I don’t read many biographies but after reading Robert L. Connell’s “Fierce Patriot: the tangled lives of William Tecumseh Sherman” I think that maybe I should. I will confess that I have always been interested in William Tecumseh Sherman, my grandfather, Sherman Lee Crawford, was the product of a “mixed” marriage, formers Union and formers confederate. Until I was in my thirties I only knew him as William. Now I am wondering if my grandfather knew of the parallels between his life and the life of General William Tecumseh Sherman.
Tecumseh Sherman, his birth name, grew up in Lancaster Ohio. His father, Charles, was a well respected but financially unsuccessful lawyer who died when Tecumseh was nine. This left his wife with eleven children and no means of support. A friend of the family, the successful lawyer and politician Thomas Ewing, offered to take “the smartest child” in. They picked Tecumseh and Ewing gave him the name “William”. William Tecumseh Sherman got along well with the Ewing family. A strong bond developed between William and Ewing’s daughter Ellen. The bond was so strong that Thomas decided it best to sent William off the West Point at age sixteen. Fourteen years later Captain William Tecumseh Sherman and Ellen Ewing married in Washington City. By that time Thomas Ewing was such a prominent politician that even President Taylor attended the ceremony.
Sherman’s grades and demerits at West Point rescued him from the Engineers Corps and put him on the road to a real military career. He saw limited combat in the Seminole Wars but none in the Mexican War. In his eyes his military career was a failure. After leaving the military he continued to see himself as a failure. Connell made sure to point out that those around him saw things otherwise. Sherman’s friends and cohorts saw that he had bad breaks but he always landed on his feet and he always managed to do it with honor.
With the outbreak of the Civil War Sherman wanted back in the military. As Connell put it “team Ewing/Sherman went into action to make it happen”. At first using this modern expression to describe historical events bothered me. Connell’s description of Sherman as a “willing wingman” was also like fingernails on a blackboard to me. These concepts did not exist in the 1860s, it is anachronistic I told myself. After some thought I realized that Connell was not using modern values to interpret these historical actions. He was using words a modern audience would understand to describe what happened. The Ewing / Sherman family, which had developed powerful connections in state and national politics, did, time after time, come together to protect and advance their own members interests. William Tecumseh Sherman would not have understood the term “wingman” but he definitely was one. He was never more able to act independently than when he was under Grant’s command. It sounds implausible but read the book, I think Sherman’s reaction to Grant’s orders after his march to the sea bet demonstrates this idea. Connell divided the book into three sections, Sherman’s military career from West Point to his retirement, his Civil War army from the soldiers perspective, and his family life. It seemed odd that his childhood should be one of the last things we learned about but the arrangement worked well.
If my grandfather did adopt the name William because of General Sherman I now understand what it was about the general that inspired him to do it. Family loyalty. William Tecumseh Sherman was loyal to all his families. Connell has produced a well researched, well written work on one of the nations most interesting wingmen and shed light on one of the most powerful extended families in American history. I have to recommend this book to anyone interested in 19th century American history