Through the Heart of Dixie: Sherman’s March and American Memory
By Anne Sarah Rubin, University of North Carolina Press 2014, $35
Few events have stirred as powerful a response from historically minded Americans as the marches William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union forces made from Atlanta to the Atlantic Ocean in late 1864, and through South Carolina into North Carolina a few months later. The marches and their deliberately destructive character were a consequence of two major factors. The first was that months of operating in northern Georgia impressed upon Sherman the difficulty of relying on a long railroad line for supplies, which encouraged him to pursue what proved a remarkably successful experiment in letting “war feed war.” The second was a sense among the Union high command that they needed show the Southern populace that the Confederate government could not protect them from a Federal army determined to apply the hard hand of war.
To be sure, the marches sowed great bitterness in the regions through which Sherman’s men marched— vividly making the very point about Confederate impotence they were designed to. To the soldiers in the marches, they proved grand and unforgettable experiences of which they were proud.
The marches themselves are not the focus of Anne Sarah Rubin’s excellent Through the Heart of Dixie (though in the course of the book she provides a pretty good history of them), but how participants and posterity have remembered them. Drawing on an impressive range of source material, Rubin considers a wide variety of views and actors, from participants and witnesses to novelists and filmmakers. Whether the subject is the “bummers” who helped keep Yankee soldiers fed, the burning of Columbia, Ebenezer Creek, impressions of postwar visitors to the scenes of the marches or the man affectionately remembered as “Uncle Billy” (and not so affectionately remembered as a “merchant of terror”), readers will find here a fascinating consideration of how Americans have remembered them and the events of 1864-65. They will also find compelling analyses of the various participants who fashioned memory of the marches and put it in the context of larger developments in national life.
Better yet, though Rubin offers a treatment more than thorough enough to satisfy most readers, she has also developed an impressive website of additional materials for those who might want even more. It can be found at shermansmarch.org.
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.