Sherman by B.H. Liddell Hart: Summary & Notes

Front cover of Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American by B.H. Liddell Hart.

In short

B.H. Liddell Hart was one of the best and most astute military analysts (most notably in his book Strategy), and his biography of Sherman is excellent as well. In Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American Liddell Hart looks at Sherman’s life, with the vast majority of the book dedicated to the American Civil War and Sherman’s campaigns. Especially the descriptions and analysis of the later campaigns of Sherman, and his march through the south, are great; it also demonstrates very clearly what Liddell Hart has called the “indirect approach” where the best way forward is often through the path of least expectation and resistance.

Book Summary & Notes


“For the issue of any operation of war is decided not by what the situation actually is, but by what the rival commander thinks it is.”

“Never give reasons for what you think or do until you must. Maybe, after a while, a better reason will pop into your head.” – Sherman

“[…] in war, as in life generally, the longest way round is often the shortest way there. […] To move along the natural line of expectation is to consolidate the opponent’s equilibrium, and by stiffening it to augment his resisting power. In war as in wrestling the attempt to throw the opponent without loosening his foothold and balance tends to self-exhaustion, increasing in disproportionate ratio to the strain put upon the opponent’s resistance. For even if at the outset successful, it rolls the enemy back in snowball fashion, towards his reserves, supplies and reinforcement.”

“It was characteristic of Sherman that he should choose the roughest quarters, among his men. So also before and during an action he was ever as far forward as was possible while still retaining control. Indeed, reports of his boldness drew an anxious protest from home, to which he replied – “As for exposing myself unnecessarily, you need not be concerned. I know better than C—- where danger lies and where I should be. Soldiers have a right to see and know that the man who guides them is near enough to see with his own eyes…” His desire to be forward was also inspired by a reasoned preference for the “front” as the best atmosphere in which to make not only prompt but sound decisions.”

“Yet in the hour of fulfilment, and later, Sherman forgot his own share in his anxiety to make atonement for his doubts. So anxious that he constantly sought to publish to the world his confession of error. Thus when a party of official visitors came soon after to Vicksburg Grant was surprised to hear Sherman declaiming “Grant is entitled to every bit of the credit for the campaign. I opposed it. I wrote him a letter about it.” Grant had not even preserved the letter, yet when the history of his campaigns was being written, Sherman hastened to send in a copy so that the facts and his own misjudgement might be recorded!”

“A wise commander knows that the moral and physical “drive” of a body of troops is akin to the spring of an alarm clock, and that once it has “gone off” it must be wound up and set afresh.”

“When a man begins to view himself as a character on the world’s stage there is a dawning danger to his sense of reality, or at least of a dissociation of his public from his private character. Such dissociation may be unfortunate, for himself and for others, by removing an essential check on his exercise of power. For it is only through the eyes of his private character that a man can retain the self-righting ability to see himself as others see him. Lacking it, he lacks the counterpoise to the tendency of his public character to identify might with right.”

“[…] the plan fulfilled the truth latent in historical experience that the object of the rear attack is not itself to crush the enemy but to unhinge his morale and dispositions so that his dislocation renders the subsequent delivery of a decisive blow both practicable and easy.”

“[…] careful to avoid the vain luxury of a direct attack, an indulgence most common among generals throughout history, he realized that the truest economy – productive economy – of force can only be obtained by taking calculated risks, and that mobility is the best insurance against them exceeding calculation. Hence he was ever desirous to push vigorously except against entrenchments, which cannot be pushed. His best results had come from movements on a wide front, and the only justifiable criticism against his generalship during the last phase of the Atlanta campaigns is that still better results might have come if he had extended wider still […]”

Horns of Dilemma

“Either horn of the dilemma will be worth a battle.”

“The Atlanta campaign had brought Sherman’s strategical mind to maturity, deepening his grasp of the truths that the way to success is strategically along the line of least expectation, and tactically along the line of least resistance, and that the general can best achieve the coincidence of the two by taking a line which provides a duality of objectives – so that he has the baffling and unnerving power of being able to “sell the dummy” to his opponent, or, as Sherman put it, has his opponent on the horns of a dilemma. The conception of a single objective, and its unswerving pursuit are contrary to the very nature of war, and lead commonly to the impalement of oneself. In contrast, a duality of objective assures the essential elasticity whereby a commander can not only confuse and deceive his opponent but assure himself the opportunity of penetrating the opponent’s guard and achieving at least one of his alternative ends.”

Cutting lose from this base & march in Georgia

“The act certainly fulfilled Napoleon’s dictum that in war the moral is to the physical as three to one. So did the principle, but in a deeper sense than Napoleon’s. For as conceived and applied by Sherman, it was designed to show not merely that the strength of an army depends on its moral foundation more that its numbers, but that the strength of an armed nation depends on the morale of its citizens – that if this crumbles the resistance of their armies will also crumble, as an inevitable sequel.”

“Among men who rise to fame and leadership two types are recognizable – those who are born with a belief in themselves and those in whom it is a slow growth dependent on actual achievement. To men of the last type their own success is a constant surprise, and its fruits more delicious, yet to be tested cautiously with a haunting sense of doubt whether it is not all a dream. In that doubt lies true modesty, not the sham of insecure self-depreciation but the modesty of “moderation,” in the Greek sense. It is poise, not pose. And at this moment, when the world was ringing with acclaim of Sherman’s “march through Georgia,” no better proof of his balance, no better augury for the greater feat to follow, could be desired than the feeling which underlay his musing comment – “Like one who has walked a narrow plank, I look back and wonder if I really did it.”

“Man has two supreme loyalties – to country and to family. And with most men the second, being more personal is stronger. So long as their families are safe they will defend their country, believing that by their sacrifice they are safeguarding their families also. But even the bonds of patriotism, discipline, and comradeship are loosened when the family is itself threatened. The soldier feels instinctively that if he was at home he could at least fight for the immediate protection of his family, work to gain food for it, and at the worst die with it. But when the enemy is closer than he is, the danger and his fears are magnified by his remoteness. Every letter, every rumour is a strain on his nerves and on his sense of duty.

It is the supreme deadliness of the rear attack as conceived and executed by Sherman – against the rear of a people, not merely of an army – that it sets the two loyalties in opposition and so imposes a breaking strain on the will of the solider. The “horns of a dilemma” once more.’”

“It is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated (friend or foe), that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.” – Sherman

“The campaign [Vicksburg] revealed to him, more clearly than any previous experience, that strategy is not merely the forerunner but the master of tactics, that the purpose of strategy is to minimize fighting and that it fulfils his purpose by playing on the mind of the opponent – so as first to disturb and then to upset his balance of min. The campaign revealed to him also that in war unexpectedness and mobility are the master-keys of generalship – opening many doors which no physical weight can force – and it demonstrated, in particular, the incalculable value of a deceptive direction and of cutting loose from communications.”


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