Sherman’s March in Myth and Memory
by Edward Caudill and
Rowman & Littlefield, 2008
Memory studies are now a recognized discipline within the canon of Civil War historiography, with leading historians Gary Gallagher, David Blight and William C. Davis among those contributing important monographs in this area in recent years. The evolving field also received a significant boost in 2002 when Edward Caudill and Paul Ashdown, professors of journalism and electronic media at the University of Tennessee, published The Mosby Myth: A Confederate Hero in Life and Legend, followed three years later by The Myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Both books used the materials and methodology that are integral to the study of public history and collective memory to deliver a cutting-edge analysis of two of the war’s most controversial personalities.
Sherman’s March in Myth and Reality is Caudill and Ashdown’s latest foray into the shadowy regions wherein myth and public memory reside. The lyrically written introduction to the third book of this essential trilogy should, in fact, be read as a primer by anyone seeking to follow in their footsteps. As the authors point out, “History involving public perceptions is both treacherous and promising.”
Caudill and Ashdown show why no event during the Civil War produced a wider variety of public perceptions than the ruthless march from Atlanta to Savannah, Ga., undertaken by a mercurial, flaming-haired Union general and 62,000 of his blue-coated locusts between November 16 and December 21, 1864.
The logistics of William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea have been well chronicled countless times, but Caudill and Ashdown are after something quite different here. This work is “an interdisciplinary study of the remembered Sherman, North and South, and the ideas that shaped the memory of him.” The authors use newspapers, literature, historical studies, movies, television, monuments, music and other forms of popular culture in their effort to discover how the public perceptions of Sherman and his March evolved. They conclude that “the story of Sherman became two competing narratives,” beginning during the decades-long Gilded Age of American industrial expansionism that followed the war. “The Northern, or Yankee, mind enshrined an individual who exemplified opportunism and efficiency; a man who was bold and creative in making the system meet its goals. The same person for the still-defensive South symbolized the soulless machine of industrialism, in which the cultural values and traditions were sacrificed for mere goals.”
When the war ended, the struggle for control of how its historical memory would be constructed began in earnest and Lost Cause proponents quickly made Sherman’s March emblematic of an idyllic way of life mercilessly destroyed by an industrial juggernaut. The authors explore the not insignificant irony that it was a man who lived, worked and had many friends in the South and admired many of its social conventions who became the region’s ultimate archfiend—even more so than Ulysses S. Grant, his good friend and the conqueror of Confederate icon Robert E. Lee. “Grant only defeated an army,” the authors point out. “Sherman killed a culture.” The complexities of Sherman’s personality as both insane, according to a headline in the December 11, 1861, Cincinnati Commercial, and as a master of strategic movements, as noted in the September 3, 1864, New York Herald, made him good copy for the popular press, even though Sherman never trusted the Fourth Estate.
Entire chapters are devoted to how professional historians and biographers have depicted Sherman and the March, as well as Sherman’s place in America’s literary canon, and his legacy in song, stage and the silver screen. The authors quote an interesting passage from Harry S. Stout’s critically acclaimed book Upon the Altar of Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, in which he calls Sherman a “reigning deity wherever he went, with no higher authority to check his martial impulses.” Stout also offered an eerie psychological analysis of the general, contending that, almost singular among Civil War generals, Sherman had forsaken God and that a “sort of madness enveloped him and his soldiers as they marched into the heart of darkness, destroying without resistance.” Clearly, Sherman’s ghost still evokes considerable hyperbole tinged with a hint of cliché, even from a supposedly unbiased commentator.
The book’s final chapter examines how the psychic wounds inflicted by the March fester in contemporary Southern society. The authors recount a trip to Georgia taken in 1993 by the late Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter tragically killed in Pakistan in 2002. Pearl found that Sherman’s image was starting to become more balanced, but he met Southerners who still called him “a barbarian, a hooligan, and a war criminal.” The publisher’s marketing copy for E.L. Doctorow’s 2005 novel The March reads, in part, “As the Civil War was moving toward its inevitable conclusion, General William Tecumseh Sherman marched 60,000 Union troops through Georgia and the Carolinas, leaving a 60-mile-wide trail of death, destruction, looting, thievery and chaos.” It seems Sherman, the March to the Sea and the myths that surround them both will be part of America’s public memory for a long time to come.