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A Tactical Blunder

ISSUE:  Spring 1933

Sherman: Pighting Prophet. By Lloyd Lewis. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.50.

There are two general groups of biographies: those written shortly after the events which have made the actors important enough to deserve this sort of attention, and those which come later in time. The disadvantages of the first group are apparent, with few of the virtues of memoirs. Especially is this so when the subject has aroused controversy calling for defenders and assailants. The chief actors in an internecine struggle like the War between, the Sections inevitably become villains and heroes, since the power of inertia is so great that a cause must be all good and the enemy all bad before men can be induced to sustain the energy required by action. Those who manipulate propaganda understand this condition. General Sherman pre-eminently fits into such a division, since it was his army that broke the back of Confederate resistance. Therefore it has been necessary to wait for a full critical estimate of his career, that is, for an estimate of the degree of virtue and vice contained in his character.

After reading Mr. Lloyd Lewis’s “Sherman,” one feels that we must still wait. He has discarded the detachment which should have been his to become a partisan of the Northern war school. He has made no thorough military study of the western campaigns, nor has he arrived at any convincing judgment of his subject’s character. If he has meant, as the sub-title might suggest, to enshroud him in the mystical air of the prophet, he has singularly failed. The book is a glorification of Sherman, Grant, and the Northern chieftains not as individuals but as heroes of the centralizing, industrial element which destroyed the early American idea of the Union and has now brought the country, after seventy years of loot, to the brink of anarchy and revolution. Even if he could prove to us that Sherman was a prophet, this proof would have little value. Sherman is important for his marches, not his prophecies. This is a tactical blunder one feels his general never would have made.

The author’s effort to establish the virtue of this cause has led him into the most fundamental historical mistakes: “. . . and George III, making peace after the American Revolution, had ceded it [the western territory] to the new United States.” There was no United States at this time, and the colonies were each given a separate independence ; and it was as sovereigns that they entered into the compact of balancing governments. Mr. Lewis, mistaking a geographical solidarity for a political concept, still believes that the Northern invasion was for the preservation of the Union. There are many factual errors which indicate that his knowledge of the war from the Confederate side is slight. The gray armies are only straw men which his Sherman can set fire to with glorious ease. A man can be great only after he has overcome great obstacles.

He refers to General Longstreet from Alabama and “William L. Yancey, South Carolina disciple of Calhoun.” Longstreet was a Georgian. Yancey is identified with Alabama. He was born in South Carolina, but he left there as a disciple of Andrew Jackson, not Calhoun. Perhaps Mr. Lewis’s greatest piece of misinformation relates to the Southern cavalry, which he holds as ineffective. As a matter of fact, the cavalry’s movements in the West after Shiloh, especially Forrest’s cavalry, which he refers to as mounted infantry, were the pivots upon which most of the strategy turned in this theatre of war. Forrest’s interruption of Buell’s communications in July, 1862, at Murfreesboro, kept Chattanooga from falling into Northern hands, thereby giving Bragg time to reach this city and move from it into Kentucky. This same cavalry under Forrest and Wheeler helped assure Bragg’s lead in his race with Buell. The fact that Bragg, after throwing his army across Buell’s line of retreat, refused battle, is another story. When Van Dorn destroyed Grant’s supplies at Holly Springs, Forrest destroyed his railroad communications in West Tennessee, forcing him to rely upon the Mississippi river and delaying the fall of Vicksburg six months. This same cavalry later hindered Rosecrans from profiting from his occupation of Middle Tennessee. And when Sherman moved into Georgia, Forrest became the unknown factor, the possible destroyer of his campaign. Sherman understood this and sent four expeditions into North Mississippi with the express purpose of detaining Forrest there, while Johnston was frantically wiring Davis to detach Forrest and send him on Sherman’s communications. The book has so many factual errors and half-truths that it makes you doubt those parts which appear convincing.

Sherman is by far the most complicated and important figure in the Northern armies, and Mr. Lewis has indicated with great skill many of the clues to a complete interpretation, but this interpretation is never made. He devotes much time to the development of the character of Sherman’s adopted father and the Ewing family; he shows very clearly the importance of his wife’s attitude towards him, and the effect of his early failures. But he does not say how much this spiritual dependence on his wife and adopted father caused him to shift this dependence to Grant, with the consequent change of his attitude towards the South, his war on the non-combatants, and the march through Georgia. There are other questions which rise to be answered. How will his war on non-combatants and his marches affect his permanent moral and military standing? Was it not an admission that he could not win the game according to the rules of civilized warfare, even when the odds were stacked in his camps? As it is written, the march through Georgia and the Carolinas is a gay Sunday-school outing, where the frolicsome boys get into all sorts of mischief for which teacher may give a black mark. After the war, during the great barbecue of Grant’s administration, Sherman almost kept out of the public trough. He did accept a house in Washington. The author naively says it was the custom then for public men to accept gifts. It has always been the custom for some men to accept gifts. General Lee, it will be remembered, refused to sell his name to an insurance company for a large salary. What has happened to Sherman since his California days when he scrupulously denied himself and his family to repay monies he had lost for friends? The answers to these and other questions present problems which much reach a critical solution before Sherman can assume his just place in history.


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