Thursday, May 3, 2018

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert O'Connell

Today I'm looking at a biography of William Tecumseh Sherman, who with Ulysses S. Grant made the winning team the United States needed to put down the slaveholders' rebellion. As O'Connell points out, Sherman has been the subject of varying biographies in the years since his death. While some people depict him as a stalwart defender of the United States, proponents of the Lost Cause mythology tend to depict Sherman as a bloodthirsty monster. This is to provide a contrast to the warlord Robert E. Lee, who in the Lost Cause mythology is almost deified. Lee was good and honorable while Sherman pillaged and burned through Georgia. O'Connell counters that this was not the case but I feel like he goes too far in the other direction and almost becomes a hagiography of Sherman instead.

The issue I have with this book is I feel like O'Connell doesn't deliver on the promises which he made in the introduction. O'Connell states he'll talk about Sherman not only as a general, but as an individual in a separate section. O'Connell does do this, but it feels largely inadequate for the promises he made in the opening.

The majority of this book focuses on Sherman's career during the Civil War as well as the development of the Army of the West into a cohesive fighting force. O'Connell goes so far as to say that the Army of the West was the true predecessor of the modern American ground force, capable of undertaking any task, conquering any terrain, and adapting to any situation. O'Connell argues that this created the institutional DNA of later American forces. Personally I don't know how well this argument holds up, but I'm also no expert on military affairs so it's entirely possible that O'Connell is right.

Unfortunately I think O'Connell focuses on the Civil War to the detriment of talking about other parts of Sherman's life, specifically the time when he was General of the Army after Grant's retirement and when he was in charge of Indian policy in the West. Sherman was an avowed American expansionist and vigorously promoted the building of transcontinental railroads, the extermination of buffalo, and the forcing of Indian tribes onto reservations. Sherman may have grown in his opinions on African-Americans due to his experience with escaped slaves, but his opinions on American Indians remained decidedly intolerant. I think Sherman's policy on Indians, more than anything, is the biggest black mark on his record. Personally I think O'Connell skips over Sherman's post-war career in an attempt to burnish Sherman's reputation to the point of becoming hagiographic.

Obviously nobody is perfect, and human beings in positions of power have more opportunities to make bad decisions. Personally I don't blame Sherman for burning Atlanta and other major cities in the South during the war, especially if it was as limited as O'Connell argues it was, then it makes absolute strategic sense from a military perspective. However the systemic genocide of native peoples by the American government to promote white expansion into the American West has no such argument. I feel like O'Connell purposely ignores this problem because it will be too much of a black mark on Sherman.

Overall I think this book has some problems. First are the organizational issues, where despite his attempts to do otherwise O'Connell focuses heavily on Sherman's Civil War career and only briefly talks about the rest of his life. In so doing, O'Connell takes an almost hagiographic approach to Sherman, almost making him the patron saint of the American military. I feel like this is far too simplistic, especially for a twenty-first century audience, and O'Connell probably could have taken a more complicated view.

- Kalpar

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