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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

“American General: The Life and Times of William Tecumseh Sherman”, by John S. D. Eisenhower

352 pages, New American Library, ISBN-13: 978-0451471352

William Tecumseh Sherman has always been one of the most controversial and enduring characters of the American Civil War and so has been the subject of numerous biographies and histories. John S. D. Eisenhower’s last book, American General: The Life and Times of William Tecumseh Sherman, joins these ranks by providing another comprehensive look at General Sherman; comprehensive, because Eisenhower’s writing style makes for easy reading, but also because he has a lack of insight. Sherman’s life is told, but what is lacking is any attempt at delving into the why of his actions, some of which are critical for understanding the interaction of the other players in his life. While this work is not quite hagiographic, Eisenhower is clearly in Sherman’s camp, and for any readers tired of the told and true tale of the bromance ‘tween Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant had better steer clear (the Civil War canon does not need another recitation on how these two generals won the Civil War for the Union).

Overall there are two problems with this book: it lacks crucial information and critical analysis of Sherman’s battlefield tactics, and the slip-shod editing is egregious. For example, Eisenhower fails to mention or discuss Sherman’s actions during the 1863 Chattanooga Campaign, specifically his failed attempt on the Union’s left flank to turn the Confederate Army’s right at Tunnel Hill on Missionary Ridge. Eisenhower also fails to consider the political ramifications of Sherman’s capture of Atlanta for the important 1864 election; conventional historical wisdom credited Lincoln’s reelection victory directly to Sherman’s success in Atlanta, and why Eisenhower omits this detail is a mystery. Eisenhower also whitewashes Sherman's attitudes towards blacks (at least pre-war) when he thought slavery was probably the right thing for them (a not uncommon attitude at the times, even among supposedly enlightened Northerners). We learn little about Sherman’s family life or what really made him tick, outside that his wife Ellen was devoted to him and that he was shattered by the death of his eldest son, Willie. Among the numerous errors that any decent editor should have caught include laying possible blame for the burning of Columbia, S.C., on “the Confederate [John Bell] Hood”…who was nowhere near Columbia at the time; instead, blame should be leveled at Wade Hampton, who evacuated the city ahead of Sherman’s arrival. Perhaps the most egregious error was referring (twice!) to the range of mountains that drew the ‘49ers to the California Gold Rush as the “Sierra Madre” (which runs down the spine of Mexico) instead of the “Sierra Nevada”, a tiny geographical detail I learned back in grade school. It makes you wonder what other errors lie in the book.

Even though American General is a comprehensive look at Sherman’s life and military career, it fails to include key information and to add a new angle to the discussion on Sherman. Eisenhower wrote other reputable works of military history, including So Far from God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848 and The Bitter Woods: The Battle of the Bulge, so while his reputation as a writer and an historian may not suffer because of this book, it’s unfortunate that it was his last work before he passed away.

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