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HomeIllinois NewsBrinkman Review: Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman

Brinkman Review: Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman



IMG_0033Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman

By Robert L. O’Connell – Random House – 2015

Review by Daniel Brinkman - 

During a Presidential review in 1861, a soldier, distraught upon being denied a request for leave, used his unexpected face-time to appeal to President Lincoln, “This morning I went to speak to Colonel Sherman and he threatened to shoot me.” Lincoln stared at him a moment, glanced at Sherman, and finally leaned close to the officer, saying in a stage whisper, “Well if I were you, and he threatened to shoot, I would not trust him, for I believe he would do it!” Laughter erupted and the twice-denied captain slunk away.

The Civil War, which in 1861 had many hard years ahead, would be won by three indispensable men: Lincoln, Grant and Sherman. The bold action of Grant and Sherman in the west and waging war in such a manner as to extinguish the will of the southern states to continue is relayed in Fierce Patriot by Robert O’Connell.

Fierce Patriot paints three separate portraits of Sherman: the Military Strategist, the General whose men affectionately referred to him as ‘Uncle Billy,’ and finally a portrait of him and his family. His character is examined honestly. O’Connell captures Sherman’s relentless brilliance and volubility, his tenacity in battle, his generosity towards the vanquished, and even his restraint in his march of destruction across the south. Sherman’s bundle of contradictions are beautifully evident even from the description of his rumpled uniform, tailored by Brooks Brothers.

Sherman grew up a foster child raised by a family friend after his father died unexpectedly when he was nine. When brought in by the man who would raise him his sister implored the man “take Cump, the red haired one, he’s the smartest!” Growing up in the home of Thomas Ewing in Lancaster, Ohio was a godsend for Sherman and his brother John. Ewing was a US Senator and would later be the first Secretary of the Interior. Sherman’s brother, John Sherman, became a US Senator and would later be memorialized near the turn of the century in the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Cump would marry his foster sister, Ellen, whose devotion led her to personally appeal to Lincoln when his command was in jeopardy after a mental breakdown. The family’s loyalty to one another would be a ballast to the careers of both Cump and his brother.

After West Point, Sherman served in California where his command was the first to receive word from Johann Sutter that gold had been discovered. To support his wife, Sherman left the military for greener pastures, where, like Grant, he never found his stride. At one point, a speculation in California municipal bonds put him $20,000 in debt, a fantastic sum at the time. He doggedly paid it off. Sherman wound his way back to military service just before the war, helping to found the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and military academy, which would later become Louisiana State University.

Once the war began a too early elevation in command responsibility brought about a mental breakdown in Sherman. He would be mindful afterwards that he served best in a number two role. That he had the sense to acknowledge that, and that there was a Ulysses Grant as his friend and a grounding influence would be the most fateful and important fact of his life. Sherman would once remark, “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other always.”

Fierce Patriot paints a wonderful picture of the broad importance of the strategic successes of Sherman and Grant, as well as a more focused view of how his army functioned and how that army’s natural adaptability and spirit lives on in the army of today.

Sherman’s contradictions are more apparent after success and immortality are assured: He helps spearhead the process completing the transcontinental railroad, but wipes out the Indian food supply to help ensure the completion. He fractures his marriage and explodes when his son joins the priesthood, yet he continues to act as a surrogate father to those who served under him.

Toward the end of his life, Sherman forcefully defended the righteousness of the union cause, using his dying days to help dispel the notion of the “Lost Cause” of the confederacy that was beginning to spring up.

Sherman was a complicated, brilliant, decent, yet flawed man whose many qualities are made appreciable and comprehensible in this terrific volume by Robert O’Connell.


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  1. Before the Civil War, Sherman was asked to build and manage a small military school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
    He traveled there, built the school, hired the instructors, enrolled the student cadets, and began operations.
    That school is now LSU: Louisiana State University.
    When the war began, he bade ‘farewell’ to the faculty and students, said his loyalty is to the union, and as much as he loved the South and it’s people, his duty to the Federal government called.
    He then warned them “You think this will be a short war, and your valor and gallantry will win it. I tell you now: this will be a LONG, BLOODY war, and no nation of farmers has ever defeated a nation of mechanics!”
    They said he was CRAZY.
    Four years later, his prediction was vindicated.