An admiring triptych of the Civil War hero—or villain, depending on your loyalties—popular cultural figure and family man.
Military history scholar O’Connell (The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic, 2010) does not discover a lot about William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891) that he doesn’t like. He divides his text into three major sections. The first, and by far the longest, begins with the arrival of the 16-year-old Sherman at West Point in 1836 (“he was beginning a process that would induct him into a warrior elite, forging bonds that would last a lifetime”) and follows him to the end of the Civil War. In the second section, O’Connell focuses on Sherman’s relationships with his men and on his soldiering. We hear (as we do in the first section) about his men’s restraint during the March to the Sea through Georgia and the Carolinas. Sure, they burned houses and scavenged food and supplies, but they didn’t rape or murder anyone. The final section of the triptych chronicles Sherman’s family life: the early death of his father; his foster family (the politically powerful Ewings); his marriage to his foster sister, Ellen; his children (one son became a priest, a decision that angered Sherman); and his lovers (among them, sculptor Vinnie Ream). The author shows us a garrulous Sherman, a man who had difficulties in his banking career, a highly skilled administrator, a fearless leader, a man who bonded with Ulysses Grant (their relationship cooled when Grant pursued the presidency), and a leader who loved the adulation he enjoyed throughout his post–Civil War days—from his former soldiers and the general public.
Although O’Connell excuses Sherman’s excesses—he was the man we wanted, after all—he does show us his humanity with impressive clarity.