Sherman: A Soldier's Life

Article excerpt

By Lee Kennett New York: HarperCollins, 2001. 432 pages. $35.00.

Lee Kennett's book on the life of William Tecumseh Sherman is brimming with details about Sherman's relationship with his wife, the state of his mental health at various times in his life, his hostility for the press and politicians, his racist attitudes, his self-promotion and manipulation of superiors, and a host of other subjects. About important issues such as the traits and characteristics that made Sherman successful as a general, however, we learn very little. Of Sherman's relationship with Grant, we learn even less.

Kennett gives readers fair warning in his introduction, saying, "With few exceptions I have forsaken traditional campaign history, the direction of battles and the chronicling of campaigns; these matters merit books of their own, and in many cases have them.... [M]ore importantly, the man himself has claimed almost all the pages available, and I think rightly so." Many will disagree with that assessment. Those familiar with Sherman are likely to feel that what Kennett has left out is of greater interest than what he has retained.

Kennett's Sherman is a much smaller man than the Sherman one usually finds in the history of the American Civil War. Many students of the war rank William Tecumseh Sherman, along with Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, as among the best generals produced by the war. The noted British military theorist and historian Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart considered Sherman as the first truly modern soldier, both for his sophisticated use of the indirect approach and the way he used military operations to break the will of the Southern people. Yet not all consider Sherman in a favorable light. Even today in many southern states a mention of Sherman's march through Georgia will bring instant and intense condemnation. Whereas Lee and Grant are considered by most biographers to be "good" generals, with Sherman there is a hesitation. This "war on the people thing" still makes people uncomfortable. Perhaps the best one can say is that in this book Kennett attempts to explain what it is about Sherman that makes these people uncomfortable after all these years. To this end he marshals considerable evidence. Unfortunately, by placing so much emphasis on the negative aspects of Sherman's character, there is little room left to comment on his more attractive qualities.

Reading this book one is at a loss as to how to explain Sherman's greatness, least of all his competence as a soldier. What was it that made the team of Grant and Sherman so effective? What did Grant see in Sherman and why did he place so much confidence in him, especially when, as Kennett tells us, Sherman seems to have had so little confidence in himself? Regardless of one's views about Grant as a general, at least he proved to be a good judge of generals, and he considered Sherman one of the best.

In one of the most troubling sections of the book, Kennett turns to a questionable application of psychology to get a better understanding of Sherman's psyche. He refers to the journal Psychohistory Review, wherein Sherman was recently diagnosed, long after death, as a "victim of personality disorder, most likely some form of manic depression." Kennett readily admits that "a posthumous diagnosis of mental illness based largely on epistolary evidence more than a century old is at best tentative," but then concludes, "still, the line of inquiry is a valid one and should be pursued." The most likely diagnosis, we are told, is that Sherman had a "narcissistic personality disorder," and further that "the general's behavior patterns" suggest that he suffered from what today would be characterized as "manic depression. …