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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Sherman: The Ruthless Victor by Agostino Von Hassell and Ed Breslin

A troubling biography.

Thomas Nelson Publishers has stepped out and published an attractive series of short biographies of American generals - all nicely bound and immensely readable. But, I found Sherman: The Ruthless Victor to be more than a little troubling for what really amounts to just a few sentences in a 163 page book.

Clearly von Hassell and Breslin are not writing this biography as fans of Sherman - they dislike the man as a person and do not respect his accomplishments on the battlefield. That is fine. I can live with a negative biography of an historical figure, but this book has moments that stretch the limits of responsible biography. For example, on page 22 the authors note that Sherman's difficult childhood may have caused strains in his relationships with his wife and his children. Reasonable assumption. But, then they go on to say that his "revulsion from scenes of domestic happiness" caused him to be particularly rough on the South during the Civil War. Why? "The South, unfortunately, presented such scenes in abundance. This prevalent and blissful state of domesticity seems to have ignited in Sherman a gratuitous pyromania, justified within himself as an exigency of war."

Really? The man went insane and burned the South because it was home to lots of happy families?

Sherman near Atlanta in 1864
This is scholarship at its worst - psychoanalysis of a patient 135 years in the past. It calls into question much of the rest of their analysis of Sherman's thoughts and motives. Later in the book they acknowledge that Sherman's use of slash and burn warfare against civilian populations was probably adapted from the Seminole War that he participated in right after he left West Point, not due to pyromania inspired by hatred of familial bliss. But, the damage to his reputation was already done. His style of warfare is a perfectly debatable topic - in fact it was so brutal that it should be discussed, but they set it up so poorly that there cannot be any debate - Sherman did it because he was crazy. End of discussion.

Another problem - on page 81 the authors were discussing pre-Bull Run conditions in D.C. in 1861 and how impatient the men were to fight. They write: "...they were ready to return home and that if an attack was not launched soon, they would simply defect." I looked up defect in several online dictionaries to see if it meant more than what I thought it meant and, like I thought, all indicated that defecting was leaving one side for its opposition (leaving the Democrats to join the Republicans or leaving the old USSR for the USA). Can you imagine that tens of thousands of Union volunteers wanted to fight so badly that they would join the Confederates just for the chance to fight? That is a serious error due to a simple incorrect word choice - I assume they meant to use "desert" rather than defect.

Like I noted, this is not a bad biography except for a few words here and there amounting to less than a paragraph, really. They should have been caught in the editing process but they were not. Too bad - there was a lot of good information here but those few words change the tone and quality of the text so much that I cannot recommend this biography.

I received this copy of the book from Thomas Nelson publishers as part of the BookSneeze program in exchange for an honest review.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Sherman: The Ruthless Victor.

Reviewed on October 20, 2011.

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