The Hell General Sherman Made

By STEVE DONOGHUE - Posted at The American Conservative:

Book Review: William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country, James Lee McDonough, W.W. Norton, 832 pages

Mathew Brady / Wikimedia Commons

That “war with the lid off” was brutal, yes; Sherman intended it to be so, in order to send a message to the Southern population that their government couldn’t protect them and so didn’t deserve their support. But the brutality was also its own end, ordered and countenanced by Sherman to an extent that would land him in a courtroom at the Hague today. McDonough is content to soft-pedal the whole business, writing that however we categorize things, “Sherman’s intentions were clear: destroy anything of military value to the Confederacy, while subjecting Southern civilians to the inevitable depredations inflicted by a large army tramping through their country and living off the land.”

President Rutherford B. Hayes wrapped up his speech early to the crowds at the Ohio State Fair Grounds in Columbus in August 1880 because it was slapping down rain, and he was trying to be considerate of the tens of thousands of people in attendance. But a large segment of that audience was having none of it. Thousands of old Union Army veterans set up a chant: “Sherman! Sherman! Sherman!” They didn’t mind standing in the rain if they could hear a speech from one of the men up on the stage with the president: William Tecumseh Sherman, who had commanded many of those veterans during the American Civil War 20 years before.

Sherman took the podium to uproarious applause. He was then 60 and occupied the position of commanding general of the Army. Since he hadn’t been scheduled to speak, his remarks were improvised—and one of them became immortal. He wryly said that the old soldiers in the crowd wouldn’t mind a little rain since they’d seen worse during the war. And he worked his way around to a line he’d spoken and written before, a line that would lodge him in every quotation book in the world: “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys it is all hell.”

Civil War historian James Lee McDonough’s big new biography, William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country, tells the “all hell” story smoothly and well, as it tells all the famous stories of Sherman’s life and times. At some 800 pages, this book is far more generous, if less astringently insightful, than Robert O’Connell’s 2014 Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman. And like that earlier book—and Michael Fellman’s excellent 1995 biography, Citizen Sherman—it reflects our ongoing fascination with this strange and brutal figure, one of the few Union generals to approximate anything like the dash and charisma that was so common among the military leaders of the Confederacy. Sherman was in his life a soldier, a banker, a college president, a firebrand battlefield commander, a scourge to the Plains Indians, an Army figurehead during his friend Ulysses Grant’s presidential administration, a sought-after public speaker, and a popular man-about-town in New York City.