Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Book Report--Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman

The man in the middle with his hand up is unmistakable. The man to his right is his top military general, Ulysses S. Grant. To his left sits Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter. The man holding forth across the room is General William Tecumseh Sherman, remembered (and vilified) still today primarily for "Sherman's March to the Sea."

The story goes that this meeting was somewhat serendipitous. It was March of 1865, the war was drawing to a close, and President Lincoln was aboard a river boat somewhere close to Grant's headquarters. It just so happened that General Sherman was in the neighborhood. Thus, the meeting of "the peacemakers," a meeting Admiral Porter later described like this: "I shall never forget that council which met on board the River Queen. On the determinations adopted there depended peace, or a continuation of the war with its attendant horrors."

The painting, done by George P. A. Healy, is titled The Peacemakers and meant to celebrate this moment, "an occasion upon which," Admiral Porter wrote, "depended whether or not the war would be continued a year longer. A single false step might have prolonged it indefinitely."

In Fierce Patriot: the Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, military historian Robert L. O'Connell, claims this famous portrait captures Sherman perfectly. He is obviously holding forth. The others, each of whom outrank him, of course, are his audience. Lincoln seems spellbound, but Admiral Porter and General Grant seem, well, wary. O'Connell says where Sherman was there were always words. Sherman could fill and room and did so, time and time again. And he was good at it.

As you can imagine, no one was better at telling the stories of the March, and everywhere Sherman went once his men cut the South in half and basically ended the war, people--important people--wanted to hear them. O'Connell says the system of warfare that Sherman created was, for all intents and purposes, brand new to military history. General William Tecumseh Sherman was, O'Connell says, an innovator, a man who not only created basic techniques of modern warfare but also designed what O'Donnell claims is the unique strength of American military units ever since, the indomitable strength of a democratic army.

Whether all of that is true I'll leave to military historians who know the history of the American military far better than I. But have no doubt about O'Connell's purpose in this fascinating biography: he is determined to show that Sherman's March to the Sea is the forerunner of every great American military victory since 1865. Sherman, known lovingly as Uncle Billy to his men, was the man and mind who created it.

What O'Connell marshalls to the fore in his retelling of the March is Sherman's methodology. He gave his men a very clear and abiding sense of the purpose of their mission, but turned them loose to get there on their own, four separate military movements through the heart of the South. His troops knew the direction, but how they got to the destination was up to them. 

It was, in some ways, the beginning of a species of guerrilla warfare, O'Donnell says, and when it worked--and it did--Sherman's democratic strategy, letting his troops determine their own fate, living on the land as they did, that strategy ended the bloodiest war in American history. 

In war, Sherman was fierce and unrelenting; but the moment his men brought a measure of peace to the country they conquered, he became, O'Connell says, a paragon of virtue, dispensing aid as if he were a father dispensing discipline to rebellious kids whose abominable behavior required a strong hand.

During the "summer of  Trump," it's good to be reminded that men with over-sized egos have manipulated the press and the public for more than 150 years in this country. Sherman hated the press but had a knack for ringing banner headlines from them and stories that created respect, even adoration for him in the minds and hearts of American people. He was beloved as a military leader, but he could be a shyster.

He was subject to depression that at times took him out of the character he wanted to show to the country and away from the kind of rule he needed to maintain as a rising star in the American military. He had to have been a strain on those around him, up and down like the war effort itself in those early years. But Grant wouldn't have been without him. Neither would Lincoln.

Sherman's relationship with his zealous wife was on again, off again. She was herself no wall flower, but her passion was her Roman Catholic faith and she fought him, tooth and nail, for the love of their children. Like a famous recent President, General Sherman wasn't above an occasional roll in the hay with other women.

That O'Donnell admires Sherman is not only clear by the central argument of his biography. But his admiration blind him to Sherman's humanness. I have relatives in Ringgold, Georgia, a small town just outside of Chattanooga that was in Sherman's sights as he began his Atlanta campaign, My relatives say their neighbors don't hold General William Tecumseh Sherman in such high esteem. I'm sure that's true.

General Sherman is undoubtedly worth a dozen biographies, maybe more because there's likely always more to be said about a man who himself always had more to say. To Robert L. O'Connell, William Tecumseh Sherman was to many in his day an American hero. And still is. Or should be.

Fascinating character. Fascinating reading.

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