Book Review: Sherman: A Soldier’s Life

Sherman:  A Soldier’s Life, by Lee Kennett

William Tecumseh Sherman shines as a complicated, and probably narcissistic man in this very well-written biography by Lee Kennett, who finds the enigmatic nature of the famous “Cump” Sherman too much to resist.  This book makes for a fine and very readable account of the life and quarrels of the intelligent and complicated man who remains most famous for something he was not entirely responsible for–the destruction of a great deal of the Deep South during his famous march to the sea, his own version of the Anabasis.

That said, this book is neither a partisan account for or against Sherman, but rather a serious-minded one that attempts to be reasonable and weigh the evidence fairly, examining Sherman primarily in the context of a soldier, given his total (and sincere) statements against any political inclinations.  Sherman comes off as a person who mistakenly thought his own inclinations were the “laws of war” and who was a legalistic self-justifier (like many people), who was known for being ferocious in verbal hostility but careful and cautious in his own habits, full of nervous energy but also a deeply conservative person as well.

The biography, sensibly, takes a very chronological path, with about half of the book devoted to Sherman’s time in the Civil War.  The book, though, goes through enough of the early life of Sherman–the crisis that destroyed his family when his father died and scattered his brothers and sisters to the four winds, his own somewhat neurotic personality, his marriage to his foster sister who was a semi-invalid her entire life and of a much more conventional and religious turn–that his life and psyche are given plausible bounds.  His desire for glory and his early frustrations are well examined, and the book covers his frequent and bad relations with the press as a result of his hasty and overblown rhetoric [1].

The book also spends a few chapters examining the postwar career of Sherman, his problems in the West dealing with philanthropists, settlers, and tribes.  He comes off as someone of deeply, perhaps even offensively, racist views, but as someone who views individual people more kindly than people at large–his hostility to democracy and his fondness for aristocratic elites make him a surprising bete noire of the South, when he was perhaps more sympathetic personally and politically to the South than most other Union generals, a cruel irony given the hostility towards his memory in the Deep South.

Another part of Sherman’s fascinating life and character that comes off well in this biography is Sherman’s deep void when it comes to politics.  One of the tragedies of Sherman’s life is that even though he had a brother who was a famous politician (the Sherman of the Sherman Antitrust Act), Sherman never acquired political skills or developed the right kind of partnership that would have allowed him to better succeed in his postwar career as the Commanding General of the US Army from 1869 to 1884.  That army which he served so faithfully would have been better served if their interests had been represented by someone who could successfully deal with the politics of Congress, and Sherman was not that person.

Fortunately, though, Sherman was an excellent strategist, and his fame remains secure because of the cerebral way he conducted indirect war and spared the lives of a lot of soldiers during his time.  Despite a nervous breakdown of sorts early in the war and his own disastrous relationships with the press, and a severely thin-skinned personality that did him no favors, Sherman comes off as a skilled leader full of ambition and quirks, and a personality worthy of study.  The book therefore succeeds in its aim of showing a soldier’s life, even if Shermans flaws and foibles are also there for all to see, if not understand, given the contradictory nature of the man.  The book closes with a comforting, if vain, thought:  “In whatever Valhalla it may dwell, that turbulent, driven spirit should finally know peace[2].”  Not yet, but someday it shall.


[2] Lee Kennett, Sherman:  A Soldier’s Life (New York:  NY, HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 353.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Book Review: Sherman: A Soldier’s Life

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