Revising Civil War History: A Kinder, Gentler William Tecumseh Sherman

The New York Times featured an article this November titled 150 Years Later, Wrestling With a Revised View of Sherman’s March. The article looked at the controversy surrounding a recent placement by the Georgia Historical Society of a new historical marker on the grounds of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum. The marker commemorates Sherman’s historic March to the Sea and seems to be an attempt by the GHS to introduce a kinder and gentler General William Tecumseh Sherman to a new generation of Georgians.

Gen. William T. Sherman of the Union Army, leaning on a cannon at right, with staff members on Nov. 16, 1864 (Library of Congress)

Gen. William T. Sherman leaning on a cannon at right, Nov. 16, 1864 (Library of Congress)

Todd Groce, President and CEO of the GHS, offered his reasons for the new marker,

This marker is part of the GHS Civil War 150 Historical Marker Project, telling stories around the state that hadn’t been told or that shed new light on familiar stories…There are a lot of misconceptions about General Sherman and the March to the Sea that aren’t based on historical evidence, and we’ve tried to correct some of those in this marker, to see a familiar event in a new light.

According to Groce, this marker is one of many in the GHS’s attempt to educate Georgians and others about the Civil War. This particular one is aimed at correcting misconceptions about the truth of General Sherman and his famous “March” (long considered infamous if you were on the receiving end). However, here is a paragraph from the account on the marker:

After destroying Atlanta’s industrial and business (but not residential) districts, Sherman’s 62,500 men marched over 250 miles, reaching Savannah in mid-December. Contrary to popular myth, Sherman’s troops primarily destroyed only property used for waging war – railroads, train depots, factories, cotton gins, and warehouses. Abandoning their supply base, they lived off the land, destroying food they could not consume.

ALTJPATLANTA1-articleLargeThe new light that the marker appears to shed is that “Contrary to popular myth, Sherman’s troops primarily destroyed only property used for waging war”. It seems though that the GHS with this marker is not trying to educate but to reeducate. The GHS has offered no new information on Sherman’s march that would dispel a popular myth. With one fell swoop, they consigned years of scholarly research on the ravages of the “March” to the category of myth, while offering up a possible myth of their own. Curiously the marker does add, “destroying food they could not consume.” How the GHS equated the fact of “destroying food they could not consume” (thus starving a civilian population) to “destroying only property used for waging war” is beyond me.

The Times does note that the marker was placed by the GHS in response to,

 …A reassessment of Sherman and his tactics that has been decades in the making. Historians have increasingly written that Sherman’s plan for the systematic obliteration in late 1864 of the South’s war machine, including its transportation network and factories, was destructive but not gratuitously destructive.

The Times does cite one historian who has written in favor of the new reassessment of Sherman’s tactics. He is John F. Marszalek, a Sherman biographer and the executive director of the Mississippi-based Ulysses S. Grant Association. Marszalek commented,

What is really happening is that over time, the views that are out there are being challenged by historical research…the facts are coming out.

When Marszalek states, “The facts are coming out.”, he unfortunately doesn’t tell us what these new facts are. I guess we’ll have to buy his book to find out. I think I’ll pass.

The Times to its credit did present a fairly balanced article. Before giving the opposing viewpoint the author of the article wrote,

But some say its text is an inaccurate portrayal of history that amounts to an academic pardon for a general some believe committed acts that would now be deemed war crimes.

Now, that opinion is in stark contrast to the Sherman of Marszalek and the GHS. The article goes on to quote Stephen Davis, the author of What the Yankees Did to Us: Sherman’s Bombardment and Wrecking of Atlanta. Davis states,

They’re bending over backward to give Sherman a whitewash that he does not deserve,

I haven’t read Davis’s books; however, Amazon’s editorial reviewer writes,

Longtime Atlantan Stephen Davis tells the story of what the Yankees did to his city. General William T. Sherman’s Union forces had invested the city by late July 1864. Northern artillerymen, on Sherman’s direct orders, began shelling the interior of Atlanta on 20 July, knowing that civilians still lived there and continued despite their knowledge that women and children were being killed and wounded… Davis did not write the book for someone with a passing interest in the conflict. Like an attorney, Davis is setting the record straight before the bar of history. Hundreds of eyewitness accounts, as recorded in letters, diaries and newspapers provide the foundation for this study.

You can read a Civil War Trust interview with Davis concerning his book here. Apparently Davis’s scholarly research came to a completely different conclusion

than Marszalek’s.

The home of Ephraim and Ellen Ponder was located near the Confederate earthworks outside of Atlanta. The massive hole in the upper story was the result of shelling by the Union Twentieth Corps artillery, probably on August 9, 1864. (Library of Congress)

The home of Ephraim and Ellen Ponder was located near the Confederate earthworks outside of Atlanta. The massive hole in the upper story was the result of shelling by the Union Twentieth Corps artillery, probably on August 9, 1864. (CWT)(Library of Congress)

The Times also included a quote by James C. Cobb, a professor at the University of Georgia and a former president of the Southern Historical Association. He stated,

 There’s still a strong resentment for what happened and how it happened and for Sherman himself. They want to whitewash everything and make it so much nicer than it was. It wasn’t nice. War isn’t.

Apparently Professor Cobb was also not enamored with the “new research” coming out about Sherman.

What are we to make of this controversy? It seems we have two completely different opinions. There are those who see Sherman’s actions as extreme though justified, and those who see him at worst as a war criminal. I think the Times writer unknowingly got to the heart of the matter when he wrote,

The new look at Sherman’s legacy, scholars of the Deep South readily acknowledge, challenges deeply held opinions of the general.

The opinions of Groce, Marszalek, and Davis are simply that, opinions. Because history is a study of past events, all historians look back on the facts and form an opinion. If they are honest, they try to not distort or fabricate those facts. As the saying goes, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Here, however, is the dilemma for the historian. In order to form an opinion, the historian must analyze facts through a network of his own prior presuppositions. For example, let’s assume that we all agree that Sherman’s army destroyed the food supplies of thousands of citizens in Georgia. Some may argue that this was a necessary military tactic; others may see it as unjust aggression against a civilian population. These two differing opinions are not formed simply by an appeal to the facts, but also in conjunction with a prior ethical standard. What one believes about right or wrong will determine whether Sherman was a military genius or a brutal oppressor. It is reported that Sherman once said, “I make up my opinions from facts and reasoning, and not to suit any body but myself.” We must ask whether his reasoning was correct in light of what is right and what is wrong. The answer to this question is left up to the reader and his or her presuppositions. Caveat Lector.

However, what the historian has no right to do is alter the facts of history or selectively use them to fit some preconceived theory. The historian must always guard against this. The GHS marker states, “Contrary to popular myth, Sherman’s troops primarily destroyed only property used for waging war.” Notice the use of the modifier primarily. How much is primarily. The GHS doesn’t say. I don’t know how much private property was destroyed. I may read Davis’ book to find out. But what percent between 1 – 49 would make us feel better about the destruction. Would we feel better if only 20% of our county’s private property was destroyed?

Sherman's engineers tear up a length of track in Atlanta. Based on the condition of the buildings and the shadows cast by the soldiers, Davis has deduced that George Barnard took this photograph on the afternoon of November 14. (Library of Congress)

Sherman’s engineers tear up a length of track in Atlanta. (Library of Congress)

We are told that there are new facts coming out about Sherman. I have yet to read them. Maybe there will be some new significant document finding that will reveal that Sherman knew nothing of what his army was doing to civilian populations from Mississippi to Georgia. After 150 years of intense scholarly investigation, though, I doubt it.

At the end of the Times article, Professor Cobb theorizes whether the attempt to revise history on Sherman will actually work. He says that he has sensed a shift in attitudes on his university campus in Athens, east of Atlanta. Then he states,

You all the time run into college kids who don’t know which side Sherman was on — and their parents and certainly their grandparents would be aghast to know that.

It doesn’t matter what your opinion of Sherman is if you don’t even know who he is. However, it is a lot easier to get a tabula rasa to accept whitewashed facts and opinions formed from them. What are they teaching in those colleges anyway?

Next week, I will examine some of the facts about Sherman’s army’s tactics during the Civil War. Then the reader can determine for his self or her self if Sherman’s actions were commendable or condemnable.




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