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Thursday, June 6, 2013

“Memoirs of General William T. Sherman”, by William Tecumseh Sherman

832 pages, Da Capo Press, ISBN13: 978-0306802133

There’s the example of Julius Caesar, of course; and in America there was Ulysses Grant, whose orders and dispatches were so concise and unequivocal that they were credited by his subordinates for many of his victories. Grant’s Memoirs are widely recognized as a classic of autobiography, as much for their literary merit as for their content. And then there is “Cump” Sherman, whose Memoirs must surely rate as high as either of the preceding two. Utterly unadorned yet vividly descriptive, witty(!), forthright, modest, down-to-earth, as thoroughly planned as any of his campaigns, which I find may be explained in part by his frequent assignment of logistic tasks in his early military career. He knew how to move supplies and keep account of where things were.

Like any 19th Century memoirist or Viking skald, Sherman feels obliged to trace his ancestry for a few pages, which I confess didn't immediately stir my interest. Then, however, when he begins his narrative of his military service in Florida, against the Seminoles, suddenly the saga comes to life. I learned more from this one chapter, as a primary source, about the early Americanization of Florida than from anything I've read elsewhere. I could feel the rash from the palmetto on my skin. Likewise, the two chapters on his years in California just after the invasion of Mexico, took me to Monterey, to Yerba Buena before it became San Francisco, and up the river to Sutter's Mill and the Gold Rush Country more vividly, more "virtually" in the game-boy sense of the word, than any historian's account of those years. Sherman was, in his blunt style, as fine a writer as Twain. No wonder he was so effective as a general: good writers (evidently) make good generals.

It's worth noting that Sherman was only slightly more successful during the 1850’s than Grant. Despite his intrepid energy, probity, and obvious business skills, he found himself in 1858 with no significant wealth, no stable occupation, and a family of a wife and four daughters. Perhaps it wasn't so easy, after all, for a person without deep pockets to achieve success in antebellum America, except by luck, dishonesty, or slavery. Sherman's last job before the election of Lincoln was as the superintendent of a "military seminary," that is, a school for the sons of planters, in Louisiana. Knowing that his moderate criticisms of the slave system would get him fired anyway, Sherman resigned as soon as Lincoln was elected. No one around him in Louisiana expressed any doubt that the preservation of slavery was the "fighting issue" behind secession.

As Sherman left his youth behind and entered the fray of the Civil War, he shifts his tone from that of an adventurous raconteur to an earnest historian, and I've found that I need to read him differently also, less for pleasure than for historical knowledge. I've slowed down and taken time to evaluate his reportage in comparison to what I already “know” of Civil War historiography. Sherman's manner of constructing his narrative also changed; he began to incorporate documents (his field reports and letters, the field reports of other officers, etc.). By the mid 1870’s when Sherman wrote these memoirs, the true course of events and the soundest interpretation of them were already afire with controversy.

Sherman the man (and his memoirs) stands in vivid contrast to his contemporary and close friend U.S. Grant. Where Grant was modest and reserved, Sherman comes across as all nervous energy, talking up a storm and hardly able to sit still doing it. His memoirs are reflective of his personality, passionate and argumentative in between inserted copies of key correspondence. While less polished than Grant's, they are in many ways more entertaining and certainly more revealing of Sherman's feelings and personality. And he expresses an opinion on practically everything: his battles with newspaper reporters (whom he despised) date from an alleged nervous breakdown in the first year of the war; his exchange of correspondence with Confederate General John Bell Hood over the forced evacuation of Atlanta are a maelstrom in miniature of the passions behind the war itself. Sherman is more than frank about the politics within the Union Army, and its sometimes troubled relations with civilian authority. Above all, Sherman recognized the cruelty of the war, and was unwilling to sugarcoat that reality for anyone. Sherman and Grant each understood the grim arithmetic that the Confederate Armies must be bled to death in order for the Confederacy to be defeated and were prepared to carry out that strategy.

This book is highly recommended to students of the Civil War, who will find Sherman to be an instructive and even at times entertaining guide through those portions that he personally experienced.

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