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Originally published Sunday, August 3, 2014 at 6:06 AM

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The generals: Sherman, Lee and how they waged the Civil War

Two new biographies of William Tecumseh Sherman and Robert E. Lee look at the lives of two leaders who, for better or worse, helped shape the Civil War.

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If Sherman fought war as we do today, he would have built houses as he marched instead of burning them. He'd be known... MORE


‘Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman’

by Robert O’Connell

Random House, 416 pp., $28

‘Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee’

by Michael Korda

Harper, 832 pp., $40

Most biographies follow a chronological format, but not “Fierce Patriot.” Robert L. O’Connell considers Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman’s life a “three-ring circus” and examines each “ring” separately, and not in order.

O’Connell, visiting professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of several historical works, deals first with Sherman as strategist, both in war and continental expansion, then examines his bond with his troops as Civil War army commander, and finally chronicles Sherman’s soap-opera personal life: his domineering father-in-law also was his adoptive stepfather, his ultrareligious wife was his adoptive stepsister and their marriage was like a pair of “squawking geese,” O’Connell says.

Sherman always operated in Ulysses S. Grant’s shadow during the Civil War, and that, O’Connell says, was his comfort zone. He calls Sherman “a classic wingman” who sought positions promising autonomy but still allowing him “to request permission and elicit praise from a trusted and admired associate.”

Yet even “more than ... Grant, Sherman waged war on political and psychological levels; his overarching and everlasting aim was to destroy the (Southern) rebellion and drive its member states back into the Union,” O’Connell writes. “Sherman trampled (the Confederacy) relentlessly ... bled the life out of it, and replaced it with hopelessness. That’s the way to win.”

After the war, Sherman became “Manifest Destiny’s chief of operations,” orchestrating construction of transcontinental railroads, fighting Native Americans and exterminating the buffalo herds on which they depended.

Sherman “stood for what made America big fast,” O’Connell says, but his “techniques were none too gentle ... He shattered the South, bulldozed the Indians, and reduced the buffalo to scraps ... If he wasn’t exactly the antithesis of ecological, he came close. And it may be that future generations will heap upon him scorn ... but if so, it will be wrong and hypocritical.”

O’Connell has a refreshing, crisp, sometimes irreverent writing style. There are no cobwebs on his prose!

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Michael Korda. He chronicles Robert E. Lee’s life in an avalanche of verbiage, including some incredible run-on sentences and endless paragraphs. His 695-page text appears based mostly on secondary sources, some of doubtful reliability (Wikipedia is cited frequently).

Korda, former editor at Simon & Schuster and author of many books, finds cracks in Lee’s “Marble Man” image as imperturbable general. He says Lee’s well-known aversion to personal confrontations was “the one weak point in his otherwise admirable personality ... Some of the most mistaken military decisions in the short history of the Confederacy can be attributed to Lee’s reluctance to confront a subordinate and have it out with him.”

Korda also nominates Lee as the World’s Greatest Dad, always happiest with his children, though other writers have suggested Lee intentionally sought distant duty posts to avoid confrontations with his children.

One reason Korda’s text is so long is that he often repeats himself. He also occasionally contradicts himself and sometimes offers such redundant clichés as “at this point in time.” He favors opinions of British military historians over those of Americans, who might be expected to know a little more about Lee and his battles. He tells a lot about Lee, but it’s a long, tiring march to the end.

Whidbey Island author Steve Raymond’s latest book is “In the Very Thickest of the Fight: The Civil War Service of the 78th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment” (Globe Pequot Press).

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