Robert L. O’Connell’s Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman includes a photograph of the celebrated Civil War general with his staff. While the other men strike classic poses and gaze into the middle distance, Sherman sits slightly slumped, legs crossed, jacket unbuttoned, glittering eyes focused directly on the camera. It fits with the popular notion of Sherman, the man who invented “modern war” and whose soldiers burned a path of destruction through the American South.
O’Connell’s biography envisions Sherman not as one man, but three, shaped by his own personality and his circumstances: “the strategic man, the general, the human being.” He tackles each persona sequentially, emerging at the end with a fully realized portrait of a complicated individual.
O’Connell displays warmth and occasional humor as he considers Sherman’s more memorable traits. An acclaimed talker, Sherman was “a veritable volcano of verbiage,” he writes. O’Connell doesn’t overlook Sherman’s darker characteristics, especially his treatment of Indians and his overwhelming belief in Manifest Destiny, no matter who or what was in the way. Sherman was not cruel, the author argues, but a man committed to duty and accomplishing his goals.
O’Connell devotes a final section to Sherman’s relationship with his family, particularly his tempestuous marriage to his foster sister, Ellen. Despite his adultery and her manipulations, they were each other’s best friends and allies—a remarkable relationship in a truly remarkable life.