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Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman
Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman
Robert L. O'Connell
Random House, 2014
432 pp., $28.00

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D. H. Dilbeck


Words and Deeds

William Tecumseh Sherman's tangled life.

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Even so, Confederates knew Sherman as a military strategist who let loose the terrible hardships of war. But to the men who served under Sherman the general, he became "Uncle Billy," the iron-willed, energetic, dogged conqueror of the Confederacy who yet remained gregarious with a touch of modesty and an unwavering loyalty to his soldiers.

Sherman's men gave him the nickname," but the character itself was entirely Sherman's creation. He carefully cultivated the Uncle Billy persona. After all, effective generalship often demands a first-rate theatrical performance. Sherman played his part consummately well, costumed in a rumpled uniform and a straw hat. After a nearly four-month-long campaign to capture Atlanta in the summer of 1864, Sherman bathed nude in a river alongside his men. "I'd follow Uncle Billy to hell," one soldier confided to another after witnessing the scene played to perfection.

Unfortunately, O'Connell's account of Sherman the general goes off the rails with a sweeping, simplistic, and thoroughly unconvincing argument about Sherman's Civil War army: "it was not just the prototype, but the archetype of the American forces that followed." Sherman and his men "invented a new kind of army"—the quintessential democratic army—by being "creatively insubordinate" and embracing an "improvisational essence." Sherman's soldiers ingeniously adapted to the new challenges they faced, often without explicit direction from their commanders. Their "creatively disobedient" spirit was a distinctly American trait, O'Connell suggests, a product of the egalitarian ethos of mid-19th-century America. Surely Union soldiers stubbornly retained something of their attitudes, habits, and inclinations as democratic civilians. But O'Connell errs in trying to carve out a too grandiose significance for Sherman's career as general: as the man who midwifed, perhaps even fathered, the modern American army, at least its "innovative potential" and its "experimental and creatively disobedient" spirit.

O'Connell then jarringly pivots to his final portrait: Sherman the family man, an often tortured and tragic dimension of his life. Sherman was a child when his father died; he had, at best, an ambivalent relationship with his adoptive father (later also his father-in-law). His marriage was mostly strained and distant, especially later in life, not least because of Sherman's disdain for the fervent Catholicism of his wife (earlier his sister by adoption). Two of his young sons died during the Civil War, one as Sherman completed the March to the Sea. Sherman did not receive news of his son's death until the march was finished and the boy was buried.

This final portrait in O'Connell's triptych is awkwardly detached from the first two, tacked on as a sort of afterthought. The fundamental flaw of Fierce Patriot, by its end, is plainly evident: its fragmented, three-part structure tends not to make Sherman's more coherent. Instead, it often has the opposite effect.

That is to say, in pulling apart three interwoven threads of Sherman's life, O'Connell frays the whole fabric. Perhaps the most important thing about Sherman's "tangled lives" is precisely that they were so inextricably knotted up together in a single life. Are Sherman's roles as strategist, general, and family man really rendered more intelligible when viewed in isolation? Did Uncle Billy's symbiotic relationship with his soldiers not shape Sherman's military strategy in subtle yet profound ways? Did the heartbreaking loss of two young sons during the Civil War not intensify—perhaps help explain—Uncle Billy's affection for his men?

O'Connell dismisses Sherman's critics as offering only "blind alleys to a better understanding of the man." But O'Connell's biography is another kind of blind alley. It artificially severs Sherman's life into three pieces, as if the sum total of the man is no more than his individual parts. Yet that's as untrue of Sherman as it is of all people.

D. H. Dilbeck is assistant professor of history at Oklahoma Baptist University.

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