This review initially appeared in the Chicago Tribune on July 20, 2014.
The American nation would be much different if Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman had never lived. Sherman was one of the four men (the others being Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant) who determined the outcome of the Civil War. His scorched-earth March to the Sea and its extended destruction up through the Carolinas broke the South psychologically and was a vital factor in bringing the conflict to a clean and final end in April 1865.
Like those other three and, indeed, like any major historical figure, the red-haired, temperamental Sherman was a complex personality. And, in telling his story in Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, Robert L. O’Connell employs a highly complicated structure, literally offering three biographies, one following the other.
“I became convinced,” O’Connell writes, “that any attempt to confine Sherman to a single chronological track was bound to create confusion. Instead, it seemed to me that three separate story lines, each deserving independent development, emerged out of the man’s life.”
It’s an exciting idea, a sort of nonfiction version of three interrelated novellas looking at a character from three perspectives, a historiographical version of cubism.
Alas, it doesn’t work. Crippled, in part, by a breezy style overly salted with modern-day jargon, O’Connell’s approach adds confusion rather than relieves it. Continue reading