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Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman [Format Kindle]

Robert L. O'Connell

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Part I

The Military Strategist

Chapter I



On June 12, 1836, a Hudson River steamer nosed into the dock at West Point and deposited, among others, sixteen-year-old William Tecumseh Sherman. As he stared up at the bluffs upon which sat the United States Military Academy, it’s a safe bet that young Sherman had only a glimmer of what he was getting into. He knew the place was strict and “the army was its natural consequence,” but what that implied would have escaped him—that he was beginning a process that would induct him into a warrior elite, forging bonds that would last a lifetime.

Admission was not assured. Because appointment to West Point was open to young men from all classes in a nation of wildly variable primary education, an entrance exam, testing for literacy and arithmetic skills, was administered upon arrival.1 For Sherman, this amounted to a formality. His foster father, the powerful Whig politician Thomas Ewing, had not only engineered his appointment, but also ensured his charge was academically prepared. Although the family base in Lancaster, Ohio, remained less than a generation removed from the frontier, the boy had been rigorously schooled and apparently knew enough to bone up on French and math, exactly the subjects that would be stressed plebe year.2 Not surprisingly, he aced the test and academically, at least, never looked back.

Ever gregarious, he fit in easily with his fellow cadets. In particular, he forged what would prove to be lifelong bonds with his two roommates, Stewart Van Vliet and George Thomas. Thomas, who would gain fame in the Civil War as the “Rock of Chickamauga,” became a vital and continuing presence in Sherman’s career. Even as a veritable pebble, Thomas was already formidable, at one point threatening to throw an upperclassman out the window if he didn’t cease his attempts to haze them.3 Sherman himself was less physical, but he must have appreciated his roommate’s bravado and marked him as someone who would not back down in a tough situation. Still, such outbursts were best kept hushed and infrequent at West Point.

Cadets were subjected to a relentless system of regulation, observation, and meticulous evaluation. Their long days were consumed with a monotonous string of planned activities, most of them arduous and all, it seems, subject to some kind of sanction. The system was the masterpiece of Sylvanus Thayer, whose short but indelible tenure as superintendent set the academy irrevocably on the course of “appraisal by numbers,” based on the assumption that cadets could be usefully ranked according to a precise order of merit (or demerit, really).

The keystone was the academic program, administered by faculty set in place by Thayer and led by the brilliant but peevish professor Dennis Hart Mahan.4 It has been said that Thayer effectively turned West Point into an engineering school, but this can be seen as serendipitous, the result of a math-heavy curriculum, which not coincidentally proved useful in rating and weeding out cadets.5 Sherman and his fellows were graded daily in all subjects, the results of which were tabulated with exam scores and fed into a complicated formula that included dress and disciplinary infractions. This produced an annual and ultimately final class rank used to assign graduates to the various service branches—the Corps of Engineers receiving those standing at the front of the long gray line, followed by artillery, cavalry, and then infantry.

Because at West Point everything counted and everything was counted, the system was also applied to a series of upper-class courses, including topography, geography, chemistry, physics, rhetoric, political philosophy, and drawing—a two-year requirement presumed useful in creating maps.6 Sherman proved particularly adept at capturing images—his teacher Robert W. Weir was an accomplished painter of the Hudson River school—but rather than any real artistic talent, this probably reflected an eidetic or photographic memory, especially for terrain, which proved to be one of Sherman’s core military talents.7 At any rate, he prospered academically, maintaining himself near the top of his class of around forty-five survivors of the seventy or so who entered with him—though his disdain for spit and polish lowered his final standing enough to preclude entry into the elite engineers.

Meanwhile, he may have noticed that with the exception of Mahan’s capstone Science of War course in his final year, there was little that was specifically military about the academic diet fed to those supposedly preparing for careers as professional soldiers. Even Mahan went heavy on the military engineering and light on strategy, relying on the writings of French general Antoine-Henri Jomini to implant an almost exclusively Napoleonic view of warfare in his young charges (who, if the past was any indication, would probably spend most of their time fighting Indians).8

This sort of disconnect raises questions as to West Point’s actual mission. Sherman arrived at the crest of the age of Jackson, a high tide of egalitarian and democratic enthusiasm. Old Hickory was undeniably a general, but military elites and the kinds of schools that bred them were viewed with suspicion.9 West Point’s survival depended upon accommodation, and by offering a free college education that stressed engineering-friendly subjects to boys of all classes, the academy undoubtedly provided a service to a developing nation much in need of infrastructure.

It was understood that many cadets would not pursue careers as officers much beyond graduation but would turn instead to civilian pursuits. “I tell you Coz,” wrote Cadet Ulysses S. Grant, “if a man graduates from here he is set fer life, come what may.”10 Still, the Civil War would offer Grant a much better fit for the skill set he picked up at West Point than his prewar clerkship at his father’s store. So too with Sherman, Henry Halleck, and George McClellan, key luminaries of the great struggle, who would briefly leave the service, only to return to what proved to be their true calling. Today’s notion that West Point was essentially dedicated to producing “engineers who could also function as soldiers rather than the reverse”11 would have seemed odd indeed to these men. Just about everything cadets experienced at West Point was militarily derived or motivated.

A case in point is drill, the training that teaches soldiers to move together. Plebe Sherman was thrilled at first sight of the old cadets “stepping as one man—all forming a line”; suddenly, he wrote his foster brother Hugh, he understood what West Point was all about.12 He would have plenty of opportunity to confirm the observation. Cadets marched and drilled daily, sometimes with a rigor and intensity that caused a number to faint.

This was no casual pursuit. Ever since Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange, had pioneered these routines in the Netherlands at the end of the sixteenth century, they had formed the basis of firefighting tactics. The explanation lay with the weapon everybody used, the single-shot, muzzle-loading, smoothbore musket, which also had not changed fundamentally over this time. Because bullets bounced up their barrels, the accurate range of these guns did not exceed around eighty yards, enabling combat formations to blast away at each other out in the open in relative proximity. Thus the key lay not in aiming, but in loading and firing as fast as possible, using a complicated series of motions first analyzed and regularized by Maurice and then drilled relentlessly into subsequent generations of infantrymen so they might be performed reliably and automatically in the chaos and terror of battle.

Maximum firepower also demanded that soldiers do their shooting in long thin lines only several ranks thick. Firing lines, however, were not only brittle, but incapable of rapid and precise maneuver. This required short, thick columns, which moved much faster but were also more vulnerable since the men were bunched together. Safety, or at least relative safety, lay in the rapid and orderly transition from column to line and the reverse, which in turn demanded the disciplined movement of smaller combat units—in the case of the Corps of Cadets, four companies, subdivided into platoons and sections. Whether on the parade ground of West Point or on an actual battlefield, choreographing all these elements so they didn’t collide or otherwise fall apart required almost endless practice, men marching at exactly the same pace with exactly the same stride almost ad infinitum, turning into metronomes, at least until they stopped and became loading machines.

Cadet Sherman soon grew bored with the ponderous evolutions of infantry tactics, but otherwise he said very little about them.13 No wonder. They were by intent mind-numbing. Frederick the Great probably had the last word on the subject: “I come from drill. I drill. I will drill—that is all the news I can give you.”14 Yet there was a great deal more to be learned on the parade ground than Sherman probably realized, subtle lessons but pervasive ones.

Courage had changed since the gun proliferated. Earlier, heroism had consisted of close fighting, hand to hand, and battle, especially in the Western military tradition, was understood to be a matter of intimate confrontation. But a hail of supersonic projectiles had eventually rendered this standard pretty much suicidal. As a compromise, fighting formations backed off, and bravery became largely a matter of standing fast and ignoring the bullets.

Among officers, this meant keeping a cool head and focusing on directing the fighting. Within the ranks, it consisted of a routinized determination to faithfully execute a series of movements drummed in by endless practice. To harness this kind of human energy, to use it effectively, leaders needed to grasp its repetitive power. So it made sense to give cadets the same experience. And as they drilled, Sherman and his cohort would have found themselves growing together, enlisting what historian William McNeill believes to be the primal penchant for dance—shared patterns of movement performed in unison, stirring a deep sense of corporate identity.15 Individual cadets bonded into a whole, exactly the message the academy wanted to impart.

Still, the entire enterprise was by its nature dehumanizing and fostered the notion that soldiers (to officers of the day, this generally meant long-term enlistees, or regulars) were basically expendable, things to be dressed up, marched around, and shot. In part, this was a function of the necessities of organized warfare itself, but it also reflected the aristocratic origins of firefighting as it had evolved in Europe. “The army,” in the words of the eighteenth-century courtier Claude Louis, Comte de Saint-Germain, “must inevitably consist of the scum of the people. . . . We must therefore rely on military discipline to purify and mold the mass of corruption and turn it into something useful.”16 While Sherman and his classmates might not have put it so bluntly, the comment basically characterized the outlook they took away from the parade ground.

This is important, because one day they would come to command men who thought themselves as good as any other, who believed officers ought to be elected, and who, when they got new guns that made fighting in the open a great deal more dangerous, tended to take matters into their own hands. Some, like Sherman, reacted appropriately, others less so. But it is in this clash of outlooks that much of the combat history of the American Civil War is to be found.

Those arguing that West Point was more civilian than military could always point to the professorial confab who controlled the core curriculum, only one of whom had ever seen combat or even been on active duty for more than a few years.17 Beyond the lecture hall, a number were prominently published in their fields, none more so than Mahan, whose knowledge of Jomini was widely equated with strategic wisdom. Plainly these were academics, not soldiers.

Yet they were also not alone on the faculty. The Thayer system dictated that each senior faculty member be supported by section instructors, young officers who saw the cadets daily and on a more personal basis, in the barracks as well as the classroom. They were brought in on rotation from all over the regular army and were consistently among the best and brightest.18 Of the Civil War generation, George McClellan, William Hardee, Robert Anderson, John Schofield, Oliver O. Howard, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Fitz-John Porter, and William Rosecrans all served as “schoolmasters” at West Point. This was important duty.

Yet as with drill, its most lasting impact was probably more subtle and psychological than formal and academic. In effect, these young lieutenants and captains were the cadets’ umbilical cord to the real world of the U.S. Army. They ran the summer encampment where cadets were taught the practical aspects of service—how to set up a camp, post a picket, run a skirmish line, fire an artillery piece, even wield a sword and ride a horse if they didn’t know already. More important, they learned by example—the way these young officers looked and acted would have been the way cadets wanted to look and act.

These were role models and future commanders, and the cadets would have hung on their words in ways that eluded the senior faculty. These men could describe what it was like to command a lonely outpost, recount the splendors of a largely unoccupied continent, and, of course, tell war stories. Since a soldier on the frontier could expect combat every five years, there would have been plenty to tell. This is where West Point’s supposed gap in Indian removal instruction would have been filled: these men were the academy’s voice of practical wisdom on the nature of irregular warfare. Sherman and his classmates would adapt quickly to their first assignment, the Second Seminole War, in part because they had been told what to expect. Quietly, though.

Cadets also learned from one another, mostly from the inevitable process of sizing up and sorting out status. A pack of high-spirited late adolescents, living in close quarters, constrained on every side by a tyrannical behavioral model, brought out a lot of interesting behavior. Sherman himself cruised through most of it unperturbed, making friends but no apparent enemies. Already something of a newspaper junkie, he had a subscription to the National Gazette, which he loaned out freely.19 He was respected but low-key, choosing to abstain from involvement with the Point’s most obvious pecking order.

Cadet rank (“captains” and “lieutenants” from the first class, “sergeants” from the second, and “corporals” from the third) was West Point’s official standard of prestige. These positions were reserved for the spotless cadets, individuals of high academic standing who were also unsullied by demerits. But the academy’s version of success and subsequent military success did not necessarily coincide. Using the example of Henry Halleck and George McClellan, you might even say that an obsessive following of the rules actually inhibited fighting initiative and opportunism. Of course, no cadet was more spotless than Robert E. Lee, accumulating no demerits in four years, and on the battlefield nothing slowed him down.

Revue de presse

“A superb examination of the many facets of the iconic Union general who emerged as Ulysses S. Grant’s most trusted battlefield commander. [Robert L.] O’Connell’s biography of Sherman brings to life an enigmatic, fascinating figure who emerged a brilliant strategist and a master of maneuver, and whose victories in 1864 helped to ensure Abraham Lincoln’s re-election and ultimately turned the tide of the Civil War.”—General David Petraeus, Politico
“Sherman’s standing in American history is formidable. . . . It is hard to imagine any other biography capturing it all in such a concise and enlightening fashion.”National Review

“A sharply drawn and propulsive march through the tortured psyche of the man.”The Wall Street Journal
“[O’Connell’s] narrative of the March to the Sea is perhaps the best I have ever read.”—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“William Tecumseh Sherman is one of the great characters in American history—protean, highly effective, cunning, outrageous, and in every way memorable. He has found just the right biographer in Robert L. O’Connell. Fierce Patriot is a surprising, clever, wise, and powerful book.”—Evan Thomas, author of Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World
“For those who think they know a lot about William Tecumseh Sherman, this book will be a revelation. Those who are meeting him for the first time will be equally mesmerized.”—Thomas Fleming, author of A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War
“To his family and friends he was Cump; to his soldiers he was Uncle Billy; to generations of Southern whites he was the devil incarnate. But to biographer Robert L. O’Connell, William T. Sherman was the quintessential nineteenth-century American: full of energy, constantly on the move, pragmatic, adaptable, determined to overcome all obstacles, a nationalist and patriot who teamed with Grant and Lincoln to win the Civil War and launch America as a world power. This readable biography offers new insights on Sherman as a husband and father as well as a master strategist and leader.”—James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
“A fascinating dissection of the multifaceted lives of William Tecumseh Sherman—military genius, brilliant organizer, inspired observer, and occasionally wayward husband. Sherman, O’Connell reminds us, was as brilliantly unpredictable on the battlefield as he was off it.”—Victor Davis Hanson, The Hoover Institution, author of The Soul of Battle and Ripples of Battle
“William Tecumseh Sherman has to be our premier grand strategist, who set unexpectedly bold boundaries, not just for war but for peace, and kept to them. In Fierce Patriot, Robert L. O’Connell has fashioned a remarkable, and remarkably original, portrait of one of the people who truly defined America.”—Robert Cowley, founding editor of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History
“William Tecumseh Sherman was the most fiery, complicated, and inconsistent of America’s great generals. In Robert L. O’Connell’s aptly titled Fierce Patriot, he brings this conflicted American hero vividly to life. For both the Civil War buff and the general reader, Fierce Patriot offers new and arresting insights into this remarkable figure and his impact on the world in which he lived.”—Charles Bracelen Flood, author of Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War

From the Hardcover edition.

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  • Editeur : Random House (1 juillet 2014)
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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) 4.3 étoiles sur 5  205 commentaires
77 internautes sur 81 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 First-rate in terms of narrative, insight and interest 3 mars 2014
Par Peter G. Keen - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
I selected this because I was interested in learning more about Sherman. I expected a solid and informative book. This turned out to be much more than that. It is first-rate.

First, it is always interesting. The author has a lightness in style and an uusual ability to organize and summarize topics. To pick a few examples; he explains the developments in rifles and the resulting impacts on how commanders positioned troops and soldiers adapted in a compact way that is striking and very clear. Again and again, this skill enlivens the flow of the narrative without disrupting it. I can't recall a book on military history that made the details of campaigns and battles so easy to follow.

The core of the book is, of course, the presentation of Sherman's career and personality. The writer made a unusual choice that I think works very well; he separates the military phase of his life as the first and main part of the book and addresses his later career and the very complex psychodramas of relationships within his family circle in other ones. This helpfully unclutters the flow of the narrative, though it is quite arguable that it obscures interactions and is selective in choosing events.

Sherman comes across as not particularly self-aware, limited in his empathy and insight, and in many ways not an interesting character. But he was the opposite of this in his growth as a commander. The resulting portrayal abstracts the key historical threads of his life very vividly and convincingly, without neglecting the personal dimensions and resonances. There are a few themes that may be a tiny bit artificial -- a distinctive view of "strategy" as the core of what made Sherman different and a categorization of him as always seeking to be the Number 2 in his relationships with, most obviously, Grant.

These are minor demurrals and queries. The analysis seems reliable and the sources and scholarship solid. What stands out is the book is so, so interesting. It flows vividly with a superb sense of the reader -- examples, phrasing and explanation really make this a conversation not a presentation.

I loved it. It leaves a sense of enhanced understanding and a rich reading experience.
65 internautes sur 71 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 Not Strickly a Military Biography of a Military Man 25 mars 2014
Par Michael D. Trimble - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
Let me start by saying that I enjoyed this story. I recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about Sherman beyond the boundaries of the Civil War years. The tone of the book is informal and conversational. As others have said, the book is broken down into three parts based on different aspect of Sherman's life and relationships. Unfortunately this type of narrative organization causes the author to cover the same time period and many of the same events more than once. This aspect of the book could have been done better. For the military history buff looking for an in depth analysis of Sherman's battle plans and the events that informed his decision making, that is not the focus of this book. This book is more of a human interest story and covers Sherman's life from birth to death, like a normal biography. If all you've ever read or learned in school is about Sherman the Union General, then this book should be very interesting to you. I learned three significant and interesting things about Sherman. One of these things is an actual fact, the type of fact that is fun to share with others. The other two things were what I believe to be well researched assertions. I will not give away these aspects of the book but I can say that I'll be doing additional reading and research of my own to see if I reach the same conclusions as the author. I would like to share this thought provoking quote from the book that perhaps has some modern relevance, "During the last stages of Sherman's March to the Sea, desertions from the Army of Northern Virginia skyrocketed to the point that Longstreet's Corps had more pickets in the rear than in the front, as soldiers bolted to protect their homes or at least their families. The Confederacy was an idea, and Sherman trampled all over it relentlessly--it's symbols, institutions, it's pride--bled the life out of it, and replaced it with hopelessness. That's the way to win." Enjoyable book!
46 internautes sur 49 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 A "Lollapalooza of a Life" 28 janvier 2014
Par Robin Friedman - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
In his new book, "Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman" (2014), Robert O'Connell writes of his subject: "Not unexpectedly, [Sherman] has already sired a string of biographies. All deserve some credit for having attempted to capture such a lollapalooza of a life. Yet many share a staccato, even frenetic quality as they jump from topic to topic, racing to keep up with one frenetic life story."

This brief quotation captures a great deal both about Sherman (1820 -- 1891) and about the book. O'Connell develops the paradoxes of Sherman's character which resist easy summation. O'Connell shows the "Uncle Billy" of popular renown, in his own time and ours, but he also shows how this character was a construct by a highly theatrical Sherman. His account is strongly but critically admiring of Sherman. O'Connell frequently refers to various of his actions as "good Billy, bad Billy". O'Connell also writes in a colloquial, punchy style that makes the book a delight to read and highly accessible for a complex subject.

In addition to the free-wheeling writing style, O'Connell's biography of Sherman is idiosyncratic in its organization. O'Connell concluded that writing a straightforward chronological biography of Sherman would be "bound to create confusion." He found that "three separate story lines, each deserving independent development" emerged from Sherman's life. Accordingly, O'Connell arranges his book topically rather than chronologically in three large sections. The organization produces a clear, well-flowing narrative of Sherman's accomplishments and life but at a cost. First, the book includes a substantial degree of repetition. Second, materials in the earlier parts of the book sometimes require information not presented until much later to be fully understood. Third, the final part of the book, which explores Sherman's private life, lags on occasion and is anti-climactic to what has come before.But even though the organization is not entirely successful, O'Connell has written a perceptive, engaging biography of Sherman. In what follows, I will look briefly at the three strands of O'Connell's story.

The first and by far the longest part is titled "The Military Strategist". O'Connell begins with Sherman's studies at West Point, covers his early military career, and his mixed effoirts as a civililan in California and St. Louis before the outbreak of the Civil War. He does an excellent job in tying in Sherman's early life, with its ups and downs, with the events which would make him famous. O'Connell develops what he calls Sherman's sense of himself as a "wingman", working as second in command to another person, most notably U.S.Grant in the Civil War. He also shows Sherman's slowly developing sense of strategy, as Sherman came to wage psychological as well as physical warfare on the South in his March to the Sea and subsequent march through the Carolinas. O'Connell also emphasizes Sherman's career following the Civil War which, he suggests in agreement with Sherman,may have overshadowed his Civil War achievements in importance. Sherman served as the commanding general of the United States and was instrumental in American expansionism, including the building of the transcontinental railroad, the extermination of the buffalo, and the wars against the plains Indians. These accomplishments came at high human cost. O'Connell is blunt and direct in concluding that much of the criticism of Sherman is misdirected.

The second part of the book, "The General and his Army" looks at Sherman's "boys" in the Civil War and how Sherman's relationship to his troops developed in the course of the Civil War. Sherman initially was skeptical of his volunteers. As he continued to lead the western armies, his relationship evolved to such an extent that his soldiers trusted him fully and would do the extraordinary things he asked of them in the latter part of the war. O'Connell finds that the Union Army of the West came together as a cohesive unit for Sherman after the Battle of Missionary Ridge in which, oddly, Sherman did not distinguish himself. Under Sherman's leadership, O'Connell argues, "the legions that marched through Georgia and the Carolinas had mastered one of the rarest and most valued of military skills: the ability to adapt." O'Connell writes:

"Sherman and his boys were a violent bunch, but they were also decent, idealistic, and inherently magnanimous, reflexively holding out a hand to defeated Southerners. This was easier because almost all believed they were fellow Americans. Yet it would remain true of subsequent American armies in some very far-off places where the people were decidedly not fellow Americans -- that is, when they weren't making the rubble bounce. Alternately devastating and benevolent, that's us, or at least our spear tip, and has been since Uncle Billy and his boys scared the hell out of the Confederacy."

In the final part of the book "The Man and his Families" O'Connell examines the frequently tortured course of Sherman's personal life beginning with his relationship to the powerful Ewing family. Sherman was raised by the Ewing's following his own father's death and married Ewing's daughter Ellen after a long courtship. The marriage was troubled by lengthy separations, by strong religious differences and by Sherman's affairs, yet it held. O'Connell offers a nuanced portrayal of Sherman's family life and of his later years when he participated regularly in veteran's reunions and acquired a reputation for sociability and public speaking among much else. The depiction of the intimate Sherman is insightful in many years, but it tends to lose focus by its placement late in the book and by its separation from the treatment of Sherman's many public accomplishments. O'Connell finds that Americans continue to be fascinated by Sherman because he is clearly one of us. He concludes:

"Sherman was all these things, a mixture of good and bad, but still a familiar and comfortable presence. It's hard to imagine a more American man than Sherman. And although he died over 120 years ago, it's a safe bet that should Uncle Billy be brought back to life tomorrow, after a short orientation with the requisite hardware and software, he'd find himself right at home."

O'Connell has written an excellent biography of Sherman and his "tangled lives". The book will appeal to readers interested in the Civil War and in the American experience.

Robin Friedman
32 internautes sur 38 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
2.0 étoiles sur 5 Superficial and Flawed 23 juillet 2014
Par Eric C. Evans - Publié sur
Format:Format Kindle|Achat vérifié
I pre-ordered this book the moment I saw it on and began reading with great anticipation the day it arrived. Sherman is long overdue for a full-length biography and I hoped this would be it. So I wish I could write that FIERCE PATRIOT: THE TANGLED LIVES OF WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN, by Robert L. O'Connell met my expectations. It did not.

Those expectations were tempered even before I started reading. When the book arrived the first thing I noticed is how short it is. Mr. O'Connell explains in the introduction what wealth of primary sources he had to work with in choosing Sherman as his subject, yet he managed to produce a book of only 404 pages, 354 without the notes. Obviously this was not a serious biography, but I still managed to keep my expectations high.

Those wobbly expectations toppled almost completely while reading the Introduction. Mr. O'Connell admits in the introduction, that not only did he not read all the primary sources dealing directly to Sherman, he did not even read all of Sherman's writings. He writes, "So you plod on until finally you come to understand you will never get through all of Sherman, that you are drowning in Sherman," (pg. xv). I found that startling, and as a reader a disheartening admission. Am I wrong ? Or should a biographer read, if not all of the primary sources, at least everything the subject wrote?

Mr. Connell then goes on to explain that Sherman is such a complex character that he cannot be dealt with as the subject of a biography traditionally would. He writes, "The more I studied the secondary literature and recalled my exhausting swim through the primary documents, the more I became convinced that any attempt to confine Sherman to a single chronological track was bound to create confusion," (pg. xviii). Initially, I wondered if this approach demonstrated a lack if faith in the reader or an admission by Mr. O'Connell that he was not quite up to the task he had brought to hand. I have read more than a view biographies and do not enjoy those that are written this way. Biographies should reveal to the reader the life of the subject in the manner and chronology in which it was lived and experienced. Only in the rarest cases is this not possible. Sherman is not one of those cases

Obviously every human being and especially those worthy of a biography are more complex than they appear on the surface. But the idea that Sherman is so complex that to be understood his life has to be compartmentalized in three separate narratives seemed more of an indictment of Mr. O'Connell as a writer and historian than it did as any meaningful insight in to the life of William T. Sherman. After all, countless authors have written countless biographies of people infinitely more complex than Sherman. It seemed like O'Connell decided early just to schlock it together.

I frankly almost closed the book at that point, but resisting that urge, I soldiered on. It did not improve.

One of Mr. O'Connell's theses is that Sherman is one of history's great military strategist. I came to this book with a sympathetic view of Sherman and was prepared to agree with this thesis. Still I was not convinced by Mr. O'Connell's arguments. His arguments are not well thought out; nor are they well supported and at more than a few points are best described as sophomoric.

Two flaws are typical of FIERCE PATRIOT. In the section of the book that is supposed to be about Sherman the Strategist, Mr. O'Connell manages to tell the whole story of the Vicksburg Campaign without explaining that Sherman disagreed with the strategy Grant devised and which ultimately led to the fall of Vicksburg. That, of course, doesn't necessarily make Sherman a bad strategist, but it would seem relevant to section off the book purporting to show Sherman's development into a brilliant strategist.

The second deals more directly with Mr. O'Connell's grasp of his subject. In writing about the first day at Shiloh, he writes, "It was probably (General Benjamin) Prentiss who saved the day," (pg. 99). "Probably" saved the day? Without Prentiss reforming his routed troops and their stand in what is called the Hornets Nest the Union definitely loses Shilo; not probably, but definitely. Prentiss and his men eventually had to surrender themselves, but not before giving Grant several precious hours to reform the rest of the routed army and prepare a counter attack. There is no doubt that the Union forces would have been completely routed and defeated at Shiloh without Prentiss's defense of the Hornets Nest, there really is no "probably" about it. Grant and Sherman readily acknowledge this fact and I have never heard or read any historian argue otherwise.

Mr. O'Connell did make one argument that I found persuasive and that is that Sherman knew and understood that he was better as chief subordinate than in command. Unlike most civil war generals Sherman did not seek or want an independent command or to be, as we might say today, in the center chair. The fact that he realized a subordinate role better suited his temperament and skill set is remarkable and Mr. O'Connell does a good job of arguing and supporting his argument.

I wanted to like and recommend FIERCE PATRIOT, but found I could not, it is simply too superficial and sprinkled throughout with under-supported and flawed historical judgements.
20 internautes sur 23 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
1.0 étoiles sur 5 Sherman would have burned this book 6 octobre 2014
Par JP - Publié sur
I wanted to like this biography, really, I did.

And so, lets start with what I liked. First, Sherman lived quite a life and did interesting things, so the subject matter is good. Despite my comments below, O'Connell is a writer who keeps the reader reading. You may not appreciate it, but this is a book you'll at least finish and won't put down because of boredom. It's a fast-paced 350 page biography of Sherman that is engaging (which is more than I can say of Sherman's own memoirs, which I only managed 200 or so pages of because, unlike Grant's memoirs, Sherman's memoirs are dull. Seriously, though, read Grant's memoirs--they are great.)

But then, the reason for 1 star.

First, I'm reminded of an Onion article titled something like "revolutionary new director decides to stage Shakespeare's plays in time and place they were originally set." O'Connell would not be such a director. Rather than giving us a normal chronological biography, he gimmickly decides to trisect Sherman's life into "the military strategist," "the general and his army," and "the man and his families." That is bogus, and in no way enlightens Sherman's character or career. Indeed, "the general and his army" section is awful. While the other two sections at least relate Sherman's biography, the second section talks about "the boys" of Sherman's army with the sort of good-natured generalizations about life for the common foot-solider that would have earned a sophomore a failing grade.

Worse, though, are the lengths O'Connell goes to to make this biography readable for what he imagines to be "the common reader." He spends two pages analogizing military strategy to surfing. When Sherman has a meltdown at the start of the Civil War, O'Connell says Sherman' gave "a performance worthy of Daffy Duck (or, given the hair color, perhaps Woody Woodpecker)." John Bell Hood is likened to Monty Python's Black Knight, always attacking despite the loss of limbs. Sherman's adoptive mother is described as a "Catholic tiger mother." Sherman's post-war appearances at army reunions are likened to Billy Crystal at the Oscars. This is the writing of a hack, poor pop culture analogies that he thinks will make the prose more hip and appealing to the modern reader. The examples above are some of the worst, but I easily could have pulled others to demonstrate the crassness of O'Connell's writing.

As to the analysis, as already mentioned, "the general and his army" section is terrible. The rest is a relatively straightforward biography of Sherman which, substantively, doesn't offend too much. But O'Connell engages in too much armchair psychology for an author who hasn't earned the reader's trust, especially about Sherman's relationship with his adoptive family. This could be profound stuff if not for O'Connell's habit of setting up this tension as being between "Team Ewing" and "Team Sherman," as if it was out of the Twilight movies. Further, the relationship with his adoptive family would have been more interesting if the author hadn't trisected the book, saving this stuff for the end. As he has it, we're forced to go through much of Sherman's biography without realizing some of the connections to his family history, while a normal chronological biography would have made these linkages apparent. As another example, O'Connell even theorizes about the date Sherman lost his virginity. While you might be wondering why it is necessary for an author to theorize about when William Tecumsah Sherman lost his virginity, the truly troubling aspect of O'Connell's telling is that, based on absolutely nothing, O'Connell decides to date it to the point when Sherman writes a letter about how shocked he was upon seeing someone he knew with a prostitute. O'Connell simply decides Sherman was likely covering something up in the letter. Um, ok, I guess that's what we use as evidence now--when someone says something, obviously the opposite must be true.

Don't waste your time on this biography.
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