Review: 'Service of My Country' a complex portrait of William Tecumseh Sherman

Published Aug. 25, 2016

William Tecumseh Sherman is primarily known as the Civil War general who stated that "War is all hell" and who proved it in autumn 1864 by burning Atlanta and cutting a 60-mile-wide swath through Georgia in his destructive march to the sea. Determined to make the South "howl in my barbarity and cruelty," he told associates that rich planters would finally realize "what war means."

But James Lee McDonough, professor emeritus of history at Auburn University and author of nine other works of history, including Nashville: The Western Confederacy's Final Gamble (2004) and Shiloh — In Hell Before Night (1977), humanizes this fixed, violent caricature of Sherman in his comprehensive new biography, William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country; A Life. McDonough also places Sherman in the sweeping canvas of 19th century American history.

The author informs us that when a son was born on Feb. 8, 1820, to Ohio couple Mary and John Robert Sherman, the father named him Tecumseh because he deeply admired the Shawnee chief who was killed six years before. When his financially strapped father died when "Cump" was 9 years old, the boy was taken in by his father's good friend Thomas Ewing, a wealthy and famed criminal lawyer. At this time Tecumseh's first name was changed to William.

In 1836 the politically influential Ewing arranged for William to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. An excellent though high-spirited cadet, William was good at his studies, obsessed with painting and loved dancing, riding and theater. He developed into a true Renaissance man with a keen mind. And although he balked at West Point's extreme regimentation, he desperately wanted to be a soldier — to see action in battle and to rise in his beloved military profession in the service of his country.

This would not happen quickly, McDonough writes. After graduation from West Point in 1840, Sherman was sent to a swampy area near Fort Pierce to fight against the Seminole Indians.

When the Mexican War began in 1846, many of Sherman's West Point classmates saw war close up, but Sherman was stationed far from the action in Monterey, Calif. The action that Sherman did see from 1848 to 1850 was the result of the effects of the California gold rush upon the U.S. Army: The young officer's orders were to apprehend soldiers who were rapidly deserting for the gold fields.

Domestically, Sherman's life was a shambles. After marrying his foster sister Eleanor Ewing in 1850, Sherman had to endure both his wife's and his foster father's constant admonitions to leave the army and take up better paying employment. Sherman was always away from his home and his growing family, and always strapped for cash; it certainly didn't help that his wife was a profligate spendthrift.

Quitting the Army in 1853, Sherman began a disaster-filled career as a banker and financier. The outbreak of the Civil War saved him. McDonough brings to bear his vast knowledge of the war as he relates how Sherman rose in stature and rank from the Battle of Bull Run in 1861 to Vicksburg, Chickamauga and Chattanooga in 1863.

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But McDonough emphasizes that it was at the Battle of Shiloh in southwestern Tennessee on April 6-7, 1862, where 100,000 soldiers were thrown into battle, that Sherman's incredible transformation took place. "Once the battle was joined," he writes, "this man of high-strung nervous energy … became cool and proficient as he directed his division in the heat of intense murderous struggle. … Observers said he seemed to appear where he was needed … and often anticipating … what would occur before it developed."

Always in the thick of battle, with three horses shot from under him and with a wounded right hand wrapped in a handkerchief, Sherman, a private observed, appeared "a veritable war eagle."

Later in the war, after the fall of Vicksburg in 1863, Sherman's 9-year-old son, Willy, died of typhoid. Writing to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Sherman (now a general himself) stated that Willy's death "has affected me more than any other misfortune. … I can hardly … work," but must not "divert my mind from the duty I owe my country."

McDonough makes clear that Sherman's burning of Atlanta and his March to the Sea, despite the goal of destroying anything of military value, were relatively light on casualties. It was not, as a number of writers have maintained, an example of bloody "total war." But it did cause lacerating psychological damage to the South and decidedly hastened the war's conclusion.

Sherman went on to serve on the Peace Commission of Indian Affairs in the late 1860s. He died at age 71 in New York City in 1891. McDonough's biography is a definitive, full-blooded account of a complex man.

Chris Patsilelis has reviewed books on military subjects for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle.