William Tecumseh Sherman

William Tecumseh Sherman

In the Service of My Country: A Life

James Lee McDonough

W. W. Norton, New York, 2016, 832 pages

Book Review published on: April 28, 2017

James Lee McDonough has crafted an excellent addition to the available literature on William Tecumseh Sherman. Meticulously researched with extensive use of Sherman’s prolific correspondence, it paints a striking picture of a complex man.

Some biographers overdo the youth and genealogy of their subject. McDonough strikes just the right balance of length and detail. The early death of Sherman’s father and the unusual foster parenting arrangement in which he is placed play an important role in his life as he subsequently marries the daughter of his surrogate father. Their marital relationship was challenged by continuing differences over religion and finances. Ellen, a devout Catholic, spent her entire life attempting to convert Sherman. His formative years at West Point, a place he regularly visited the rest of his life, receive extensive attention.

Sherman’s early military career provided him extensive experience in logistics that became crucial during his Civil War commands and particularly his campaigns in the Deep South. Sherman believed missing the Mexican-American War damaged his future military prospects. Although he remained in the Army for a number of years following the war, he eventually accepted an offer of employment as a banker at which he was less than successful and happy.

Sherman was far from an abolitionist. He saw an economic reason for the institution of slavery but believed that given sufficient time, it would be eliminated. His return to the Army at the start of the war led to early action with command of a brigade at Bull Run. Transferred to the west, he progressed to command of the Department of the Cumberland, where debilitated by mental fatigue he was relived. Gen. Henry Halleck and Gen. Ulysses Grant recognizing his abilities had not been hampered, restored him to command and increasingly larger assignments.

With Grant promoted as general-in-chief, Sherman succeeded him in command in the west. His campaigns across the south are well chronicled with McDonough doing an excellent job blending the strategic and tactical aspects of the battles and regions with the biographical facets of the narrative. Three things separated Sherman from his contemporaries. First, his knowledge of logistics, at which McDonough argues persuasively that he had no peer, was perhaps the most important. Second, his calmness under fire. Like an elite football quarterback, the “game” slowed down for him when the cannons began firing. And, third was his avoidance of frontal attacks and his extensive use of flanking maneuvers to minimize his units’ casualties.

Sherman’s own long service as general-in-chief following Grant’s election to the presidency, lesser known than his wartime exploits, adds to the depth of the account. The deterioration of his relationships with Halleck, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and Grant during and following the war provide interesting background.

Writing a serious biography that reads as easily as an action-adventure novel, McDonough demonstrates a dexterity that is difficult for most historians to match. This work would make an excellent addition to the bookshelves of every officer.

Book Review written by: Gary Ryman, Scott Township, Pennsylvania