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Une belle laide, literally “a beautiful ugly,” is not a phrase you would think to apply to a Civil War general….

Matthew Brady
Gen. William T. Sherman, photo by Mathew Brady, 1860-65, Collection of the Library of Congress

Une belle laide, literally “a beautiful ugly,” is a French phrase describing a woman whose attraction cannot be located in conventional beauty or grace. It is not a phrase you would think to apply to a Civil War general. But I think it is apt for General William T. Sherman.

Sherman’s physique is stringy. The complexion is rough, the eyes assymetrical, the dome-like brow is fringed with lifeless hair.

It is a face you can’t forget.

You can’t help looking at it again and again, studying it, trying to read it: this portrait of a man who’s ready to fight, a man burdened with the need to prove himself, the face of a psyche that is “eat-up.”

The tightened face, and the pulled in shoulders, likely also reflect the anguish of asthma. (The malady is so troubling that David McCullough searched hard for sufferers willing to discuss it because “even talking about it can be painful to them.”) Sherman got through it in a time that offered no retreat to the filtered comforts of air conditioning, when treatment was hit or miss, in air constantly saturated with dust and pollen and smoke and animal dander. Every breath was a battle.

It was the man’s portrait, more than history, that urged me to read his biography: how could a man so obviously unbalanced be so successful? He looks far more interesting than the conventional beau.

I finished Stanley P. Hirshson’s The White Tecumseh with mixed feelings. Sherman’s cruelty to civilians, his bafflingly inconsistent racism, his self-centered ambition, and his punitive attitude toward Southerners disgusted me. On the other hand, his convictions, his determination to rise above early failure, his nonstop diligence, the way he drove through depression, his fierce loyalty, and his physical fortitude impressed me deeply.

Une belle-laide.

Picture via Library of Congess / biographical info from The White Tecumseh: A Biography of General William T. Sherman, by Stanley P Hirshson (on Goodreads) / quote from David McCullough: Mornings on Horseback (about Theodore Roosevelt & his family; on Goodreads).

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