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Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History

Wesley Moody; University of Missouri Press

In this latest entry in the University of Missouri Press’ “Shades of Blue and Gray” series, Wesley Moody explores the myths that still surround William T. Sherman. First is the accusation that he was insane, based on Secretary of War Simon Cameron’s report that Sherman “was touched in the head.” Publicized in the Cincinnati Commercial on December 11, 1861, that comment followed Sherman to the grave. In reality, he understood how different this new war would be from any fought in the past. The numbers of troops he requested of Cameron, viewed as extravagant in 1861, would become commonplace by 1863. Similar pragmatism, in the form of financial considerations for his family, lay behind his resigning from the Army when promotions were too slow—and his reluctance to take a high command at the war’s outset, knowing those who did so would soon be blamed and replaced for the first failures.

Moody’s main focus concerns two persistent questions about Sherman’s place in history. Countering charges that he was a “monster” who destroyed Georgia on his March to the Sea, Moody cites accounts from Southern women testifying that Sherman’s men protected them. It was in fact a second generation of Southerners that stigmatized Sherman as a “monster” and characterized Ulysses S. Grant as a “butcher.”

Moody also investigates the notion of Sherman as the inventor of “total war,” developed mostly from the writings of British military theorists such as Sir Garnet Wolseley, Basil Henry Liddell Hart and John Frederick Charles Fuller. All of them were traditionalists who believed in small professional armies, and Sherman’s decision to make his army more mobile with lighter logistics, combined with economic warfare, led them to depict him as an innovative warrior. But Moody notes Sherman ignored three Georgian industrial centers: Columbus, Macon and Augusta. And after John Breckenridge became Confederate secretary of war, he created depots that stockpiled nearly 3 million rations, ensuring Robert E. Lee’s army was better supplied after Sherman’s March than before.

Those who still believe in the image conjured by the “Lost Cause” should find Moody’s book a fascinating read—and might even change their opinion about Sherman.


Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.