Book Review: The White Tecumseh: A Biography of General William T. Sherman (Stanley P. Hirshson) : CWT

8/12/2001 • Mag: Civil War Times Reviews

The White Tecumseh: A Biography of General William T. Sherman, by Stanley P. Hirshson (John Wiley and Sons, New York, 475 pages, $30).

William Tecumseh Sherman was a peculiar person with a peculiar name. Perhaps, therefore, he deserves a peculiar biography with a peculiar title. If so, he has secured one in this biography by Stanley Hirshson, a history professor at Queens College in New York and author of biographies of Brigham Young and Grenville Dodge.

Conveniently, most of the most peculiar peculiarities in this book can be found in the preface. Here, Hirshson states that between 1991 and 1995 four books dealing with the Union general appeared, and though the author “profited from the works of my predecessors,” their emergence “has been the academic equivalent of having the contents of a six-shooter slowly emptied into one’s body.” What he does not mention is that he completed his manuscript on Sherman no later than 1992, but it did not become a book until a half-decade later.

Moreover, if he “profited” from these other works, there is little evidence of it in what he has written. He explicitly and totally rejects two of them: John Marszalek’s Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order (1992) and Michael Fellman’s Citizen Sherman (1995). These rejections lead to a natural comparison with his own The White Tecumseh.

Marszalek fails to prove that Sherman developed “a soldier’s passion for order,” Hirshson declares, insisting that the true “theme of Sherman’s life [was his] realization that mental instability plagued his mother’s family” and his fear that he himself would become insane. The only statements Hirshson makes to support this assertion, however, are: “Sherman’s maternal grandmother, his maternal uncle, and his son, Tom, all died in, or spent time in, insane asylums”; his brother Charles “died a drunk”; and another brother, John, “died mentally unstable.” To put it mildly, this is not convincing.

In fact, Sherman’s mother never was insane. Tom did not become insane until 20 years after his father died. Charles did not die until 1877, and, in any case, alcoholism is not the same as lunacy. John was a U.S. senator, secretary of the treasury, and secretary of state who did not suffer mental problems until he reached his mid-70s, nearly 10 years after Sherman’s death in 1891. Obviously, what happened to these relatives could not have caused Sherman to spend his life preoccupied with going crazy.

With respect–or, rather, without respect–to Fellman’s biography, Hirshson writes, “I disagree with it completely…. I do not see Sherman as a racist, an anti-Semite, and a philanderer.” Because I believe that Fellman makes too much of Sherman’s racism and that he merely surmises, not proves, that Sherman engaged in adulterous affairs, I looked forward to reading what Hirshson has to say on these subjects. But what he wrote was very little and very much irrelevant. Sherman’s being “approachable” in his personal dealings with blacks did not prevent him from opposing their emancipation, their use as soldiers, their obtaining civil and political rights, nor from habitually referring to them contemptuously as “niggers” in his letters. Hirshson quotes the testimony of Sherman’s youngest son, who said that his father and mother got along well when they were together. That, however, tells us nothing about Sherman’s relationship with other women during his long and frequent absences from his wife.

Hirshson “takes sharp issue with the way recent historians have evaluated Sherman as a general.” Two of them, he complains, have described “only a portion of Sherman’s career, not his entire Civil War experience,” and Marszalek failed to consult regimental histories, sources Hirshson considers matched in value only by the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Hirshson, in contrast, not only deals with all of Sherman’s military operations but also consulted “close to two hundred” regimental histories. As a result, so he implies, his biography provides a fuller, more accurate portrayal of Sherman the general than the writings of other historians do.

Length limitations prevent a complete rebuttal to these assertions. Therefore I shall confine myself to the following responses:

1. If a historian describes “only a portion” of Sherman’s military career, it does not necessarily mean he is unacquainted with the whole of it. I can assure both Hirshson and the readers of this review that at least one of the two “recent historians” he critiques has studied and written about that whole career.

2. Although some regimental histories contain valuable information that cannot be found elsewhere, others are worse than useless. As a rule, most offer merely anecdotal material. Furthermore, other sources are far more useful than the typical regimental history, namely diaries and letters written by participants in the events. Marszalek consulted a great many more of these sources than Hirshson did.

3. Hirshson’s use of regimental histories did not prevent, and perhaps caused, his account of Sherman’s bungled assault at Chickasaw Bayou–which he claims was not Sherman’s fault–to be so filled with errors of commission and omission that exposing them all would require a lengthy article. The same is true of a number of Hirshson’s other battle accounts.

Hirshson would have done better in his preface not to have criticized previous works about Sherman and instead simply set forth the objectives he sought to achieve in his biography, leaving it to other historians to judge his success or lack thereof. In my judgment, he has written a very readable book, but it would take a perverse genius to write a dull book about Sherman. Hirshson’s descriptions of what might be termed the outer events in Sherman’s personal life are on the whole accurate, and he provides some new information and valuable insights about Sherman.

These merits, unfortunately, are outweighed by the defects: Hirshson’s failure to support with evidence and logic his main contentions about Sherman, his numerous factual and analytical errors when dealing with military operations, his failure to realize the implication of some of the truths that are presented, his overuse of trivia that wastes space that might have been devoted to more important matters, his inadequate maps–both in quantity and quality, and his bibliography, which lists only the manuscripts that he consulted.

Because of these flaws in Hirshson’s work, Marszalek’s biography remains the best study of Sherman the man. A thorough, objective, and realistic critique of Sherman the general remains to be written.

Albert Castel
Hillsdale, Michigan