Thursday, July 31, 2014

Hero, Savior, Tyrant, Villain

W.T. Sherman, 1865, National Archives, Public Domain, full link below
Greetings All:

I am a history guy, especially military history. I have also become a big fan of biographies. I (only half-jokingly) tell people I listen to audio books (almost said books on tape, how's that for dating me?) because, "When you run as slow as me, you don't need music."

So when my monthly credit showed up last month, I pounced on Robert O'Connell's book, Fierce Patriot. It is the story of the man pictured above, William Tecumseh Sherman, one each. I suspect most of you have at least a vague idea of who this man was and his role in the Civil War.

I've got some links to his bio below but in a nutshell, here it is.

Born to a respectable, albeit family of modest means, a foster family raised him due to his father's untimely death and they’re being ten other Sherman children. He attended West Point and left the Army to pursue commercial interests. He was not successful in these endeavors, at least from a "balance sheet" standpoint. When the Civil War erupted his family utilized their political connections to get him back in the Army.

It did not begin well. One of his first major campaigns ended with him getting (more or less) getting relieved. The rumor was he suffered a mental breakdown. He was undoubtedly suffering from exhaustion and quite likely horrific depression. 

Still, he was given a second chance. He made the most of it. 

At the battle of Shiloh, he found himself. Despite the horrific carnage around him, he rallied his troops. What could have been a disaster for the North was somewhat of a victory. To Sherman should go a lion's share of the credit for this event.
From there Sherman's star rose, as did his success. He was now firmly joined at the hip to General U.S. Grant as his star subordinate. Then he took his "show on the road," the march to the sea in Georgia, then up through the Carolinas in the dying days of the Civil War. In the North, he was hailed as a hero, a savior even.

Down south, the feeling was far from mutual.  I have no doubt that the name Sherman still can still call to mind the images of an invader, an oppressor, a destroyer. He is credited with waging war on a scale new to modern times. He wanted to not only defeat the Confederate forces on the field of battle but he was determined to break the soul and spirit of the Confederacy by attacking both its ability to make war and the images of its insurrection.

I suppose if I was a Southerner and watched my state capitol go up in smoke, I'd likely not think well of him either. I might even call him a tyrant.

I think it is important to note that from all accounts, Sherman did not bathe in the putrid bath of war. He did not have the blood lust of others. I'll let him speak in his own defense:

"I confess, without shame, I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell." 

After the Civil War, Sherman was not finished with the Army, or our history. He took over the task of overseeing the construction of the intercontinental railroad. Here he found success, wild success. It was built and our nation was never the same. The country was now linked from ocean to ocean not by plodding wagons but speeding trains. America's economic might and global status was secured.

And the culture of the Native Americans was doomed. In building the railroad, Sherman had neither pause nor pity for those who lived on the land. They were simply in the way. He wrote Grant after what became known as the 1866 Fetterman Massacre, "...we must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women and children."

In addition to his attitude towards the Native Americans, the buffalo were driven to practical extinction. In Sherman's mind, they were another impediment, an obstacle to be cleared in another "march" to a goal. 

One could look at these two bitter fruits of Sherman's labor and indict him both a villain and tyrant, or worse. Then again, as a child of a modern America, I've reaped the benefits of living in a nation that became the economic envy of the world. Sherman's railroad made that, in large part, possible. To damn him now from my comfortable perch of perspective would make me a hypocrite, no?

So here is what I propose: Let's use the story of Sherman to recall both the good and bad of the man. His accomplishments are impressive and his means, at least some of them are not. In fact, they should call for what they were- wrong, terribly, terribly wrong. But that's not enough. We need to pledge to learn our history...all of it. By doing so we can endeavor to emulate the aspects of our history that are good and avoid those that are bad. Only by zipping up our coats and standing in the cold light of truth will we create a history for our kids and grand kids that is a whole lot more "hero" and a whole less "villain." 

Be well my friends,

Author's Note:  This post originally appeared under my Linkedin Profile Post.  I am re-publishing it here as some of you are not on Linkedin.  




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