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.
That’s too bad, because O’Connell, the author of several works of military history, has some striking and, in some cases, unique insights into Sherman’s life and personality. Insights that, for many readers, may be worth the hassle of putting up with the book’s defects.
For instance, in the second of the three mini-biographies, entitled “The General and His Army,” he argues that Sherman and the soldiers of his Army of the West developed, from the top down and bottom up, a new American way of addressing military problems, a democratic frame of mind, rooted in adaptability and flexibility. He writes:
In the process, Sherman and his men revealed what intellectual historian Joseph Kett has described as a singular American ability to remain creatively insubordinate within large organizations and still survive, even thrive. … To this day, our fighting edge against disaster remains the adaptability of individual soldiers and noncommissioned officers, a continuing capacity to somehow penetrate or find a way around the fog of war in the worst of circumstances.
This ability to innovate on the fly, exhibited by all ranks, from the grunts to the generals, was on display in World War II, according to Closing with the Enemy by Michael D. Doubler. Distinctly American, this adaptability was responsible for much of the U.S. success on the battlefield in that conflict, writes Doubler, a former West Point instructor.
And it all began, O’Connell asserts persuasively, with Sherman and his troops, who, it’s telling to note, saw each other as Uncle Billy and his boys.
One expression of this adaptability was the way Sherman and the rest of his army listened to Southern slaves to learn about the local terrain and rebel troops’ movements. This, O’Connell says, was more significant than even Sherman realized, helping to blunt the advantages of such guerrilla fighters as Nathan Bedford Forrest. He notes:
(The slaves) penetrated to every level of Confederate society; they listened and remembered; but they remained invisible. Southerners bought their own propaganda, assuming their slaves were loyal and resigned to their condition. … (T)he slaves were quick to realize that these boys in blue coats constituted their best chance in over two centuries to change things or at least escape.
O’Connell points out in several places that one of Sherman’s best military qualities was that “(h)e knew when he was beat and moved quickly to cut his losses.” The history of war is filled with military leaders who didn’t have that skill.
Also, it may seem surprising, but O’Connell notes that the general’s vast swath of devastation across the South was less about physical destruction than psychological trauma.
More than any Northern general, even Grant, Sherman waged war on political and psychological levels; his overarching and everlasting aim was to destroy the rebellion. … (Attacking Confederate) state capitals provided Sherman exactly the stage he wanted to conduct this psychodrama of domination and then forgiveness.
The North won the Civil War in large part because Lee, although aided by strong generals, had no Sherman, and Grant did. Sherman didn’t want the top job. At the core of his personality, O’Connell writes, was his desire to serve as second in command. O’Connell describes him as “the sidekick” and “a classic wingman, seeking positions that promised de facto autonomy but still allowed him to request permission and elicit praise from a trusted and admired associate.”
An unfortunate habit
Like the others, this is a key observation about Sherman and his impact on history. Yet it also is an example of O’Connell’s unfortunate habit of dropping modern-day terms into his prose.
Don’t get me wrong. On occasion, such terms as “psychodrama” and “sidekick” can add some spice to the text. But, in page after page, O’Connell takes it too far, as in these examples:
•Sherman’s comments at a meeting: “a performance worthy of Daffy Duck (or, given the hair color, perhaps Woody Woodpecker).”
•A possible threat to Sherman: “throwing this particular general under the locomotive.”
•Grant, Sherman and Gen. Philip Sheridan: “The three amigos.”
This is an attempt by O’Connell to make his book more accessible to the general reader. I found it increasingly irritating, and I suspect most readers would as well. It’s striking that the best of the three mini-biographies — the second one, about the development of “an improvisational army” — has the fewest of these jarringly anachronistic terms.
The major shortcoming
Still, it’s not O’Connell’s language but his structure that is the major shortcoming of Fierce Patriot.
The first and longest mini-biography tells about Sherman’s military career, his service in the Civil War; and his impact on the evolution of the United States into a transcontinental nation. The third is about his upbringing as a foster son, his romance and marriage to his foster sister, and his development as a national celebrity.
Not surprisingly, there are a lot of repetitions from one mini-biography to another. And there are a lot of gaps in one that aren’t filled until the reader gets to one of the others — or are not filled at all (such as an in-depth look at the relationship of Sherman and Grant).
I applaud O’Connell’s chutzpah in trying to tell Sherman’s story in this way. I think this is a provocative approach to a biographer’s job. But this attempt doesn’t work very well. It forces the reader to hunt and gather bits of Sherman amid the clutter. Fierce Patriot, for all its piquant insights, is a book in sore need of focus.
Patrick T. Reardon