Total Warrior

Review: James Lee McDonough, ‘William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country—A Life’

William Tecumseh Sherman
William Tecumseh Sherman / Wikimedia Commons

A well-known—albeit colorized—portrait graces the cover of James Lee McDonough’s new biography of William Tecumseh Sherman. The image speaks volumes. Sherman’s hard, intense look seems to match his relentless efforts to drive the rigors of war deep into the Confederate heartland, and the frazzled, unkempt hair (more noticeable in the original black-and-white) speaks to Sherman’s restless and sometimes eccentric energy, which marked so much of the his life and military career. Well-researched in Sherman’s voluminous correspondence, up-to-date on recent scholarship, and briskly written, McDonough’s biography serves as a worthy introduction to this pivotal and heterodox general.

McDonough opens with an assessment of Sherman’s generalship at the battle of Shiloh in early April 1863. Like most historians, he finds Sherman (and his commanding officer, Ulysses S. Grant) remiss in securing the camp against a possible Confederate attack, which became a terrifying reality. Following more recent scholarship, McDonough credits Sherman more than has been the case in the past for preserving the Union army’s perilous position—previous historians have credited Sherman for not losing his head on the field, but have not seen his actions as being especially significant to the overall security of Grant’s position.

Indeed, throughout the book, McDonough does a fine job of illustrating Sherman’s worth as a battlefield commander—cool under fire, decisive, tactically proficient, and willing to take risks—traits sometimes overlooked by historians who focus more on his far-roaming intellect, his talent for a cutting rhetorical flourish, and his logistical prowess. It is worth noting that amidst paeans or condemnations of Sherman as a supposed harbinger of the industrialized "total wars" of the twentieth century, it should not be forgotten that he was first and foremost a superb fighting general.

McDonough is an academic historian, and while the book benefits from brisk and approachable prose, it also has that judicious and balanced air associated with thorough manuscript research and solid academic practice. He thus avoids some of the overheated rhetoric that surrounds Sherman’s famous March to the Sea, where he laid waste to vast stretches of Georgia, while openly proclaiming his desire to make Confederate civilians suffer at the hands of his troops so that they would more quickly capitulate to Federal authority, all while depriving Confederate armies in the field vital economic resources. For some historians, Sherman has thus been a prophet of the world wars of the twentieth century, where measures such as strategic air bombing became legitimate instruments to the defeat of totalitarian foes. Others have seen less to admire, with one famously drawing a straight line between Sherman and My Lai.

McDonough follows the lead of other scholars, the most important being Mark Grimsley and James McPherson, who point out for all his bloodcurdling rhetoric, Sherman’s troops in the vast majority of cases limited themselves to the destruction of property. Complaints of post-war Confederates aside, and even accounting for the harsher treatment meted out to South Carolinians during Sherman’s later march through that state in 1865, Sherman’s army did not massacre civilians, execute captured prisoners, or rape women in large numbers. Sherman’s soldiers were hardly saints, but neither were they vandals and thugs. The sources back this argument, and in comparison to the ferocity of Indian fighting on the American frontier, along with early modern warfare in the western world writ large, the violence Sherman’s soldiers inflicted on Confederate civilians had ample precedent, for better or for worse.

All that being said, McDonough’s able investigation might have focused more on Sherman’s philosophical assertions regarding both politics and war, a modest shortcoming directly related to the fact that his judicious tone seems wanting at times when dealing with a man such as this. After all, Sherman was a general who declared that "to make war, we must & will harden our hearts. Therefore when Preachers clamor . . . don’t give in. But know that war, like the thunderbolt follows its laws, and turns not aside even if the beautiful and charitable stand in its path." This was an extraordinary statement for a prominent figure to make in Civil War America, suffused as the nation was with the ethic of evangelical Christianity.

Indeed, Sherman’s distinctive status as both soldier and intellectual has arguably led to a bifurcation in scholarship on him. More traditional historians such as McDonough are strongest when dealing with Sherman’s military career, while a military historian more versed in the methods of cultural history—such as Charles Royster in The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans—proves far more perceptive when analyzing Sherman’s writings on war and American nationalism. Unfortunately, neither approach seems to do full justice to a man who seemed to embody both general and political philosopher.

If Sherman stood out among his contemporaries, it is even harder to image a senior American military officer using similar rhetoric today. By itself, this seems hardly surprising, considering the wide gap between our era of litigated rules of engagement and the nineteenth-century’s rough and tumble world of power politics and aggressive nation-states. But more interesting is that even our own era’s scholar generals—David Petraeus being the most important example—seem so much more conventional in their intellectual outlook than Sherman, when measuring each group against their own era’s intellectual and cultural elites. It is easy, for example, to imagine Petraeus giving a TED talk, and his PhD came out of the Ivy League. We might plausibly see Sherman as a harbinger of an Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., but to move ahead of one’s own era is to be out of step with one’s contemporaries. There is nothing inherently wrong with Ivy-League educated military leaders in our own day and age, of course, but the phenomenon only highlights Sherman’s distinctive status as both a general and a heterodox intellectual.

Considering the frustrations we have seen in recent American wars, however, perhaps our military organizations should try to cultivate a Sherman or two—or, at least, tolerate them. I for one wonder if Gen. James Mattis’ correspondence might reveal a thinker as perspicacious as Sherman, and one as out of step with his own era’s cultural and intellectual elites.

While I might have preferred more coverage of Sherman the political philosopher, one must commend McDonough’s treatment of Sherman the orphaned son, husband, and father. McDonough handles with special aplomb Sherman’s troubled marriage to his foster sister, Ellen Boyle Ewing, who disliked her husband’s military career before his rise to fame, and whose ardent Catholicism clashed with Sherman’s pronounced irreligiosity. He covers with great pathos Sherman’s grief for his favorite son Willy, struck down by typhoid fever contracted when visiting his father in Vicksburg. Sherman never seems to have forgiven himself for allowing his family to visit him during that unhealthy season. Finally, McDonough does an able job of covering Sherman’s long life, before, during, and after the war—although the war dominates the biography, as it should, considering Sherman’s significance to both it and the Union. This is a fine introduction to the Union’s second greatest general.