The Scourge of War:
The Life of William Tecumseh Sherman
by Brian Holden Reid
Oxford University Press
Published: June 2020
Brian Holden Reid’s “The Scourge of War: The Life of William Tecumseh Sherman” was published earlier this year and has received high marks for its scholarship. The author is currently Visiting Professor of American History and Military Institutions at King’s College London and is a recent recipient of the Samuel Eliot Morison Prize for contributions to military history. He has written a half-dozen books including “Robert E. Lee: Icon for a Nation.”
Anyone reading about Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses Grant will invariably encounter an irresistibly interesting character: William Tecumseh Sherman. I knew in early 2014 (when I read a dozen biographies of Lincoln) that I owed it to myself to read a book dedicated to William Sherman. My sense of urgency was only heightened when I read a half-dozen biographies of Ulysses S. Grant later that year. Sherman is that compelling.
Reid’s recently-published 507-page narrative chronicles Sherman’s life comprehensively, though with a distinct (and perhaps unsurprising) focus on his military career. Despite this emphasis, however, the author clearly recognizes the need to fully dissect Sherman’s character and personality in order to understand his professional career and motivations.
This biography begins with a thorough review of Sherman’s ancestry before moving steadily toward, and into, his military career. Reid seems most comfortable when analyzing and discussing military philosophy, strategy, tactics and logistics. Nevertheless, the two-thirds of the book dedicated to the Civil War years are disappointingly dry. Where a select few biographers are able to bring this conflict to life, Reid’s approach is much more sober and austere.
Readers unfamiliar with the broad strokes of the Civil War will not walk away particularly enlightened; the narrative’s scope rarely broadens beyond Sherman’s field of view and much-needed context is infrequently provided. Too much time is spent enmeshed in long-forgotten towns with division commanders never before introduced…and never heard from again. It is far too easy to become lost in the details of a battle and lose sight of the war.
In addition, one of the key objectives of a biography (for me, anyway) is to impart a sense of intimacy with the biographical subject – to leave the reader feeling that he or she can almost see the world through from individual’s perspective. Here the biography also falls short. As successfully as Reid documents his subject’s personality and proclivities, the portrait of Sherman which emerges rarely feels vibrant or three-dimensional. Instead, it is clinical and a bit remote.
Despite these shortcomings there is much to recommend about this biography. The author is unmistakably facile with military affairs and his willingness to praise and criticize Sherman for his tactics and techniques is commendable. And he proves equally objective in assessing Sherman’s personal strengths and weaknesses.
The discussion of Sherman’s domestic life is excellent. Reid describes Sherman’s wife – her personality, her influence as a stabilizing force in his life, and her role in their marriage – as well in several paragraphs as he conveys Sherman himself during the entire course of the book. The author also offers a fascinating review of Sherman’s post-war presidential prospects, an intriguing comparison of Sherman’s and Grant’s memoirs, and a surprisingly interesting audit of Sherman’s extramarital dalliances.
But the best aspect of this biography is its Conclusion – seventeen pages of articulate, insightful, thoughtful, penetrating and remarkably nuanced observations relating to Sherman’s life and legacy. Rarely have I encountered an assessment of someone’s life as compelling and intellectually rewarding as this.
Overall, Brian Holden Reid’s biography of William Sherman is a thorough exploration of Sherman’s life and a magnificent appraisal of his legacy. Readers familiar with Sherman are likely to find this book illuminating – filling in gaps and providing new insight. But while it is unmistakably excellent as history, it is not consistently colorful or engaging as biography.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars
NB: I feel compelled to note the presence of an extraordinary number of typographical and other errors. Most were baffling – they could be uncovered by anyone paying modest attention – while others were more subtle if no less egregious. Under the assumption these errors were the fault of the publisher rather than the author I did NOT take them into account when assigning a rating.
Examples: pages 113, 247 and 318 for typographical errors; page 108 (map captioned “Western Theater, 1861-1862” which shows Sherman’s much later march from Atlanta to Savannah and beyond), page 192 (map captioned “Vicksburg, 1863” but which shows Sherman’s advance to Chattanooga) and page 222 (map captioned “Advance to Chattanooga” which is of the Vicksburg Campaign); last photograph prior to page 307 (showing “Sherman…beginning to show the strain of old age, though only 70” although the man in the photograph is neither Sherman nor showing any sign of old age – the item which Reid probably intended to be displayed is probably this one).
Christopher Saunders said:
Thanks for your review. I don’t think I’ve read a Sherman biography yet (just his memoirs, many years ago), although there’s a lot to choose from.
I’ve heard good things about BH Liddell’s Sherman book. Might be worth a shot.
I am eagerly awaiting your upcoming review on Custer’s Trials.
Excellent, honest review, as always. Years ago, I read Marszalek’s bio of Sherman and found it so satisfying that I haven’t felt the need to read another. I found Marszalek’s “passion for order” thesis convincing.
As much as I hate to say it, I am considering reading Marszalek’s (and/or one other) biography in my quest to uncover more of Sherman. He needed to be more lifelike and three-dimensional than what I found in Reid’s biography, good as it was.
I read “In Service of My Country” by James Lee McDonough a couple of years ago, and it was very good. I was always impressed by his refusal to run for president. Few men can turn down that tempting an offer.
Indeed. Too few people seem to turn down that temptation… 🙂
I was always an admirer of Sherman for a multitude of reasons, but recently having read “Decision in the West,” probably the best book about the Atlanta campaign, came away thinking that Sherman is a tad over rated as a military genius. Despite superior numbers he seemed to fail to give the order for the final push several times. But, to be fair, there were also those times where subordinates let him down.
Indeed, I saw virtually none of the “military genius” I was expecting to find in this biography. That wasn’t why I didn’t rate it more highly of course(!) but it was a bit of a revelation for me.
Thank you for an excellent review.