Demon of the Lost Cause

Demon Lost Cause

This is a book by Wesley Moody about how Sherman’s image in the south has changed over the years.  It’s really about the influence of lost cause mythology.  In the Introduction, the author relates, “On a recent visit to Eatonton, Georgia, I visited the Uncle Remus Museum and was regaled with stories of how Sherman had destroyed every home in the town.  I then took a self-guided tour of Eatonton’s beautiful antebellum homes.” [p. 1]

One thing we see from this study is how Sherman conducted his operations in accordance with the customary usage of war at the time.  One example is his conduct in Memphis, Tennessee.  Confederate guerrillas fired on transports along the Mississippi River.  “Sherman dealt with this problem in the most direct way available to him.  He instituted a policy of reprisals.  On September 24, 1862, he ordered the town of Randolph, Tennessee, to be burned in response for the attack upon the Forest Queen.  Three days later, Sherman issued Special Order Number 254, which announced that, for every ship fired upon, ten families sympathetic to the Confederate cause would be expelled from Memphis.  This was no empty threat.  On October 18, 1862, Sherman forced forty families to leave Memphis.  He then destroyed all the buildings that could have been used by the guerrillas for fifteen miles south of Memphis on the Arkansas side of the river.  Not only have biographers unfriendly to Sherman often portrayed this as a sign of things to come, the first hints of the total war he would unleash upon Southern civilians, but they also credit him as being the originator of this policy.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  When Sherman gave Special Order Number 254, it was a long accepted strategy for dealing with guerrillas.  The order Sherman gave was very similar to the orders given by Admiral David Farragut as he led his squadron up the Mississippi River from New Orleans.  When an officer and several sailors from the Hartford were shot at by mounted men on their way to shore in Baton Rouge, Farragut ordered the city to be shelled.  When the mayor came out under a flag of truce to ask that the firing cease because it was the work of guerrillas and not the city, Farragut told him that any attack from the shore on his men or ships would be answered by the complete destruction of the closest city, town, or plantation.  This was accepted naval policy.  It was also accepted army policy.” [p. 14-15]  And this wasn’t just the Federal viewpoint.  “Had Sherman felt it necessary to justify his actions at Memphis or any other action during the war he most likely would have referred his accusers to Emmerich De Vattel’s The Law of Nations.  This was considered the standard work on the laws of war.  The Swiss-born Vattel was a diplomat in Saxony.  His Law of Nations, first published in 1758, was especially popular with Americans. … Sherman’s actions throughout the war not only were justified by Vattel’s widely accepted philosophies but were actually quite tame compared to the laws put forward by Vattel.  According to The Law of Nations, all the citizens of a country are at war when their nation is at war.  Of course, he makes the distinction between combatants and noncombatants, but the rights of an army at war always supersede those of the enemy population.  Sherman kept a copy of Vattel with him throughout the war.” [p. 15]

Much of the destruction usually attributed to Sherman was actually done by the confederate cavalry of Joseph Wheeler, something the Georgia citizens of the time correctly viewed.  “Wheeler’s only real success came in alienating the general population.  There were enough complaints in Southern newspapers about the thefts and destruction carried out by Wheeler’s men that the Daily South Carolinian felt obliged to publish a defense of Wheeler.  According to the article, any loss at the hands of Wheeler’s cavalry was the ‘legitimate results of the presence anywhere of an army’ or was the result of ‘exceptional villains’ who were ‘cowardly stragglers.’ ” [p. 32]

In the years after the war, Sherman was actually more popular in the south than many today would think possible.  “Southern generals who published their memoirs during this period disagreed with Sherman on aspects of the war, mostly on questions of strategy and the ratings of certain generals.  Even the most critical of memoirs stopped well short of accusing Sherman of outright brutality as Hooker had done.” [p. 62]  Joseph Hooker had claimed Sherman was brutal, but he had an axe to grind because Sherman passed him over for command of the Army of the Tennessee, instead giving that command to Oliver O. Howard, which led Hooker to submit his resignation in a pique.  Both Joseph Johnston and John Bell Hood reached out to Sherman after the war.  “Had Sherman been the ‘Merchant of Terror’ as later historians portray him, it seems unlikely that his wartime antagonists would have sought him out for friendship or help.” [p. 64]

For the first fifteen years after the war, in fact, Sherman was viewed positively in the South.  “During Reconstruction he was the political ally of the South, from his surrender terms to Johnston to his stand against the Ku Klux Klan Acts and his less than lukewarm acceptance of African Americans in the army.   This, of course, would not last, however.  As the generation that fought the war aged and their children became adults, Southerners began to look at their war in a different way.  The antebellum period was romanticized as were the men who fought to preserve that way of life.  This view of the Confederacy became so strong it became almost a secular religion.  The trinity of this religion were Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis.  Of the three, Sherman criticized two of them severely.  Heresy was Sherman’s real crime.” [p. 88]

With the rise of the lost cause lies, Sherman’s reputation began to suffer.  One lost cause publication, Confederate Veteran, polluted the historical record in particular.  Based in Tennessee, it focused primarily on the Western Theater, and made Sherman a particular target.  “John Bell Hood and later Braxton Bragg ordered Wheeler to destroy everything that could be used in front of Sherman.  Wheeler would be strongly defended against these charges by Lost Cause historians.  He had to be.  If Wheeler’s men, along with Confederate conscription agents, had been responsible for many of the things that Sherman’s men were blamed for, it would be a serious blow to Lost Cause mythology.  To trace over the map of Georgia, to determine who was responsible for what, would be a nearly impossible task.  However, there are letters to the editors of Southern newspapers that predate Sherman’s March to the Sea complaining of ‘Wheeler’s Men.’  According to an article in the Fayetteville Observer during the war, General Wheeler was so distressed about the poor reputation his command was receiving that he sent a detachment to the rear of Sherman’s army to ‘apprehend the marauders.’  According tot he report, these men were Confederate deserters and convicts from the state prison at Milledgeville.  No mention was made of stragglers from the Union army.” [p. 112]

Sherman’s portrayal in film and novels helped to establish the false view of him as a brutal officer.  And the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans contributed their own phony histories.  Over time, the view became widespread that Sherman was responsible for wholesale destruction.  While there was some destruction not related to military necessity caused by some Union soldiers, Sherman’s reputation over the years has gone far beyond what can be supported by the actual historical record.

This is a good book for understanding how Sherman’s image in the South changed from generally positive to mostly negative.  There are a couple of problems, though.  The editor didn’t do a great job, as several typos made their way into the book, and on Page 8 the author asserts Sherman didn’t own any slaves.  We know that Sherman had owned a slave in Mobile and a slave in Charleston before the war, but at some point prior to 1860 appears to have gotten rid of both of them.  While the errors are a bit frustrating, I can still recommend this book for anyone seeking to understand the change in attitude toward Sherman.


  1. Wow! There’s probably some swamp land that someone could sell to you, if you really believe this myth. And you claim that the Lost Causers are myth-makers. LOL.

    1. Thus proving the point that lost causers aren’t interested in accurate history but rather only in wallowing in their own ignorance.

  2. Pat Eakin · · Reply

    Al, I notice that eshonk made her critisism without backing it up with any evidence. She knows who I am. Al, I’m sure you’ve noticed that the pro- Confederate crowd never bothers to read a book, or any reviews of a book, that criticizes their beloved “lost cause”. I’m sure that you are aware that when ever you quote a noted historian, such as Gary Gallagher, or Edward Ayers, they can never find any pro-Southern history professor with similar or equal qualifications to contradict what they wrote.

    What Gen. Sherman did was similar to the strategy used in the war against Germany in the 1940s. The difference was, Sherman didn’t have airplanes. He was just doing his duty by trying to win the war a quickly as possible.

    1. If they quote anyone, they like to quote Thomas DiLorenzo, an economics professor, and Charles Adams, someone with no qualifications either.

      Actually, Sherman’s actions weren’t similar to World War II at all, Pat. What he did was go after infrastructure instead of people. The Combined Bombing Campaign sought to destroy factories and other facilities and also to kill workers. Sherman wasn’t seeking to kill anyone. He wanted to destroy infrastructure necessary to sustain the confederacy. The bombardment of Atlanta was designed to force the confederates to give up the city. As it was a fortified, defended city, it was perfectly legal to bombard it. He would have been perfectly happy if no one had been killed in the bombardment as long as it forced the confederates to evacuate. The confederates were the ones to burn Atlanta first. One great distinguishing factor of Sherman’s campaigns in the March to the Sea and in the march north through the Carolinas was that Sherman sought to avoid killing people.

  3. Pat Eakin · · Reply

    Were WW2 pilots of US bombers trying to kill workers? Under the circumstances what choice did they have? Anyway, I see the difference between Sherman’s march and the bombing of Germany and I thank you for that information.
    Any chance that a pro-Confederate will find a qualified professor of US history to verify any of their claims?

    1. Yes, killing workers was one of the objectives. The British bombed at night, when workers were in their homes, and the US bombed during daylight, when the workers were in the factories. Bombing at night was highly inaccurate, so they bombed the areas, and they used firebombing as well as conventional explosives. Even daylight precision bombing wasn’t all that precise. Entire cities were destroyed. All those homes weren’t empty. With the workers dead, even if the factories were rebuilt production would be crippled.

      Clyde Wilson is a qualified professor of US history, and he’s a pretty well-known neoconfederate.

  4. Pat Eakin · · Reply

    I thought we bombed at night and the British bombed during the day so our planes and their planes wouldn’t get into unintended aerial crashes; not for the desire to take civilian workers lives.

    Yes, I do recall reading about Clyde Wilson. I read online that he spoke on the good old days when Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill could respect the valor of the Confederacy. Are you familiar with Frank Owsley? He had doctorate in history from the University of Chicago. I read his article, “Egocentric Sectionalism”, written in 1941, in Kenneth Stampp’s “The Causes of the Civil War.

    To be fair, about 6 or so years ago on a Civil War debate site I shared Dr Owsley’s article in hopes that Southerners would look up more information on him or find even more of his wrtings. I’m sure I did the same after reading about Clyde Wilson. I take pride in the fact that I am not afraid to read information written by a phd in American History who disagrees with me. So far, from my online experience, pro-Confederates are not willing to do the same. Just as bad, when I told them about historians sympathetic to the Southern cause, such as Frank Owsley, they simply ignored me. I don’t understand why so many Southerners rely on the SCV and DiLorenzo and won’t even bother to try and look up any University trained historians to validate their opinions.

    1. Owsley’s one of the old guard, along with Ludwell Johnson and Frank Van Diver. They’ve passed on, now. Wilson is still living, which is why I gave you his name.

  5. Yes, it would be hard to accept that Sherman and Johnston could be postwar friends if a fraction of what is said by lost cause folks about Sherman was true.

    Interesting. I wasn’t aware of Vattel’s book or that Sherman carried a copy. That’s a pretty strong argument in favor of Sherman clearly trying to work within accepted norms.

    BTW, I only recently found the time to catch up on some of your work here, Al. Lots of good stuff.

    1. Thanks very much, Bert.

      1. You are most welcome.

        I read though your 15-part Lee/Gettysburg analysis. As you know from a discussion you and I shared a while back elsewhere, I don’t agree 100%, but 90-something percent agreement ain’t bad. I thought it was amazingly well thought out, and a great analysis.

        BTW, I love the picture of you and Sallie. 😉

        1. I’ll take 90+% agreement. Thanks again for your kind words. I try to visit Sallie as often as I can. 🙂

  6. Pat Eakin · · Reply

    In an attempt to be fair to those who follow the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and other “it was about tariffs, not slavery crowd”, is it possible that today’s universities are so controlled by liberal prejudice pro Lincoln ant-states right snobs that they refuse to grant degrees to those who won’t agree with scholars such as Edward Ayers, or Gary Gallagher?

    1. Not even remotely possible. What they insist on is basing arguments in actual history, not fantasy. If an argument about something other than slavery can be made based in actual history and not fantasy, there wouldn’t be a problem.

  7. Pat Eakin · · Reply

    Al, You know that, and I know that. Any chance that the “it was about tariffs not slavery” crowd will ever accept the facts?

    1. Some individuals may realize they’ve been hoodwinked. Others have what it takes to be neoconfederates.

  8. I would guess my two of my GG grandfathers and several other ancestors that surrendered to Sherman after given rations and treated with respect during the surrender didn’t have a bad opinion of Sherman.

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