June/July/Aug 2014

Command and Control

A new biography examines what lay behind William Tecumseh Sherman's rage for order

Chris Bray


A WARRIOR WITHOUT WAR, William Tecumseh Sherman was an ambitious West Point graduate who stood at the periphery while other men went into combat: garrisoned in coastal Florida at the edge of the fighting during the Second Seminole War, sent first to Pittsburgh as a recruiting officer and later to California as an administrator during the war with Mexico.

The disappointed soldier eventually resigned his commission and turned to business, with mixed results and little happiness. He was a reasonably capable banker for a bit, a bad lawyer for a bit less, and the enthusiastic superintendent of a Louisiana military academy right up until the moment Southern states began to secede. Marooned during an intermediate period on a farm in the remote precincts of Kansas, Sherman took a dark view of his prospects. “I look upon myself as a dead cock in the pit, not worthy of further notice,” he wrote to his absent wife. The Civil War—arriving in his early forties—came as a kind of gift, delivering him from professional death.

Endlessly frustrated in his martial ambitions, he sulked. Sherman has always been known as an odd duck: depressive, erratic, prone to fits of mania and abiding personal grudges. He also married his sister, or at least his foster sister, though he passed their long periods of duty-related separation with whatever women were locally available. A new biography by the respected military-history writer Robert L. O’Connell revisits this well-known story, telling it again.

It’s an important story, but it remains unclear why the world needed a fresh study of an oft-chronicled figure. Working through O’Connell’s endnotes, a reader finds that much of the material in the book comes from other biographies and Civil War histories, none of which are especially obscure. Notes for just the first chapter cite (among other sources) John F. Marszalek’s Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order, Michael Fellman’s Citizen Sherman: A Life of William Tecumseh Sherman, and Lee Kennett’s Sherman: A Soldier’s Life.

One of these biographies was published by a major commercial press; all three were published in the 1990s or later. Similarly, O’Connell’s descriptions of Civil War politics and battles are often drawn from James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, easily the best-known narrative synthesis of Civil War history written in recent years. This is a new walk down a thoroughly familiar trail.

Trying to offer a fresh perspective, O’Connell sets out to integrate several different William Tecumseh Shermans—“the strategic man, the general, the human being”—into a layered narrative. The general on the battlefield and the husband at the family table are supposed to be the same historical character, each explaining the other; the battle goes like x because the family shaped the general into y. No marital discord, no martial brilliance.

Wandering the country in his many roles as a soldier and a businessman, for example, Sherman fought his politically powerful father-in-law over the question of where his wife would live. Thomas Ewing continually sought to keep his daughter at home in Ohio, while his son-in-law usually wanted to take her to whatever military or commercial outpost he was temporarily occupying. Ellen Sherman took her own stubborn place in this “fifteen-year tug-of-war,” resisting and giving in as she saw fit. O’Connell’s conclusion suggests the general value of this kind of supposedly integrated analysis: “Those seeking to explain Sherman’s eventual virtuosity as a military strategist,” he writes, “might pause to consider that he cut his strategic teeth on a long and complex domestic struggle with two crafty and exceedingly resourceful adversaries, in some respects the match of anyone he would meet later.”

This is the kind of claim that doesn’t stand up to any examination at all. Is every military officer with a complicated marriage a genius on the battlefield?

Click to enlarge

General William Tecumseh Sherman, Atlanta, 1864.

O’Connell also argues that Sherman’s Army of the West served as the root of an American military culture seeking to combine the country’s democratic temperament with the realities of military command. After he discusses how the general’s army of citizen soldiers marched across Georgia, O’Connell concludes that “its spirit, its organizational DNA, survived to become the seminal element behind the evolution of subsequent US ground forces. If it is true that Americans have a peculiar ability to remain creatively disobedient within large and otherwise rigid organizations, then this quality was certainly given full vent in Sherman’s army, where challenges were met and adaptations made from both the bottom and the top.”

But this blending of the citizen’s virtues with the soldier’s obligations has been well established as the heart of Revolutionary-era military culture. Most famously among many available examples, the historian David Hackett Fischer described the cultural milieu that brought New England farmers to the Battle Road in April 1775, as men literally dropped their plows and ran to fight seasoned British troops who had marched on militia stores in Concord. Fischer’s 1994 book, Paul Revere’s Ride, is a primer in the development of the democratic American army, and it chronicles events that took place before Sherman was born.

Those looking for the organizational DNA of American ground forces would do better to start with the late-colonial New England militia, or with privately organized and publicly legitimated Revolutionary militias of association. In the earliest American fighting organizations, challenges were often met—and adaptations often made—from both the bottom and the top. Similar stories could be told about Jacksonian military culture. Sherman was part of the third or fourth generation to inherit the peculiar application of the American ethos to military discipline; it’s therefore anachronistic to suggest that his relationship with his great democratic mass of subordinates furnished the founding DNA for this brand of soldiering.

To be sure, O’Connell writes vividly and clearly, and his prose is mostly a pleasure to read. A deep understanding of military history often flashes through that lively writing. As it should: O’Connell, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, trained as a military historian, and spent a career in military intelligence.

But the disparity between O’Connell’s obvious skill and his not-entirely-successful book suggests the presence of a recurring problem for biographers. Digging for years into the history of a single figure, the author of a life story faces the danger of narrative eclipse: The deeply examined personality moves across the rest of the historical landscape, taking on an exclusive place in a story that it didn’t have in reality.

Consider, for example, the book’s claim that its subject has been unfairly cast as a signal innovator in another sphere—the crafting of military tactics in an emerging age of technologically advanced total war. Sherman, O’Connell writes, “still stands indicted as one of the originators of what is termed ‘modern war’—wholesale assaults on civilian populations as an integral part of military strategy.” O’Connell pronounces this historical judgment “flimsy,” arguing that Sherman had no conscious intention of becoming an originator of modern war: “Sherman was not clairvoyant; he had only the foggiest notion of where military technology was heading. He was enveloped in his own time, intent upon accomplishing specific strategic objectives. He did what worked, and the idea of his being at the root of the future of war would have struck him as laughable.”

But a historical figure needn’t intend to be the root of something or other to actually be at the root of it. Nor does it make sense to suggest that having a hand in the creation of modern warfare is an indictable offense. The morality of such warfare, like morality of all kinds, depends upon its application.

A full examination of Sherman’s place in the vanguard of modern warfare would put him in his actual historical context, examining those around him rather than just his personality and individual choices. Sherman burned his way through Georgia and South Carolina, for example, but his colleague Philip Sheridan also burned his way through the Shenandoah Valley, in a campaign O’Connell doesn’t mention.

Both men pursued a policy that comported with the Lieber Code, a newly developed war doctrine issued by President Abraham Lincoln as General Orders No. 100 in April 1863—before the commencement of either Sherman’s or Sheridan’s campaigns against civilian infrastructure. Working from the assumption that “sharp wars are brief,” the Lieber Code explicitly authorized the starvation and bombardment of civilian populations; like Sherman’s sustained siege of Atlanta, and like the aggressive campaigns that both generals commanded to demoralize Southern civilians, it sits very clearly at the root of modern war. The personalities of Francis Lieber, Philip Sheridan, and William Tecumseh Sherman do not alter this reality. (The legal historian John Fabian Witt has written an important new account of the Lieber Code and its effects, Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History.) Looking to Sherman’s personality as the basis of nearly all of his wartime conduct, O’Connell makes him the “seminal” originator of developments that were authored by many hands.

The specifics of Sherman’s campaigns against the South’s civilian resistance also sometimes get curiously flattened out in O’Connell’s account. He casually mentions, for example, that the general decided outside Atlanta to “soften up the city with siege artillery.” Sherman’s army bombarded civilian-populated Atlanta for thirty-six consecutive days during July and August of 1864. This was not a mere softening up.

William Tecumseh Sherman was an important figure who lived in the context of an important era. Fierce Patriot only tells us one of these stories.

An itinerant history professor, Chris Bray is writing a book about American military justice for Norton.

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