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I was very excited to have been selected to be an Advance Reader of the biography Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman by Robert L. O’Connell.

Rather than write a “single” chronological biography, the author uses three separate story lines to develop his biography of Sherman:

  1. Manifest Destiny — “…by the time he retired from the U.S. Army in 1884, Sherman had become virtually a human embodiment of Manifest Destiny.” He was Manifest Destiny’s “general contractor”1 according to the author, being an integral part of the completion of the transcontinental railroad.
  2. “The coevolution of the Army of the West and Sherman as its commander was a process with the profoundest import for all future U.S. ground forces”2 is the second track.
  3. The third track is an examination of his personal life. In the introduction, the author makes this observation: “Sherman virtually pioneered the abusive/symbiotic relationship with the press that has kept famous people famous in American ever since.”3

I began this review on May 15th and now it’s almost September, so I feel as if I need to finish the review, given that Library Thing was gracious enough to give me an advance copy with the agreement that I would do a review on the book.

This book is subtitled “The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman” and it is so aptly titled. This book is a bit of a tangled mess. They say that, in a speech, you’re to tell your audience what you’re going to say, say it and then review it. Might be a good strategy in speeches, not so much in books.

The book is divided into three sections: Military Strategist, The General and His Army, The Man and His Families. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of repeated material throughout the book. For the record, I’m not a fan of this type of biography. Just give me a beginning to end storyline. This book could have been (at least) a third shorter if the author had given us a traditional biography.

That being said, it is a good book. Sherman comes shining through the pages of this book. He was a brilliant strategist, handed the press well, always spoke his mind and was wise in his dealings with all sort of problems and people. Although he declined running for public office, I think he would have made a great president.

The author contends that “William Tecumseh Sherman’s central historical importance is derived from his role in the physical consolidation of transcontinental America.” I have to disagree. Stephen Ambrose, in his book on the building of the transcontinental railroad, Nothing Like It in the World, puts Grenville Dodge front and center of the action. However involved and however important Sherman was to the completion of the railroad, I think his ‘central historical importance’ is summed up by the author at the end of the first section of this book, when he writes, “The Confederacy was an idea, and Sherman trampled it relentlessly—its symbols, its institutions, its pride—bled the life out of it, and replaced it with hopelessness. That’s the way to win.” That, to me, is Sherman’s legacy. If the Civil War had been lost, the Federal government would not have had the fortitude to build the transcontinental railroad. And Sherman, as much as Grant, as much as Lincoln, won that war. The author states that “Sherman had played a key role in winning the Civil War”—I think that’s understated. Sherman destroyed the Deep South’s will to fight. Using might, strategy and psychological warfare, he replaced their arrogance with hopelessness. “…one soldier caught the mood of most when he berated a merchant whose store was on fire: ‘Say, did you and your folks think of this when you hurrahed for secession before the war?'” Sherman’s actions after the fall of Atlanta did more to demoralize the South than any other event in those four years. “In a matter of four months, he had brazenly paraded an army of sixty thousand through six hundred miles of enemy territory, taking what was wanted and daring any one to stop them.”

Sherman’s actions after the fall of Atlanta did more to demoralize the South than any other event in those four years.

While I recommend this book, I think that other biographies of this man are more succinct and offer a more balanced view of his career—such works as Lee Kennett’s Sherman: A Soldier’s Life come to mind.

1p. xviii
2p. xix
3p. xxi