Sherman’s March in Myth and Memory


This is a book by Edward Caudill and Paul Ashdown, part of a series dealing with memory and how myths about historical figures develop.  The other two entries discuss John Singleton Mosby and Nathan Bedford Forrest.

This isn’t a standard biography.  It does have a short biographical sketch of Sherman, but it’s primarily about how the myth of Sherman was built, and there is more than one myth.  There’s the myth of Sherman the conquering hero and victor, primarily built up by “the North,” while “the South” has built the myth of Sherman the vandal and destroyer.  “When Southerners remembered Sherman after the war, they remembered not just destruction, but humiliation.  He became a scapegoat of Southern wrath, the one to blame for what became of the Confederacy. … In Georgia in particular, Sherman emerged as the one to blame for wartime disaster.  In myth and folklore, the general personally was accused of torching buildings, even entire cities; stealing horses (white ones were favored); plundering households.  It was and is easier to create myths based upon an individual than on a faceless army.” [p. 2]  The irony of Sherman is that he considered himself to be a friend of the South and had an affinity for Southerners.  After the war he worked for the development of the South to help its recovery.  Though he did hold a grudge against some prominent Southerners.  “He continued to hold in contempt, and to insult, the traitors, especially [Jefferson] Davis.  ‘No one has ever questioned the personal integrity of Mr. Davis, but we his antagonists have ever held him as impersonating a bad cause, from ambitious motives, often exhibiting malice, arrogance, and pride.” [p. 33]  Known to be a racist, he did speak out after the war for African-Americans.  “In the October 1888 issue of North American Review, he argued that black Americans should be assured of the right to vote.  He warned of another civil war if blacks continued to be denied suffrage.  States that denied the right to black Americans–which largely meant Southern states–should have reduced representation in Congress.  Sherman’s racism seemed to have mellowed, but he was as perplexing as ever in terms of the South.  He was on good terms with the South and Southerners, but would harshly rebuke them.  And he did so in the context of a subject–the rights of blacks–to which he had appeared rather indifferent most of his life.” [Ibid.]

One aspect of Sherman that comes across clearly was his antipathy toward the press.  He didn’t like reporters and considered them to be no more than spies.  He didn’t allow reporters to use the telegraph to file stories during his march to the sea.  The relationship between Sherman and reporters affected the later building of myths about him.

A number of other factors played into the myth building.  One of these was the Southern Historical Society.  “Its first president was former general Jubal Early, whose 1872 speech on the anniversary of Lee’s birthday was the genesis for several Lost Cause themes: the superiority of Lee; the special gallantry of the Army of Northern Virginia; its defeat at the hands of a Northern machine; and the special pride that Southerners could take in their leaders.  The celebration of Southern valor resonated across the South and swayed Southern historiography for the rest of the century, with former Confederate soldiers even sending their manuscripts to Early for his approval before publication.  The cult of the Lost Cause shifted the focus to Lee and his army, and away from Davis and Confederate political history.  In such a framework, it would also become easier to vilify Sherman, not for destroying a rogue state, but as a cog in the gears that ground a noble civilization and its noble traditions into submission.” [p. 53]

Historians played a role in determining how Sherman would be remembered, sometimes mythically.  The British military historian Basil H. Liddell Hart was an early historian who “most successfully explained Sherman in terms of modern military theory, and made him famous.” [p. 67]  In Sherman, Liddell Hart “found a commander who had anticipated most of his principles of warfare and who knew how to move an army.  He called Sherman the ‘most original genius of the American Civil War,’ and saw in his mode of warfare lessons to be learned by the generals in the war’s Eastern theater, with their ‘battle-lusting strategy.’ [Ibid.]  Lloyd Lewis “meticulously researched Sherman and his military exploits, and credited him with conducting the first ‘modern’ war.  He admired Sherman and his generalship, and portrayed him as something of a raging barbarian, comparing him to the Goths in his devastation.  But Sherman was raging righteously for Lewis, who repeatedly drew on biblical imagery, not just in the title, but in a parallel to the plague of locusts, and even a chapter titled ‘Angel of the Lord.’ [pp. 67-68]  More modern historians include John Marszalek, Steven Woodworth, Stephen Davis, Richard McMurry, and Albert Castel.  By and large they give a balanced view of Sherman with “a careful, detailed critique.” [p. 69]  The authors do an exhaustive survey of the many historians who have written on Sherman, giving descriptions of how each depicted the general.

Historians were not the only ones to write about Sherman.  Novelists and poets made contributions to Sherman’s memory, and in many cases to mythmaking about Sherman.  The authors again exhaustively survey the literature and describe the depictions of Sherman in various sources, including the writings of the Agrarians and Margaret Mitchell.

Books were not the only fictional accounts to shape memory about Sherman.  Movies and television had a role to play, and the authors don’t neglect these sources.  In addition, they discuss how Sherman has been portrayed in plays and in songs.

Over the years, a number of people have traveled the route of Sherman’s March to the Sea, and many of these folks made contributions to Sherman’s memory either themselves or in the reaction to what they were doing.  This included Father Tom Sherman, the general’s son, who seems to have inherited his father’s temper and sharp tongue.

This is an excellent study of memory and mythmaking, and I can recommend it to those who wish to understand how memory of historical figures is crafted.  Something I would have liked to have seen in it is more discussion of those like Mildred Lewis Rutherford of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who culled a number of sources taken out of context and created a huge mythology about Sherman and his March to the Sea.  However, the book is very good as it is.

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