Read Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman by Robert L. O'Connell Free Online
Book Title: Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman|
The author of the book: Robert L. O'Connell
Edition: Random House
Date of issue: July 1st 2014
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Reader ratings: 3.8
ISBN 13: 9781400069729
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 717 KB
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“Not unexpectedly, Sherman’s final destination was St. Louis…[H]e was buried next to Ellen and Willy in Calvary Cemetery, a permanent resident at last… But he was America’s. He played a significant role in defining us – dimensionally, in the nature and spirit of our fighting forces, and our ethos, or at least the celebrity version of it. Historically, he was one of the ingredients for what we became. A continent for the taking brought forth people like Sherman, and they in turn produced us. Their energy, ambition, optimism, and pragmatism serves to explain our own, but so does their self-righteousness and proclivity for violence…”
- from Robert L. O’Connell’s Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman
The day we buried my brother-in-law in St. Louis’s Calvary Cemetery exists not so much as a linear memory than as a series of impressions. Mostly I recall the heat, the suffocating heat. It was June, and thus hot, still, and humid. One thing stands out, more than the rest. It was a conversation I had with one of my wife’s cousins. Well, not really a conversation. I stood there while he – in quintessential weird-cousin fashion – told me about all the luminaries buried in Calvary. Tennessee Williams. Dred Scott. William Tecumseh Sherman.
Strange to say, but on that terrible day, it was perhaps the sole comfort I had. It seemed a good thing to rest among such luminaries. I took some solace in that.
We visited my brother-in-law’s grave this past winter, on a blustery day quite unlike the one which saw him buried. Afterwards, I took Millie and Grace, my two oldest girls, to find William T. Sherman. Though Calvary is a large cemetery, I did not think this would be difficult. Sherman, after all, was one of America’s greatest soldiers. Along with Grant and Lincoln, he can honestly be said to have done the most to save the Union. My assumption was that Sherman would have a resting place akin to the tombs of those two contemporaries.
Turns out I was wrong. After a fruitless search, I finally consulted the cemetery map, only to discover that I’d wandered right past Sherman’s burial plot. As far as monuments go, his is endearingly humble. Sherman’s headstone has crossed flags and the epitaph “Faithful and Honorable.” There is a separate cross for Ellen, his ultra-Catholic wife, who saw her dreams fulfilled from beyond the grave when a dying Sherman submitted to Catholicism. Another tombstone with crossed flags and a drum belongs to thirteen year old Willie Sherman, an honorary sergeant with the Thirteenth Regulars, who died of typhus after visiting his father. An American flag flutters overhead.
The Sherman plot in Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri. On the lower right, you can see Millie pointing out the grave of 13 year-old Willie Sherman, the honorary sergeant of the 13th Regulars. "Of all my children," Sherman would later write, "he seemed the most precious."
There is something to be said about being in the presence of the past. I felt a connection to Sherman, in this spot, more than I would have standing in the neoclassical shadow of Grant’s New York City tomb, or the granite obelisk and bronze bust that bedeck Lincoln’s Springfield grave. Here was Sherman, the prophet of modern war, the transcontinentalist, the General of the Armies, memorialized in the most unassuming manner possible.
Millie (L) and Gracie (R) at the gravestone of William Tecumseh Sherman, General U.S.A.
Shortly after that graveside visit, I decided I needed to read something more on Sherman. I didn't want a standard biography, though. I’ve been there. Not too long ago, I read John Marszalek’s Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order, which ranks among the standard Sherman bios. It is thorough and comprehensive, and presents a nuanced portrait of Sherman the general, and Sherman the man. It is also written in a straight-down-the-middle style, without any ruffles or flourishes (which seems at odds with the subject, who had his share of ruffles and flourishes).
This time around, I wanted something more idiosyncratic. So I chose Robert O’Connell’s Fierce Patriot.
The first thing worth mentioning about Fierce Patriot is that it is not anywhere near your typical biography. O’Connell has eschewed chronology, and instead broken Sherman’s life into three different “lives”, which comprise the three sections of this 347-page book.
The first and largest section is devoted to Sherman the military strategist. It covers his prewar years in brisk fashion, and devotes most of its space to the American Civil War. O’Connell follows Sherman from a shaky, hesitant officer nearing a mental breakdown, to a competent “wingman” to the ascendant U.S. Grant, and finally to a superior military commander in his own right, as he captures Atlanta, marches through Georgia, and brings the war to South Carolina.
The second section is devoted to Sherman’s relationship with his soldiers, specifically the Army of the West. O’Connell traces Sherman’s evolution from a man who distrusted volunteer soldiers to Uncle Billy, the proud father-general who spent the rest of his life attending Grand Army of the Republic Reunions.
The final section covers Sherman’s family life, specifically his long, strained, successful marriage to Ellen Ewing. Here, O’Connell delves into the struggle between Sherman and his powerful foster father Thomas Ewing for Ellen’s soul. O'Connell also spends time on Sherman's extracurricular activities, such as an alleged affair with sculptor Vinnie Ream.
The most obvious consequence of O’Connell’s approach is that it jumps forwards and backwards through time. In the first section, you get a pretty sweeping look at Sherman’s career; in subsequent sections, O’Connell keeps returning to the places you’ve already been for amplification of different topics. You cannot completely partition a person’s life into discrete events. Accordingly, certain aspects – such as the strains in Sherman’s marriage – tend to get repeated, despite O’Connell’s attempts to separate the material.
Millie lays a "flower" on the gravestone of Charles Celestine Sherman, Sherman's infant son, who died of pneumonia, aged 6 months.
At less than 400 pages of text, this is a really slim, quick read. It has nowhere near the amount of information that Marszalek provides. This results in some gaps. For instance, you get only the briefest discussions on Sherman’s post-Civil War career, including his role in the pacification of the western Indian Tribes. If you want a full understanding of the whole breadth of Sherman’s career, this is probably not the place to start.
What Fierce Patriot does very well is entertain. O’Connell is a snappy and engaging writer. This is a book full of dad jokes and strange metaphors (at one point, O’Connell does an extended bit comparing generalship to surfing) and earthy descriptions (referring, for instance, to Ellen’s “horny” letters to Sherman). O’Connell’s purpose isn’t to describe every landmark along the timeline. Instead, he tries to bring Sherman to life. He personifies him. You get a very real sense, while reading Fierce Patriot, what it might have been like to be in a room with Sherman.
William Tecumseh Sherman is an imperfect hero. Though named for a famous Indian, he infamously wrote about the extermination of the western tribes. Though his armies helped destroy slavery, he was quite clearly a racist. There are times when O’Connell can be a bit glib about those imperfections. This is especially true with regards to Sherman’s views on race, which O’Connell does not give a serious airing.
Yet O’Connell’s ultimate conclusion is amply supported. Sherman is a great American, filled with all those quintessentially American contradictions. He was a ferocious defender of American government, though he hated politicians with a passion. He courted celebrity, though he despised the press as much as he did any enemy. He despised abolitionists, yet freed people by the thousands, and the tens of thousands.
Sherman’s is a life worth exploring from different angles. O’Connell’s is not the last word on this subject. As I mentioned above, I’m not sure it’s a great first word, either. Certainly, it achieves something rare: a vivid sense that you know what this person is like, even though you have never met, and never will.
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Read information about the authorRobert L. O’Connell was educated at Colgate University and the University of Virginia, where he received a Ph.D. in history. He worked for three decades in the U.S. Intelligence Community, before becoming a Visiting Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey California. He has two grown children and lives with his wife in Charlottesville, Virginia.
He is the author of six published histories and one novel. Besides Fierce Patriot, the Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman (Random House, 2014), he has also written The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic (Random House,, 2010), Soul of the Sword (The Free Press, 2002), Ride of the Second Horseman: the Birth and Death of War (Oxford University Press, 1995), Sacred Vessels: the Cult of the Battleship and the Rise of the U.S. Navy (Oxford University Press, 1993), Of Arms and Men; a History of War, Weapons and Aggression (Oxford University Press, 1989), and Fast Eddie: a Novel in Many Voices(Morrow, 1999).