President Rutherford B. Hayes wrapped up his speech early to the crowds at the Ohio State Fair Grounds in Columbus in August 1880 because it was slapping down rain, and he was trying to be considerate of the tens of thousands of people in attendance. But a large segment of that audience was having none of it. Thousands of old Union Army veterans set up a chant: “Sherman! Sherman! Sherman!” They didn’t mind standing in the rain if they could hear a speech from one of the men up on the stage with the president: William Tecumseh Sherman, who had commanded many of those veterans during the American Civil War 20 years before.
Sherman took the podium to uproarious applause. He was then 60 and occupied the position of commanding general of the Army. Since he hadn’t been scheduled to speak, his remarks were improvised—and one of them became immortal. He wryly said that the old soldiers in the crowd wouldn’t mind a little rain since they’d seen worse during the war. And he worked his way around to a line he’d spoken and written before, a line that would lodge him in every quotation book in the world: “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys it is all hell.”
Civil War historian James Lee McDonough’s big new biography, William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country, tells the “all hell” story smoothly and well, as it tells all the famous stories of Sherman’s life and times. At some 800 pages, this book is far more generous, if less astringently insightful, than Robert O’Connell’s 2014 Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman. And like that earlier book—and Michael Fellman’s excellent 1995 biography, Citizen Sherman—it reflects our ongoing fascination with this strange and brutal figure, one of the few Union generals to approximate anything like the dash and charisma that was so common among the military leaders of the Confederacy. Sherman was in his life a soldier, a banker, a college president, a firebrand battlefield commander, a scourge to the Plains Indians, an Army figurehead during his friend Ulysses Grant’s presidential administration, a sought-after public speaker, and a popular man-about-town in New York City.
It’s an irresistible story, made just that little electric bit more so by the fact that Sherman was also a bestselling teller of it. The first edition of his Memoirs appeared in 1875 and caused a storm of controversy with its barbed language, self-serving version of history, and headline-making disparagements of Civil War men who were still alive to take offense. The book sold well even in a pricey edition, and Sherman’s revised edition, issued with softer language and copious additions in 1886, sold even better. Add to this the fact that Sherman was an indefatigably, almost compulsively prolific letter-writer, and you have the kind of raw material biographers simply can’t resist.
The aforementioned dash can be dangerous to such professionals, of course. Sherman was well aware of the strength of his personal charisma; he used it during the war to make his men love him—they called him “Uncle Billy”—and he used it after the war, including in his Memoirs, in an attempt to shape his own legacy. This is a common enough strategy for military leaders since Julius Caesar; it’s probably to be expected of men who send other men to their deaths, and judging from book sales, it works well enough with the public. It shouldn’t work with biographers, but in Sherman’s case it almost universally has; to an uncanny degree, he’s been able to set the agenda by which he himself is assessed.
His early life gave no hint that such power would ever come his way. He was born in Lancaster, Ohio, in 1820, the son of a judge who died when Sherman was nine, at which point the boy became the ward of Thomas Ewing, a lawyer and prominent figure in the Whig political structure of the day. Sherman owed his West Point appointment to Ewing, and in 1850 he married Ewing’s daughter Ellen, a tense and forthrightly devout Catholic with whom Sherman went on to have eight children. He resigned his commission in 1853 and embarked on half a decade of frustrating and nerve-racking work as a banker in San Francisco. Like his friend Grant, he seemed fundamentally at odds with civilian life, and after his bank folded underneath him, and after a brief interval as president of a Louisiana military college, he re-joined the army when the Civil War erupted.
Sherman first saw action in what McDonough refers to as the “confused melee” of the first Battle of Bull Run in 1861, but the biography—oddly and wisely—first gives readers a gripping account of a later and far more important battle, Shiloh, fought in 1862 after Sherman had been blooded at Bull Run and after he’d suffered a serious crisis of will in Kentucky in late 1861. (It was a “breakdown,” in modern parlance, which a gleeful press reported as a bout of insanity and which Sherman himself would later describe in much the same way.) McDonough gets to these things in their due course—he’s a very thorough, very readable biographer—but he’s smart to start with Shiloh, when Sherman was personally and professionally remade on the battlefield.
Through his own arrogance, Sherman’s troops were caught totally by surprise when the Rebels attacked on the morning of April 6. Not only had he neglected to set up proper outposts, but he’d scornfully rebuffed all warnings brought to him by his own outlying commanders that a massive Confederate force was nearby and poised to strike. “I do not apprehend anything like an attack on our position,” he wrote to Grant, thereby committing what McDonough characterizes as one of the worst mistakes a general can make: “to assume that a nearby and powerful enemy force will remain in place, day after day, waiting to be attacked.” In the maelstrom that followed the surprise attack, Sherman was almost constantly under fire, grazed twice by bullets, rallying and commanding men everywhere with a renewed confidence that would never afterwards abandon him.
In his fiery temper and autocratic command style, he became the ideological counterpoint to his dour friend Grant, and the two men came to dominate the Union war effort. In September 1864, Sherman captured the stronghold of Atlanta, and in September he embarked on his notorious “March to the Sea,” leading two large armies through the heart of the supine Confederacy. He severed communications with Washington and ordered his men to “forage liberally” off the land. In his Memoirs, Sherman almost seems to believe his own euphemism, and whole phalanxes of historians since have taken him at his word, as flatly absurd as that word is. In reality, as Bruce Catton put it, “The army went down to the sea like a prairie fire forty miles wide, living on the supplies it took from plantation barns and smokehouses and pantries, looting where it did not burn, making war with the lid off as if the whole business had come down to a wild Halloween brawl.”
That “war with the lid off” was brutal, yes; Sherman intended it to be so, in order to send a message to the Southern population that their government couldn’t protect them and so didn’t deserve their support. But the brutality was also its own end, ordered and countenanced by Sherman to an extent that would land him in a courtroom at the Hague today. McDonough is content to soft-pedal the whole business, writing that however we categorize things, “Sherman’s intentions were clear: destroy anything of military value to the Confederacy, while subjecting Southern civilians to the inevitable depredations inflicted by a large army tramping through their country and living off the land.”
But those depredations weren’t inevitable until Sherman made them that way, and the definition of “military value” was from the onset stretched so far as to lose any meaning. Whole towns were put to the torch, despite pleas not to dispossess their women, children, elderly, and infirm. Whole populations were uprooted and put on forced marches. Assaults, rapes, and murders, absent from the general’s recollections, were liberally reported by Southerners; reading accounts less accommodating than McDonough’s leads to the inescapable conclusion that war was “all hell” largely because William Tecumseh Sherman made it that way. In Sherman’s March was born No Gun Ri, My Lai, and a dozen other massacres perpetrated on a helpless and innocent civilian population by U.S. forces allowed to conduct “war with the lid off.”
Sherman succeeded—naturally, since he had no opposition—in scorching Georgia, despoiling the Carolinas, and presenting the captured city of Savannah to President Lincoln as a Christmas present in 1864. By that point, the war was in the mopping-up stages, and when it was over, Sherman was given command of the Military Division of the Missouri, tasked with keeping the railroad expansions of the West free from marauding parties of Indians. He wrote: “We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux … even to their extermination, men, women, and children.” In a phrase that should give every modern-day reader a hard chill, he referred to this extermination of the Plains Indians as “the final solution of the Indian problem.”
McDonough spends more time recounting Sherman’s social life during this frontier period than he does describing any of the encounters Sherman had with the quarter-million hostile inhabitants of the vast territory he now oversaw, but readers are told enough to sympathize with the general: “As soon as he struck the Indians in one place, they would ride for another, usually and wisely refusing to fight except when they could set up an ambush or in some manner gain an advantage.” McDonough mentions only glancingly the form those “strikes” usually took, although readers coming fresh from the burning schoolhouses and raped housewives of the Georgia campaign won’t be surprised to learn about attacks on peaceful winter villages of women and children and elderly. This is the worst pattern of Sherman’s professional life, the pattern buried in his Memoirs and resisted by so many of his biographers: when given military power over civilians, he used it despotically, with a ruthless bloodlust shared by almost none of his contemporaries.
It was an attitude that went hand-in-hand with a brace of snarling bigotries. He affected admiration of the bravery of tribes like the Navajo or Arapaho but considered them subhuman, writing and saying often that the cleaner solution to the problem of “civilizing” such savages might be to wipe them out entirely. Likewise his contempt for blacks—“A nigger as such is a most excellent fellow, but he is not fit to marry, to associate, or vote with me, or mine”—which he showed not only during the war, when he fought vigorously against the Union’s creating units of black soldiers, but also after it, when he fought just as vigorously against any kind of civil rights for the Union’s newest citizens. McDonough knows very well his subject’s stance on such issues, but he reflexively softens the picture whenever he can, often starting sentences with “Whatever precisely his racial mindset” or “Regardless of what Sherman thought of blacks serving in combat roles”—creating a thin fog of doubt about things that are in fact well-established.
This exonerating tone is the one besetting shortcoming of an otherwise outstanding big work. McDonough is excellent when writing about the general’s complicated family life, and he writes some very credible action sequences when describing Sherman’s many Civil War battles. He’s also astute when writing about the most complicated and contradictory subject in Sherman’s life, his marriage. McDonough has a great ear for quotations, which is especially convenient when dealing with such a quotable subject. (When approached about running for president, for instance, Sherman quipped, “You may tell all that I would rather serve 4 years in the Singsing Penitentiary than in Washington & believe that I could come out a better man.”)
Although not stern enough with a man who today would be considered a racist, philandering, psychotic, mass-murdering war criminal, William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country is at least sterner than most of its predecessors. “If I had known him,” McDonough writes, “I sometimes think I would have liked him.” And the feeling might have been mutual—but therein lies the rub.
Steve Donoghue is the managing editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its book-blogs, Stevereads.