Chapter 16
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A Cruel and Compassionate Hero

James Lee McDonough exposes the many contradictions of William Tecumseh Sherman

James Lee McDonough writes of William Tecumseh Sherman, “No American of his era, except for Abraham Lincoln, has been more widely quoted.” Whether declining a nomination to the presidency or proclaiming his opinion of war, Sherman’s way with words was indeed memorable. While addressing a cheering crowd of Civil War veterans and their guests in Columbus, Ohio, in 1880, the hero of Shiloh, Atlanta, and Savannah famously pronounced, “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys it is all hell.” In William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country: A Life, McDonough makes it very clear that though this multi-faceted warrior may have despised war, he never hesitated to visit its hell upon his enemies.

Photo: Lizz McDonough
Photo: Lizz McDonough

McDonough, a resident of Lewisburg, Tennessee, and professor emeritus of history at Auburn University, has written extensively on the Civil War—including books about the battles of Shiloh, Stones River, Chattanooga, and Franklin—and has admirably demonstrated his narrative abilities with William Tecumseh Sherman. In this deeply probing biography, he uses many of Sherman’s own words to document a life dedicated to the military, to honesty, and to a loathing of politicians, “who pandered to the prejudices and ignorance of their constituents and placed the interests of self and party above the well-being of the nation.” Sherman clearly foresaw the horror that was coming as “the nation blundered into war,” but he was also determined to do whatever was needed to finish what others had started.

Sherman is still hated in the South as the man who cut a swath of destruction across Georgia on his famous March to the Sea. It was the action that cemented his reputation as one of the first modern generals, men who understood that an enemy’s networks of support, even civilian institutions, could be military targets. But as destructive as the Georgia campaign was, his subsequent march through South Carolina upped the ante. Though Sherman held the Georgia aristocracy in contempt, McDonough writes, “the people of South Carolina were more responsible than anybody else for bringing on the conflict.” Sherman had made an effort to control his troops in Georgia, but on the march to Columbia they burned twelve towns with the tacit approval of their commander. How could such a man be said to despise war?

Before the Civil War, Sherman had short careers in banking and teaching—his honesty made him a trusted banker, a man who repaid even those debts for which he had no legal responsibility. Early in the war, though, he became depressed watching “political generals” stumble their way into an unnecessarily prolonged conflict. This depression caused rumors of insanity, but he was far from crazy, and the depression itself resulted, in McDonough’s view, from Sherman’s compassion: “He was indeed a sensitive man, naturally tenderhearted, who required time to accept and adjust to the mass bloodshed and inherent cruelty of war.” Later, the death of Sherman’s favorite son, Willy, only enhanced his capacity for empathy. He wanted the war to end as quickly as possible, and saw his armies as the fastest route to peace. His famous boast to “make Georgia howl” expressed his conviction that the fighting would end only when civilians decided they’d had enough.

According to McDonough, Sherman’s conflicted approach to war—both hating it and waging it very successfully—extended to other aspects of his life. Although he did not initially oppose slavery and believed African Americans inferior, for example, he always treated blacks fairly, taking the time to shake hands with the many thousands of newly freed people who followed his armies through the Carolinas. Even after the war, as Commanding General of the United States Army, Sherman continued his oddly ambiguous behavior toward minorities, pursuing inherently cruel policies against Native Americans on the battlefield while simultaneously decrying their inhumane treatment on the reservations.

When the Civil War ended, no other Northern general except Ulysses S. Grant was as famous, and none including Grant was as beloved. Sherman’s men called him “Uncle Billy” and requested his presence at their meetings through the rest of his long life. But while cultivating his reputation as a leader, he eschewed politics, the career his followers would have happily given him through their votes: “I would rather serve 4 years in Singsing Penitentiary than in Washington & believe that I could come out a better man,” he wrote. For McDonough, Sherman’s rejection of politics was a natural outgrowth of his temperament and his time at West Point, where he had learned to love the Army and dislike the politicians who used the institution as a political tool. The devotion to country honed at West Point guided Sherman’s life, and in his service he became, in McDonough’s words, “one of the great soldiers in American military history.”

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