Saturday, May 24, 2008

Sherman: Fighting Prophet by Lloyd Lewis

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

A few small facts stand out in this great biography of Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman -- he really was given the first name Tecumseh by his parents, he married his foster sister, he did indeed say "War is all hell" in a speech in Ohio in 1880 -- but at the close of its last page, the reader is left with one question. What is it that sometimes makes war, not a hell, but a heart-wrenching joy that old soldiers never feel about anything else again?

Sherman, born in 1820, came from pioneer parents and grandparents, people for whom Ohio was "the northwest," and for whom the passions and experiences of the Revolutionary War and of Indian fighting were ordinary dinner-table talk. As a little boy, the orphaned "Cump" went to live with a neighboring family, where he was baptized a Catholic and given the name William, and where he met his future wife, Ellen. After graduating from West Point, he tried many professions all over the country, including banking, law, and railroad management, but none of them suited. By 1861 Cump was a brooding, nervous, brilliant man, a husband and father back in the army and worrying himself "almost to lunacy" about the fate of the innocent farm boys he would soon lead into the battles of the Civil War.

Sherman's fame rests on his three campaigns in Georgia and the Carolinas in 1864: the fight for Atlanta, the march from Atlanta to the sea, and the winter march from Savannah through South Carolina to Columbia. Reviled in the South for generations for burning cities and cutting swaths of destruction through the land, in fact his troops did not have the reach to bring lasting privation to anybody. What Sherman intended, and accomplished, was to prove to Southerners that their Confederate government and army could not prevent a 60,000-man force from marching at will among them. He wanted them to understand, at firsthand, that the Confederacy's leaving the Union had been, in his words, " 'folly and madness.' "

And yet for him and his soldiers, 1864 was "the great year." It was not that ex-farm boys killed wantonly, or enjoyed being killed or dying of wounds and disease. But there was something about youth, danger, hardship, the feeling that the country's fate rested on how well they could serve a commander who spared them textbook drills but drove them through enemy forest and swamp finally to root out treason in enemy capitals, that cemented these men together. Ever afterward, they were "Uncle Billy's" veterans; no peacetime life behind the plow or the shop counter -- or, for him, as a social lion kissed and fluttered over by lots of pretty girls -- would ever be the same.

General Sherman packed several lifetimes of service, thinking, writing, traveling, and family responsibilities into his 71 years. He wrote his own epitaph: Faithful and Honorable. It was true.

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