Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman

4.4 13
by Robert L. O'Connell

View All Available Formats & Editions


William Tecumseh Sherman was more than just one of our greatest generals. Fierce Patriot is a bold, revisionist portrait of how this iconic and enigmatic figure exerted an outsize impact on the American landscape—and the American character.
America’s first “celebrity” general, William



William Tecumseh Sherman was more than just one of our greatest generals. Fierce Patriot is a bold, revisionist portrait of how this iconic and enigmatic figure exerted an outsize impact on the American landscape—and the American character.
America’s first “celebrity” general, William Tecumseh Sherman was a man of many faces. Some were exalted in the public eye, others known only to his intimates. In this bold, revisionist portrait, Robert L. O’Connell captures the man in full for the first time. From his early exploits in Florida, through his brilliant but tempestuous generalship during the Civil War, to his postwar career as a key player in the building of the transcontinental railroad, Sherman was, as O’Connell puts it, the “human embodiment of Manifest Destiny.” Here is Sherman the military strategist, a master of logistics with an uncanny grasp of terrain and brilliant sense of timing. Then there is “Uncle Billy,” Sherman’s public persona, a charismatic hero to his troops and quotable catnip to the newspaper writers of his day. Here, too, is the private Sherman, whose appetite for women, parties, and the high life of the New York theater complicated his already turbulent marriage. Warrior, family man, American icon, William Tecumseh Sherman has finally found a biographer worthy of his protean gifts. A masterful character study whose myriad insights are leavened with its author’s trademark wit, Fierce Patriot will stand as the essential book on Sherman for decades to come.

Praise for Fierce Patriot
“A superb examination of the many facets of the iconic Union general.”—General David Petraeus
“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
“A surprising, clever, wise, and powerful book.”—Evan Thomas, author of Ike’s Bluff

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Considered by various contemporaries to be insane, ruthless, and brilliant, William Tecumseh Sherman is a hard man to pin down. Here, O’Connell (The Ghosts of Cannae) expresses his concerns about unreadable academic histories and shallow popular histories by journalists “who often lack the background to see deep trends and long-term causation,” and instead focuses on Sherman as a strategist, soldier, and family man. However, the relationships O’Connell draws between activities in Sherman’s life feel forced, as with his likening military strategy to surfing: “Big waves and battle leave little room for piggishness.” Similarly, O’Connell employs rather idiosyncratic imagery, noting that Sherman was a “visual vacuum cleaner,” and that he and his wife were “mated like geese.” This manner of shaking the dust off Sherman’s story distracts from the portrait that O’Connell builds. Details like Sherman’s involvement with the discovery of gold in California in 1849, his genuine heartbreak when the South seceded, and even his apparent blindness to the horrors of slavery seem overshadowed by the writer’s techniques. O’Connell’s delivery of Sherman’s story is frustrating, especially because of the richness of the subject. (July)
From the Publisher
“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

Kirkus Reviews
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.
Library Journal
In time for the 150th anniversary of G. William Tecumseh Sherman's iconic and inexorable march through the South, nationally best-selling author O'Connell (The Ghosts of Cannae) offers a biography that presents Sherman as implacable military strategist, revered leader of the Army of the West (he made the transcontinental railroad possible postwar), and family man facing a contentious wife. Billed as revisionist biography; pushed back from May 2014.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.70(h) x 1.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

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.

Meet the Author

Robert L. O’Connell received a Ph.D. in history at the University of Virginia, and spent thirty years as a senior analyst at the National Ground Intelligence Center. He is presently a visiting professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, and was a contributing editor to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. He is the author of numerous books, including The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic; Of Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression; and Soul of the Sword: An Illustrated History of Weaponry and Warfare from Prehistory to the Present.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This tome hits the necessary high lights of the generals life. The image of an evolving general well skilled in strategy is significant. Sherman definitely had emotional problems which are not discussed in detail. The details of his movements in California and St Louis could have been more detailed. The author did capture Sherman's drive and ambition as a Civil War general. O'Connell captures the fierce loyalty to Grant. He further uses modern day language to convey the story of a great fighter.
jmars12 More than 1 year ago
Excellent research. The war years are covered in detail and in a very readable manner. A great amount of details are seen throughout the book. It is hard to put down as the General truly does come alive in the book. Strongly recommend this to any person interested in the Civil War and/or very important figures in our history.
Liela More than 1 year ago
Appropriate title, "Fierce Patriot." Did I read something different from what I saw on the reviews of others. The author bio of Sherman showed a side of admiration for him. Did he support his fact of argument. There were parts I felt the author only touched basis lightly. What about the emancipation? What about Ebenezer Creek? I felt this book could have been made into three books. Sherman's life before entering the civil war, second during the civil war as "Uncle Billy." Third his personal accomplishment after. This is why O'Connell is the author and I'm a reader. I learned a great deal about Sherman's life, his military strategist mind and battle of maneuvers. Religion, non-existence for him and he preferred it that way. Foster family becomes his father in law. Marriage, infidelity but still married until the end, his end. Influential politically connected people surrounded Sherman from his brother a senator and his father in law who held title as Secretary of the Interior, Senator of Treasury. So much questions bombarded my mind and I found the answers as I progressed through the chapters. Sherman either hated or loved or admired, he served his country. Historical American figures are mentioned too. I do appreciate a good read. O'Connelly peaked my interest in this person and I do thank him for it. Won this book on Goodreads, First Read Giveaway. Thank you, Darlene Cruz
Henry_McLaughlin More than 1 year ago
Robert L. O'Connell brings new life into the fascinating person of William Tecumseh Sherman. I learned more than I knew previously about Sherman, his early life, his personal life, his journey as a soldier, and his post-Civil War career. One of the most interesting discoveries for me was learning how much Sherman cared about his men and avoided throwing them into attacks if there was a viable alternative to flank and get around the enemy. And his men honored him for it. To me, O'Connell presents a well balanced study of Sherman with good insight into Sherman' strengths and weaknesses. It's clear he likes Cump, but this not a hero-worshipping book. Sherman's flaws are openly presented and discussed, especially in terms of his family life. O'Connell's writing style is a pleasure to read. The book never bogs down. He ably weaves facts and historical figures together and keeps the story in perspective of the historical time frames. I highly recommend it for those who are American history buffs. The book brings to life one of the most interesting figures in 19th Century America.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed reading this book. it was a page turner. Not only did you get to know the Soldier and his men, but also the man. It is so well written. Looking forward to more by Robert L. O'Connell,
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
William T. Sherman is my great, great, great, grandfather.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
He raises an eyebrow. "Pebble? You feel for Pebblesplash?" He places a comforting paw on Lionstar's shoulder. "I think.. you should tell her what you feel about her, but do not act on any of your instincts that are telling you to make a move. Because you're right, it is forbidden, but maybe, just maybe, Starclan will decide to take action on your behalf." He shrugs. You never know..."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Er... okay... don't be mad!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Add me plz
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago