Liddell Hart, B. H. Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American. Boston:
Dodd, Mead & Co., 1929.
Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart’s brilliant biography, Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American, skillfully portrays General William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman is considered a military genius and the author follows him from his early life through his last pitched battle of the American Civil War. It was Liddell Hart’s intent that this work is a study guide that would lead other great generals in time of war. The hope is that when one is skilled at warfare it can save lives and bring peace.
Captain B. H. Liddell Hart, as he was most commonly known, was an English soldier, military historian, strategist, and theorist. He was born in Paris in 1895 to an English Methodist minister. His mother’s family, whose land bordered Scotland, were linked with the South-Western Railway. His education was received at St. Paul’s School in London and, until the outbreak of World War I, he attended Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
One might have a concern that Liddell Hart, an Englishman and not American, would have the credentials to have embarked upon the story of a man like Sherman. Liddell Hart’s own biography reads like a military historical with plenty of political intrigues. When World War I first broke, Liddell Hart volunteered to become an officer in the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and fought on the Western Front. He was sent home rather quickly, having served only two short stints in the fall and winter of 1915, after receiving injuries from a shell burst. After gaining the rank of captain, he returned to the front July 1916 in time to be a part of the Battle of the Somme, during which he received three hits that did not badly injure him but was again sent home after being severely gassed. Later he would suffer two heart attacks, in 1921 and 1922, believed to be attributed to the gassing.
The Battle of the Somme, fought in France, was one of the largest battles of WWI, and one in which over 1,000,000 men were wounded or died. Liddell Hart’s battalion was almost wiped out on the first day and was a part of the 60,000 casualties suffered. This was the biggest loss in a single day in British history. It is easily understood that this battle embedded itself in the young captain’s mind and would greatly influence his outlook on war practices for the rest of his career.
Before retiring from the Army, Liddell Hart wrote numerous booklets and training manuals. The author was a military correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in 1925-35 and was also a military advisor to The Times in 1935-39. Liddell Hart also served as an advisor to the secretary of state for war, Leslie Hore-Belisha. He then turned his attention to writing histories of military figures in which he advanced his theory that full frontal assaults do not work and are catastrophic in amassing casualties. He states that to win, with the least fatalities and in the least amount of time, one must surprise the enemy, do the unexpected.
Captain Liddell Hart, undeniably a military strategic prodigy, chose to study and write about historic leaders who understood the message that he himself wanted to be adopted in modern wars. He wrote portraits of men like Scipio Africanus and in his book, Great Captains Unveiled, which covered six masters of war, including Jenghiz Khan, Gustavus Adolphus, and General Wolfe. The author, not one to let up, wrote an entire book, The Strategy of Indirect Approach, later renamed to the very humble, The Way to Win Wars, outlining his idea of what should be the basic strategy of all good leaders. The leaders he wrote about very obviously knew how to win smart, and used the Indirect Approach method in some form and always with, almost certain degrees of success. There are some reviewers of Liddell Hart’s works that find he can be repetitive, however, most agree that he is always careful to supply factual statistics and materials to back up his claims. He was passionate about Indirect Approach and spent his life on a mission to get this type of warfare accepted.
Liddell Hart chose to portray Sherman because, he too, knew what it took to win. “The man is William Tecumseh Sherman who, by the general recognition of all who met him, was the most original genius of the American Civil War.” (p. xiii) The author is not sparing with excerpts from Sherman’s memoirs, letters, and notebooks. Liddell Hart manages to take the reader on a tour of Sherman’s boyhood without too much delay or overindulgences of unnecessary folderol. Sherman seemed to have dabbled in a little bit of everything, from West Point, the army, and banking in California, to school teaching in Louisiana. This came to a halt, however, when war came. Never one to take the easy way, he waited until a command he felt was worthy came up before diving into the war, and climbing ever closer to the topmost men.
From the beginning, Sherman knew that this Civil War was going to be a long one. He immediately saw a need for more men and wanted to take immediate action. The author clearly shows how Sherman recognized the strategic importance of Kentucky and the Ohio Valley. “Sherman had welcomed the opportunity to go west from the cramped area and outlook of the Virginian theatre because he was filled with the conviction that in Kentucky and Tennessee lay the key to the immediate future and in the Mississippi the key to the ultimate victory. But he saw that they were stiff keys to turn and that a light grip was futile.” (p. 97)
Sherman wanted a hundred thousand men and make Mississippi the “grand field of operations.” (p. 97) He had no doubt that this area would be of more importance than Richmond. However, the new Commander-in-Chief, McClellan, had other ideas. There were some who laughingly called Sherman crazy for his ideas that so often went against the norm, that at one point, newspapers were printing stories of his lunacy. Sent home on a three-week furlough to relieve his distressed wife’s mind was probably not as restful as he might have hoped. Soon after returning he was with Grant and became close friends and confidants with the general. Liddell Hart believes that together, they won the war.
Shiloh was the first big battle that Grant and Sherman served together. Liddell Hart explains that the Union forces were physically ready to be on the defensive but not mentally prepared. “For the careful student of the Shiloh records who has also experienced war soon realizes that the initial Union failure was due little to faulty generalship on the field, still less to superior Confederate generalship, but mainly to the unsteady morale of the Union troops.” (p. 126) Not surprisingly, both sides claimed the victory but because the Confederates were forced back on the Corinth it was a triumph for the North. After Shiloh, Grant was treated so poorly by his superior to the point that he wanted to quit the service. Sherman thankfully kept him from this unwise choice despite the ineptness of Halleck.
Soon after Grant’s decision to stay on, he was again placed in command and turned his eye toward Vicksburg, “…the main key to the Mississippi.” (p. 157) Sherman did not agree with his friend’s strategy and submitted his own ideas in writing. Sherman’s loyalty had him following Grant’s orders despite the fact that his own were not considered, and went on to be of great help in the endeavor. Grant sent Sherman to address Johnston, who it was rumored was gathering forces to attack the Union force. Grant was able to then focus solely on Pemberton in Vicksburg. The fall of Vicksburg effectively cut the South in half and was the beginning of the end for the Confederates. In Sherman’s own words, “Vicksburg is not only of importance to them but now is a subject of pride and its loss will be fatal to their power out west.”
When Sherman learned of the negotiations, Liddell Hart includes a wonderful wire that Sherman sent to Grant. It shows the jubilation of the moment and the friendship that the two shared. “ Telegraph me the moment you have Vicksburg in possession, and I will secure all the crossings of Black River, and move on Jackson or Canton, as you may advise…If you are in Vicksburg, glory, hallelujah!” Liddell Hart believes that the friendship between Grant and Sherman meant a great deal to this country and with incredible outcomes.
After Vicksburg Liddell Hart continues to follow Sherman through the battles of the Civil War. Each chapter shows the Union and Confederate forces moves and counters. The book takes you through Chattanooga, Atlanta, the march on Savannah, and on through the Carolinas. The author’s indirect approach formula is being used quite visibly by Sherman during these campaigns. “…I left Augusta untouched on purpose, because the enemy will be in doubt as to my objective point, after we cross the Savannah River, whether it be Augusta or Charleston, and will naturally divide his forces.” (p. 357) One must surely agree with the author that Sherman was truly one of the great strategists.
Captain Liddell Hart does sidetrack off Sherman frequently, however, most readers will find that it gives them a better understanding of all the main performers, and in consequence, a better understanding of Sherman himself. The letters between Sherman and Grant are used with great success, and I appreciated the original materials. With the war at a close, the author paints somewhat of a sad watercolor for such a brilliant man in his forties, with so much life left to give. “ For the last act of war was, in a dramatic sense, the last act of his career, and all that followed merely epilogue.” (p. 403)
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