"William Tecumseh Sherman" by James Lee McDonough.

"William Tecumseh Sherman" by James Lee McDonough. Credit: W.W. Norton

WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN: In the Service of My Country — A Life, by James Lee McDonough. W.W. Norton & Company, 816 pp., $39.95.

When the Civil War broke out, William Tecumseh Sherman didn’t want any part of it. The future Union general blamed the crisis on partisan Northern and Southern politicians, but he ended up one of the conflict’s most famous figures — celebrated in the North as a hero, reviled in the South as the devil incarnate.

Sherman brought the bitter taste of war to the Confederate home front as his Union army cut a wide swath of destruction across Mississippi, Georgia and the Carolinas. In the Southern iconography of the war, the burning of Atlanta — mythologized in “Gone With the Wind” — looms large, forever associated with the name “Sherman.” His tactics, a harbinger of 20th century warfare, were both psychological and military, as much about delivering object lessons as killing enemy troops.

Military historians and biographers galore have scrutinized Sherman’s life and his generalship. James Lee McDonough’s massive “William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country” is a solid if plodding contribution to Sherman studies. McDonough, author of several Civil War-themed books, gives the general a full cradle-to-grave treatment, recounting Sherman’s Ohio boyhood, his time at West Point and his experiences in California as an Army officer and banker.

Overcoming his reluctance about the war — financial considerations may have played a part, McDonough suggests — Sherman rejoined the Army. He fought at Bull Run and then was stationed in Kentucky, where he suffered a mental breakdown. Much has been made of this episode. The press brayed on about Sherman’s freakout, which in turn fueled his hatred of journalists, but McDonough coolly chalks up Sherman’s troubles to lack of sleep, an unhealthy regimen and a genuine horror of war. Sherman was not the beast of legend, McDonough writes, but “a sensitive man, naturally tenderhearted, who required time to accept and adjust to the mass bloodshed and inherent cruelty of war, particularly when he served as a leader.”

Keep these words in mind as you wrestle with Sherman’s complexities. For Sherman, the war was no crusade to end slavery, but one to keep the Union whole. He had many Southern friends and contacts, and vigorously opposed the use of black soldiers in the Army. (“We ought not to engraft a doubtful element in the army now,” he wrote his brother John, a U.S. Senator, in 1864.) And still he proved one of Abraham Lincoln’s most lethal weapons in a war that both preserved the Union and destroyed slavery.

In partnership with his friend Ulysses S. Grant, Sherman moved from the western theater — Sherman’s renown began at the savage 1862 Battle of Shiloh — into the heart of the South. The capture of Atlanta was a huge boon to Union morale, but Sherman was just beginning. A logistical genius, Sherman cut loose from supply lines — “I will subsist . . . luxuriously,” he vowed — and marched to the coast, his troops living off Southern stores and produce as they ripped up railroad track and destroyed infrastructure.

In a series of turns and flanking maneuvers, he steered his 60,000-man army, avoiding the kind of bloody, head-on clashes that consumed Grant’s forces in Virginia. “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah,” he famously wired Lincoln in December 1864.

McDonough’s account of this vital chapter of the war and the sweep of Sherman’s life is detailed and authoritative, but also curiously muted. The author refrains from Margaret Mitchell-style melodrama, but there is something missing from these pages, an animating spirit that would make Sherman fully live and breathe.

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