Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert L. O’Connell*****

 fiercepatriot I was able to read this in advance of its publication, thanks to Net Galley. If you can’t find it, I am sure you can pre-order it. And you should!

This is a brilliant analysis of American history’s most controversial, complicated, and I would add, heroic general. In writing it now, rather than waiting till I am finished reading the book, I break one of my own rules; I am an academic, and I pour over prose; sticky note pages (or mark them electronically); make little notes; and only then, when I have thoroughly analyzed every single page, do I set down my review. To do so when I am only 25 percent finished, as I am doing now, means that the book is worth having if you pay the full cover price and read only a quarter of it (though I plan to finish at my happy leisure, and hope you will too); and that I want to promote it badly enough to leap into an early review.

I spent a decade of my life teaching about the American Civil War, and my fascination with it is still not sated. However, because I have read the trilogy by Catton, along with Battle Cry of Freedom, Sears’ tomes on various individual battles, Liddell’s biography of Sherman, Sherman’s own memoirs, and Grant’s as well, I sat down to read O’Connell’s book thinking that perhaps I would find nothing new, but only a rehashing of the information I already have. I could not have been more wrong.

O’Connell takes a fresh new viewpoint, and he looks at Sherman in a more dynamic way than any other writer I have seen to date. He takes him from his beginning career, which was lackluster, he points out, due more to being in the wrong places at the wrong times, consigned to a bureaucratic position during the war with Mexico, and he takes him forward. He starts with the Seminole War, through the Mexican War; and into and through the US Civil War, where he would earn his place in history.

O’Connell manages to synthesize Sherman as a man who hailed from a powerful family, along with the Sherman who suffered from periodic depression (which O’Connell believes to have been similar to that from which Lincoln himself suffered); and does not drop a stitch or miss a beat in threading these important factors and nuances into his role as a key general at a critical time in history. He finds ways to inject Sherman’s character and personality into the narrative without letting it become the story. And most importantly, he notes key instances in which Sherman develops and morphs into the leader he becomes by the end of his career. It is a rare gift to be able to craft a nonfiction narrative into as compelling a story as a well-written novel might be, but O’Connell does it well.

More than anything, the author notes that Sherman was ambitious, but only as a “wing man”. Sherman’s depression took over any time he was placed at the very top of the ladder of authority, and Sherman knew this, and positively begged, again and again, NOT to be given the top job. He had no interest whatsoever in politics; he was a strategist, and though charming enough to run for office (apart from his somewhat understandable hatred of the press, which was quite different then from now), he had no interest in holding office or crafting policy. He was a military man, from the top of his spiky red hair to the soles of his well-worn boots, and he knew it. All he asked was to have one man above him, and at Fort Donelson, he found his perfect match in US Grant.

I began to skip through the book so that I could tell you exactly how O’Connell approaches Sherman’s march through Georgia and to the sea and a dozen other things, but I can’t stand to skim anything this strong. I am going to take my time with it, savor it, and I suggest you do the same. The one other piece of advice I offer the reader is that you spring for a hard copy of this marvelous volume. The maps are important, and utterly unreadable on an e-reader.

There are many books that I recommend to readers only if they can get them cheaply or free. Not so here. This is a real treasure. Buy a good, solid copy that will endure for years. It’s worth it!

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