A Man at War

William T. Sherman’s reputation precedes him.

William Tecumseh Sherman at Federal Fort No. 7, Atlanta, Georgia, c.1865. Courtesy Library of Congress, Washington DC.

Writing to his brother in the penultimate year of the American Civil War, the Union soldier Eb Allison observed that ‘Warfare, to be successful, is a thing that does not admit of any dilly-dallying about it.’ This comment might well serve as a summation of William T. Sherman’s approach to a conflict that, as far as public opinion is concerned, defined his career and his life, but not always in a positive way. Sherman’s reputation, indeed, is in many ways ‘unenviable’, Brian Holden Reid notes in his introduction to this formidable biography, consisting as it does largely of exaggerated negatives: ruthlessness, heartlessness and brutality. Informed by the opinions of those Confederates whom he defeated at the time (and their progeny ever since) Sherman’s popular image has become emblematic of all we fear in modern war, of all we fear in ourselves as human beings with a propensity toward destruction. 

Holden Reid’s is the latest of several biographies of the general to have appeared over the years. These include an early assessment by military strategist Basil H. Liddell Hart and, more recently, a study by historian John F. Marszalek. Both of these hinted in their titles at their assessment of the man they were writing about. For Liddell Hart, Sherman was a ‘soldier,’ a ‘realist’ and an ‘American’, this last often shorthand for patriot. Marszalek focussed on Sherman’s ‘passion for order’. By contrast, Holden Reid’s title, taken from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, is more ambivalent. It hints at a man as much damaged by war as capable of inflicting damage on others. And in his own words, Holden Reid aims ‘to give the main issues of Sherman’s military life a different twist’, largely by locating Sherman in the Civil War’s chain of command, assessing how he behaved in a subordinate role and then, later, in a commanding one, and exploring his psychological approach to and understanding of warfare. 

This biography, indeed, might best be described as military history with a twist. Its descriptions of the battlefields, the battles themselves, the manoeuvres, the logistics and the strategies that Sherman deployed, either under his own command or, in the war’s earlier stages, that of others, forms the structure and much of the narrative drive here. At the same time, the work contextualises Sherman in the orbit of a wider physical and psychological landscape, from his time at the Louisiana State Seminary before the war and his military career after it. ‘Generalship’, Holden Reid stresses at one point, ‘cannot be counted as just the sum of a commander’s psychological tendencies or his prejudices; nor can it be divorced entirely from the vicissitudes of life and the pressures these impose upon him.’ 

And in this respect, Holden Reid inevitably places some emphasis on the terrible loss of Sherman’s nine-year-old son Willie to disease after the family had visited Sherman’s camp and the endless guilt this caused him. He stresses the support Sherman received from his wife Ellen and his brother, Republican politician John, as well as his relationships with other Union generals, especially Ulysses S. Grant. 

Throughout, although the focus is on Sherman, the assessment of the particular problems facing the Union army is never given from his perspective alone. Holden Reid lets us see Sherman as part of the whole, even as the analysis moves toward the time when high command will set him apart from it. Because even before Sherman became the monster of Confederate legend, the perpetrator of a scorched earth policy toward the South as he undertook his famous ‘March to the Sea’ through Georgia, his reputation had taken him beyond the careers of many of his colleagues. As his brother John pointed out to him in the spring of 1864: ‘You are now in a position where any act of yours will command public attention. You will be unduly lauded and sharply abused.’ It is the man behind that mixed reputation that Holden Reid gives us here; a complicated portrait of a complex man in a nation at war.

The Scourge of War: The Life of William Tecumseh Sherman
Brian Holden Reid
Oxford 632pp £22.99

Susan-Mary Grant is Professor of American History at Newcastle University.