battle of Bull Run and Kentucky in 1861. He served under General Ulysses S. Grant in 1862 and 1863 during the battles of forts Henry and Donelson, the Battle of Shiloh, the campaigns that led to the fall of the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River, and the Chattanooga Campaign, which culminated with the routing of the Confederate armies in the state of Tennessee. In 1864, Sherman succeeded Grant as the Union commander in the western theater of the war. He proceeded to lead his troops to the capture of the city of Atlanta, a military success that contributed to the re-election of Abraham Lincoln. Sherman’s subsequent march through Georgia and the Carolinas further undermined the Confederacy’s ability to continue fighting. He accepted the surrender of all the Confederate armies in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida in April 1865, after having been present at most major military engagements in the western theater.”

As McDonough explains, Like Grant, Sherman was convinced that the Confederacy’s strategic, economic, and psychological ability to wage further war needed to be definitively crushed if the fighting were to end. Therefore, he believed that the North had to conduct its campaign as a war of conquest and employ scorched earth tactics to break the backbone of the rebellion. He called this strategy “hard war.”

It is noteworthy that the damage done by Sherman was almost entirely limited to the destruction of property. Though exact figures are not available, the loss of civilian life appears to have been very small. Consuming supplies, wrecking infrastructure, and undermining morale were Sherman’s stated goals, and several of his Southern contemporaries noted this and commented on it. For instance, Alabama-born Major Henry Hitchcock, who served in Sherman’s staff, declared that “it is a terrible thing to consume and destroy the sustenance of thousands of people,” but if the scorched earth strategy served “to paralyze their husbands and fathers who are fighting … it is mercy in the end.”

These are among the dozens of subjects of greatest interest to me:

o Family background and Sherman’s childhood
o “I was notified to prepare for West Point”
o The nature and extent of Sherman’s formal education
o The evolution of his perspectives on war and, especially, civil war
o His Florida adventures and their impact
o His skills as a military strategist and tactician
o The California experiences and their impact
o His relationships with Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant
o His attitude toward Robert E. Lee
o The “bold push to Atlanta” and “the march to the sea”
o “General-in-Chief, I”
o “General-in-Chief, II”
o Sherman’s last years and fondest remembrances

I agree with Bob Hoover’s observations in his review of McDonough’s biography for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Readers familiar with contemporary psychoanalytic biographers will find no clues to Sherman’s interior life.” In contrast, White’s stated approach in his biography of Grant is to examine him “from the inside out.” We are provided with an abundance of historical material insofar as Sherman’s military career is concerned but learn little (if anything) new about his “interior life.”

The remarks by Sherman that follow are wholly consistent with quotations most widely attributed to him: “I confess, without shame, I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands and fathers … tis only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”

White does indeed provide a brilliant examination of Grant “from the inside out.” For me this is among the most significant difference from his approach and McDonough’s to Sherman. I concede that perhaps this opinion is influenced by my high regard for Grant’s Personal Memoirs, written while he was dying of throat cancer in order leave his wife Julia debt-free. In fact, it generated for her total royalties of $450,000, about $12-million in today’s currency. (I never read Memoirs of W.T. Sherman.) In any event, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book as well as McDonough’s biography of Sherman. Each is a brilliant achievement.

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