American General: The Life and Times of William Tecumseh Sherman

  • John S.D. Eisenhower
  • NAL Caliber
  • 324 pp.
  • Reviewed by James A. Percoco
  • September 30, 2014

An engaging, if flawed, overview of the life and military career of William T. Sherman, one of America’s most controversial commanding generals.

William T. Sherman, one of the most controversial and enduring characters of the American Civil War, has been the subject of numerous biographies and histories. John S. D. Eisenhower’s new book, American General, joins the ranks by providing another comprehensive look at Sherman. However, readers will be disappointed with American General because it fails to provide a new angle or perspective.

While this work is not quite a hagiography, Eisenhower is clearly in Sherman’s camp. Also, readers once more encounter the bromance relationship between Sherman and his superior officer General Ulysses S. Grant. And the Civil War canon does not need another recitation on how these two generals won the Civil War for the Union Army.

Eisenhower’s narrative style, which proves lively, engaging, and accessible, is not the problem. The problem is twofold: The book 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 flack 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 credits Abraham Lincoln’s re-election victory directly to Sherman’s success in Atlanta, and why Eisenhower omits this detail is a mystery.

Eisenhower’s discussion of Sherman’s March to the Sea produces the best line of the book: “The important purpose of marching across Georgia was to demonstrate to the Confederates — indeed, to the whole world — that the Confederacy was a shell.” But while Sherman’s famous Atlanta Campaign and his army’s subsequent March to the Sea are chronicled in great detail, Eisenhower’s failure to challenge Sherman’s strategy in light of post-Civil War relations between the North and South is problematic.

Eisenhower does articulate that, “Part of Sherman’s deep concern was his conviction that the Civil War was to be won in the West, not the East. He considered the Ohio-Indiana-Illinois region the true heart of the United States, and contended that whoever controlled the Mississippi River would win the war.” But again, this is a rehashing of information presumably already understood by many Civil War aficionados.

Even though Eisenhower attempts to construct a solid backstory to Sherman’s life, he misses the mark because he fails to consider how Sherman’s father’s financial failures fueled Sherman’s outlook on just about every aspect of life. For Sherman, life was a hard ordeal, whether it was his marriage to a Roman Catholic spouse who was devoted to her faith while he proved at best disinterested in it, or contending with the loss of his son, Willie.

If Eisenhower had contextualized how Sherman’s harsh treatment of residents of Atlanta and Georgians during the scorched earth policy of the March to the Sea was rooted in some kind of psychological underpinning, he would have helped his cause by contributing an interesting perspective to the conversation on Sherman’s life. Then again, that story is well known, and Eisenhower may have been afraid that John E. Marszalek’s Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion For Order was hovering too close to his book. As Eisenhower purports, American General is a military biography, not an examination of Sherman’s psyche.

While most of the narrative’s prose flows, the reporting of the narrative proves uneven because all of Sherman’s critical Field Orders are relegated to the appendix and not brought up within the narrative itself. The Field Orders were crucial components of Sherman’s war philosophy, so they should appear in the narrative to better serve the context. 

Editing becomes a critical problem, especially in understanding the two armies of the Civil War in the West: the Union Army of the Tennessee (Union Armies were named for rivers) and the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Throughout the narrative, these names are interchanged in various places, which is not only bad history but also unfair to readers who may not have a prior understanding to help them navigate this serious editorial faux pas. Thus, a Civil War novice would be well advised to stay away from this biography

Even though Eisenhower’s 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. Therefore, Marszalek’s 1993 Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion For Order remains safely the standard with which all Sherman biographers must contend.

Eisenhower has written 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 historian will not suffer because of this book, it’s unfortunate that it was his last work before he passed away.

James A. Percoco is the director of education for the Friends of the National World War II Memorial, the teacher-in-residence for the Civil War Trust, the author of Summers with Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments, and a member of the National Teachers Hall of Fame.

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