Fierce Patriot by Robert L. O'Connell, review by Carl Caton
During the American Civil War, the ultimately victorious Union produced a significant number of failed generals (Irwin McDowell, George McClellan, Ambrose Burnside, and Joseph Hooker among them). It produced just two who could claim success: Ulysses Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Both had to overcome career-threatening perceptions, Grant that he was a drunk and Sherman that he was insane.
In Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, Robert L. O'Connell has written an unconventional biography of Sherman, structured as a three part analysis of the man as military strategist, as general, and as a family man. As his subtitle suggests, the three were integral and intertwined, and O'Connell makes a convincing case that Sherman has been under-appreciated by historians for his role after the war as an agent of manifest destiny.
Although he excelled at West Point, Sherman's early Army career did not bode well for him to become a leading officer. Assigned to San Francisco, Sherman was essentially sidelined during the Mexican War when many of his peers were gaining command and combat experience (as well as reputations). Career frustration later led him to resign his commission and become a banker, a career path oiled by his wife's wealthy and politically connected family. When the Civil War broke out, Sherman rejoined the Army, as the Union needed all the trained officers it could find.
In O'Connell's telling, Sherman proved to be both a master of geography and a brilliant strategist, a skill that culminated in the famous (or infamous) March Across Georgia. The March was aimed not at occupying territory or crushing the enemy army but at eliminating the South's ability to carry on the war by destroying it's food supply, arms manufacturing facilities, and railroads. Sherman's army succeeded in those goals while maintaining extraordinary military discipline. Rape, murder, and other atrocities commonly associated with invading armies were virtually absent, a testament to Sherman's leadership. As a general, Sherman's men revered him, referring to him as “Uncle Billy”, in part because he so clearly considered himself one of them and because he was so frugal with their lives, in contrast to others (including Grant) who frequently sent thousands to their death in suicidal frontal assaults on fortified Confederate fortifications.
After the war, Grant went on to be President, and his administration became one of the most scandal-ridden in history. Sherman, on the other hand, stayed on, becoming General of the Army, headquartered in St. Louis, and proved to be an able administrator, playing a lead role in the expansion of the transcontinental railroad system, the conclusion of the Indian wars, and the closing of the frontier.
Through all of this, Sherman was also a family man, whose childhood had been transformed by his poverty, resulting in his being raised mainly by the well-connected Ewing family. Sherman eventually married his foster sister Ellen Ewing. Ellen was a devout Catholic, Sherman a disinterested agnostic, and their marriage was marked by battles over their childrens' education and by Sherman's frequent and lengthy absences due to his military career.
Fierce Patriot presents Sherman as a flawed man but a dedicated and capable leader at a time when leadership was sorely needed, and O'Connell has written a colorful and engaging portrait of the soldier and the man.