Through the Heart of Dixie


This is Anne Sara Rubin’s book about how we have remembered Sherman’s March.  This book was really well done.  She tells us, “The March was explicitly designed to show ‘the World, foreign and domestic,’ that Jefferson Davis’s Confederacy was powerless to resist Union military power.  Sherman candidly explained his reasoning: ‘This may not be war, but rather Statesmanship, nevertheless it is overwhelming to my mind that there are thousands of people abroad and in the South who will reason thus–‘if the North can march an Army right through the South, it is proof positive that the North can prevail in this contest,’ leaving only open the question of its willingness to use that power.’  And Sherman was quite willing to use that power, attacking the Confederacy militarily, materially, and spiritually.” [p. 3]

Professor Rubin starts with “Stories of the Great March,” which is a basic narrative of Sherman’s March to the Sea and then through the Carolinas.  She tells us how “Sherman divided his sixty-thousand-man army into two wings, each one comprising two corps: the XV and the XVII in the right wing, the XIV and the XX in the left wing.  General Oliver O. Howard commanded the right wing, with Peter J. Osterhaus leading the XV Corps and Francis Preston Blair Jr. the XVII Corps.  General Henry W. Slocum took charge of the left wing, with Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the Confederate president) leading the XIV Corps and Alpheus S. Williams the XX Corps.  Sherman would ride with the left wing.  Almost five thousand cavalrymen under Judson Kilpatrick would weave back and forth.  Although Sherman’s March was famous for its dictate that the soldiers should live off the bounty of the countryside, that did not mean that they traveled without supplies.  The soldiers started out accompanied by twenty-five hundred wagons and six hundred ambulances, thousands of horses, mules, and cattle.  They traveled lighter than they might have otherwise, but this was not pure living off the land.” [p. 9]  Sherman planned his march carefully, having fully studied both maps of the route and the 1860 Census.  “Although both wings headed for Savannah, the left wing initially did so in the direction of Augusta and the right via Macon, although neither city was visited by the troops.  The distance between the two wings were further subdivided, so in general the men marched in four columns.  Thus, the distance from the edge of one column of one wing to the furthest of the other could be as much as fifty miles, but not a solid fifty miles.  Rather than imagining the March as mowing down everything in its path, it is better to think of it as rows of stitches, with untouched spaces in between.  Confederate opposition was light and sporadic: eight thousand cavalrymen under Joseph Wheeler and some companies of the Georgia state militia.” [p. 9]  Sherman set forth his rules for the march in Special Field Orders No. 120 [OR Series I, Vol 39, Part 3, pp. 713714]  She says, “Most of these rules were honored more in the breach than in reality, but their very existence gave Sherman (and, to an arguably lesser extent, his men) a degree of moral cover.  They certainly allowed for a certain elasticity–harsher treatment of some people in some places, leniency elsewhere.” [p. 10]  On leaving Atlanta, Sherman told his chief engineer, Orlando M. Poe, to destroy everything of military value.  “Despite stories to the contrary, however, the entire city was not destroyed–four hundred buildings (about 70 percent of the city), most of them private homes, remained.  Civilians moved back, many of them living in railcars that could no longer be used, as Sherman’s men had ruined the tracks.” [p. 10]

The bulk of Professor Rubin’s book is about how Sherman’s March has been remembered in history.  She talks about stories of cities or buildings spared ostensibly because of an old girlfriend of Sherman’s or because a citizen made a Masonic sign.  Generally, though, southerners told tales of the March that have been handed down which tended to place themselves in a good light and cast the Union soldiers as the villains.  “Southern stories of Sherman tend to fall into one of two genres, emphasizing either victimization at the hands of evil Yankees or the cleverness of Southern whites in protecting themselves and their property from harm.  Different stories seemed to serve different purposes.  Cruel Union soldiers, who terrorized women and children for sport, served the Lost Cause well, allowing Southern whites to feel a sense of moral superiority toward their conquerors.  When Union soldiers were shown to be thieves or killers of dogs and horses, they also seemed alien and gave credence to Southern myths of cultural difference.  Their cruelty justified Southern white desires for separation.  But at the same time, such stories painted white Southerners as helpless victims, inadvertently displaying weakness in a society that prized strength, appearance, and honor over all else.  So another genre of story appeared, one that showed Southern civilians fighting back against Sherman’s marchers.  These tales featured narrow escapes, artfully hidden valuables, and sometimes outright defiance.  These allowed Southern whites to recast the March from a story of domination and devastation to one of pride and superiority.” [pp. 46-47]

There were also tales handed down by African-American southerners, including stories of Lincoln traveling the south in disguise before the election.  There were stories by and about the “bummers,” foragers who went out on their own during the March.  Sherman himself did much to shape memory through his memoirs and other writings.  Sherman traveled around the south in 1879.  “While he had told an acquaintance in 1874 that it was too soon to return to Atlanta, he felt no such qualms this time, for his itinerary retraced both the Atlanta campaign and the March to the Sea.  Perhaps it was the conclusion of Reconstruction and the removal of troops from the South in 1877 that enabled the trip.  At any rate, Sherman and his party left Washington on January 25, 1879, and arrived in Chattanooga on January 27, greeted by cheering crowds and local dignitaries.  Then they set out for Lookout Mountain, and arrived in Atlanta on January 29.  According to the Atlanta Constitution, ‘a sort of light good humor pervaded the crowd, spiced up with curiosity to see the man who burned Atlanta.  There was no perceptible indignation or feeling of prejudice.’ ” [pp. 129-130]  Sherman enjoyed his visit to Atlanta, and Atlantans appeared to enjoy his visit as well.  “He and his party,] which included his daughters Ellie and Lizzie, were feted with a ball and tour of McPherson barracks.  The general joined eagerly in the dancing.  The Shermans also dined with local leaders and attended several receptions.” [p. 130]  Sherman also revisited Atlanta in 1881, taking part in Atlanta’s International Cotton Exposition.  “Sherman attended the exposition on November 15, 1881, exactly seventeen years after he left Atlanta on the March to the Sea (although several newspapers erroneously reported that this was the anniversary of Atlanta’s burning).  This was a pure coincidence, as he was there to take part in Mexican War Veteran’s Day.  Sherman initially refused to join the scheduled speakers on the platform, but eventually relented in response to the crowd’s chanting ‘Sherman!  Sherman!’  He spoke briefly of his pride in having served as a soldier in the Mexican War, and of his pride in being an American.  He struck a note of unity and reconciliation, noting that ‘to-day we are the same nation, the same soldiers, the same Government, the same flag, and, so far as I am concerned, I am just as friendly to Georgia as I am to my own native state of Ohio.’  This proclamation was greeted with ‘immense applause,’ and one newspaper report described him as ‘enthusiastically received.’ ” [p. 131]  There was a change in tone regarding how southerners viewed Sherman beginning with the publication of Jefferson Davis’s memoirs, and this view was picked up by a variety of lost cause writers.  Professor Rubin takes on the charges by lost causers that Sherman was a terrorist: “But what keeps Sherman from being a terrorist, in the modern sense of the word, is that he was operating during wartime, with the full sanction and support of his government.  When the war ended, so too did his hostilities and destruction.  A better analogy to terrorism in the wake of the Civil War would be the waves of violence that confronted African Americans during Reconstruction as they sought to exercise their new economic, social, and political freedoms.  The notion that Sherman brought forth a different kind of war with the March makes sense only retrospectively.  As the nineteenth century became the twentieth, and as wars of increasing deadlines and destructive power broke out around the globe, the March seemed to reappear again and again.  Often, the analogy was strained, but it revealed much about the common understanding of the March, or of a simplified version of it.” [pp. 144-145]

A number of writers followed Sherman’s track through the south, beginning with Russell H. Conwell, a journalist and Union veteran.  Reconstruction “writers like Whitelaw Reid, Sidney Andrews, John Trowbridge, and John Dennett came to see the impact of the war on the region, to gauge the degree to which former Confederates were cowed and defeated, and to see firsthand the freedmen’s struggles in their new lives.  While their routes often varied, their impressions rarely did.” [p. 153]  Union veteran Sergeant Gilbert Bates marched through the south carrying the Stars and Stripes in 1868, being welcomed wherever he went.  Father Thomas Sherman set out to follow his famous father’s route, but because he was retracing the route with a number of soldiers this was a very controversial trip.  Many southerners felt insulted that Father Sherman would feel the need for a military escort, even though this wasn’t the purpose of traveling with the soldiers.  “By all accounts he was bitterly disappointed that the expedition had caused such a fuss and was frustrated about how it had all turned out.  By the time the group returned to Fort Oglethorpe, he was exhausted and returned to California as quickly as possible.  Stopping in Chicago on his way home, he blamed ‘politicians’ rather than the ordinary people of the South for ‘stirring up any unkindly feeling between the North and the South.’  His intentions were entirely good, he continued, and remarked that ‘the people along the march were glad to see me.  We shook hands and swapped stories.’ ” [pp. 160-161]  A number of other travelers made the trek as well.  “David J. de Laubenfels, a geographer at the University of Georgia during the 1950s, was a very different sort of traveler from the others.  A member of his family had a journal that had been kept by Captain John Rziha, chief topographical engineer of Sherman’s XIV Corps.  The maps in the journal covered a sixty-mile section of the March in Georgia, from just east of Covington to Louisville, which is southeast of Milledgeville (with a six-mile gap around Eatonton).  In the summer of 1955, de Laubenfels retraced the path in Rziha’s journal and then published two scholarly articles about his findings.  Rziha’s maps were notable for their level of detail–he included information about topography, homes, barns, and other outbuildings, fields and forests and roads.  De Laubenfels found the maps to be ‘exceedingly accurate, it being possible to find the hills, roads, streams, and even houses exactly where he mapped them for most of the route.’  He did not, however, fall into the trap of believing that the landscape had remained static for ninety-one years, noting that the composition of fields and forests had changed considerably, and that many new roads had sprung up.  De Laubenfels was struck by how many of the houses that Rziha had marked in 1864 were still standing in 1955, and he realized that his findings had implications for the myth that Sherman’s men burned everything in their path.  He was able to find seventy-two houses between Covington and Milledgeville, including three that Rziha had marked as ‘ruined’ or ‘on fire’ on his map.  At least twenty-two were still standing when de Laubenfels came looking, and he received confirmation that at least nine others had been destroyed since the end of the Civil War.  He also found another twenty-seven sites that had new buildings on them; he could not pinpoint with certainty what happened to the original buildings, but assumed that at least some of them had survived Sherman.  While the landscape and the patchwork of fields and farms had changed considerably over the intervening decades, he attributed those changes to broader structural shifts in Southern agriculture, rather than the ephemeral impact of the March.” [pp. 166-167]

Sherman’s March has also been remembered in song and in photography in addition to stories, and Professor Rubin tells us about those instances as well.  She starts this chapter by quoting some satire: ” ‘Tell about your family plantation burned by Sherman’s raiders,’ advised the satirical book Will Success Spoil Jeff Davis‘s list of qualifications to be ‘an amateur Confederate.’  ‘Grit your teeth when you say ‘Sherman,’ ‘ it continued, ‘and challenge onlookers to sing ‘Marching through Georgia.’ ‘ ” [p. 175]  Professor Rubin tells us, “Sherman’s March was being memorialized in song even as its men still slogged through the swamps of South Carolina.” [p. 175]  This was the song, “Sherman’s March to the Sea,” by Samuel Hawkins Marshall Byers of the 5th Iowa, who wrote it while a prisoner of the confederates.

Sherman’s March has also been remembered in novels as well as in movies, and Professor Rubin tells us about those cases as well, including the most famous case, Gone With the Wind.  She also considers the Ken Burns miniseries.  She ends the book with her own journey to follow in Sherman’s path.

I really enjoyed this book.  It’s not a typical history of just the March itself, but rather tells us how we as a people have remembered the March and the men who conducted it, especially Sherman.  Don’t expect this to be a military history, but rather a history of memorialization and an account of how memory was formed and changed over the years.  I highly recommend it.



  1. Anne Peasley · · Reply

    Thanks for this.

    Sent from my iPad


    1. You’re welcome. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Pat Young · · Reply

    Al, if you had to pick one book on Sherman’s March to read, what would it be (secondary source only)?

    1. That’s difficult to answer, Pat. It depends on what I’m looking for. Do I want a book about how it’s been depicted? Do I want a military history of it? Do I want a social history of it? Also, there are about four more books on the march in my To Be Read pile that I couldn’t consider because I haven’t read them yet.

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