Evilizing General Sherman

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AndyHall

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[This was originally posted on my blog on March 3, 2012.]
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shermandemon.png


Many people have made the point that, for all their alleged disdain for “revisionist” history, those who hold to a “Southern” view of the war are themselves embracing an explicitly revisionist historical narrative. It’s a narrative that was carefully crafted in the decades following the Civil War to exonerate the Confederate cause, depict Southern leaders in the most flattering and noble way possible, and to undermine or denigrate the Union effort to highlight the contrast. This effort, which lies at the core of the Lost Cause, probably reached its zenith in the second decade of the 20th century. But with a few concessions to modern sensibilities — e.g., “faithful slaves” have now become “black Confederate soldiers” — the narrative remains largely as it was a century ago, and is held dear by many. But great longevity doesn’t make a revisionist narrative any less revisionist.

Now comes the Spring 2012 issue of the Civil War Monitor, and Thom Bassett’s cover story, “Birth of a Demon.” Bassett explains how, through several postwar tours of the South, Sherman was received and honored by both public officials and the citizenry of cities who, present-day conventional wisdom holds, should have held a burning hatred for the man. In New Orleans he was an honored guest at Mardi Gras festivities in 1879, where he was named to the royal court as “Duke of Louisiana.” He was accompanied to the theater there by his old opponent, John Bell Hood, who gave a long speech praising the former Union general. On that same trip Sherman spent three days in Atlanta, where he reported receiving “everywhere nothing but kind and courteous treatment from the highest to the lowest.” Here is what the Atlanta Weekly Constitution said of his visit, on February 4, 1879:

Yesterday General Sherman returned to the scene of this destruction and disaster, and looked upon the answer that our people have made to his torch. A proud city, prosperous almost beyond compare, throbbing with vigor and strength, and rapturous with the thrill of growth and expansion, stands before him. A people brave enough to bury their hatreds in the ruins his hands have made, and wise enough to turn their passion towards recuperation rather than revenge. . . .

It would be a stretch to say that Sherman was popular across the South, but it was clear that he was not considered the reviled monster he later was to become in some quarters.

So what changed? In 1881 Jefferson Davis published his defense of secession, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, and used it to excoriate Sherman to a degree that no other senior Confederate had, including men who’d actually faced him across the lines, like Hood. Bassett:

[Davis] called Sherman’s decision to remove Atlanta’s civilian population after the city’s surrender unparalleled in modern warfare. “Since Alva’s atrocious cruelties to the noncombatant populations of the Low Countries in the Sixteenth Century, the history of war records no instance of such barbarous cruelty as that which this order was designed to perpetrate.” . . . Davis made perfectly clear whom he considered responsible for these depredations, thundering that Sherman had issued an “inhuman order” and that the “cowardly dishonesty of its executioners was in perfect harmony with the temper and spirit of the order.”

Davis’ accusations struck a chord with Southerners, who by this time had come to see the former Confederate president as the living embodiment of the Confederate cause. Sherman provided a useful focus for the lingering resentments of former Confederates, and Davis’ book proved to be the essential catalyst. Sherman came to be reviled not so much because Southerners viewed him that way of their own experience, but because Jeff Davis told them they should.

Sherman and Davis would continue to spar over Davis’ accusations for the rest of their lives — Davis died in 1889, Sherman in 1891 — but the preferred Confederate narrative was set. Despite fifteen postwar years of enjoying relatively good relations with Southerners and an ongoing affinity for the South, Sherman was successfully cast as something inhuman, a monster, responsible for depredations nearly unmatched in human history to that point. Many today still believe that; more, in fact, than seem to have believed it in the years immediately following the war itself.

Whatever one happens to think of Uncle Billy, Bassett’s article really is a must-read as a practical example of the way historical narratives are shaped, refined, and sometimes abused. Civil War Monitor Editor-in-Chief Terry Johnston and his team have been working hard to challenge conventional ways of looking at the conflict, and Thom Bassett’s piece is an excellent example of how they’re doing just that.

It really is not your father’s Civil War magazine.
 

AndyHall

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Thanks, Ole. I wish I could post Thom Bassett's whole feature story. This is a good case of how what people today "know" about attitudes and beliefs after the war don't actually date to the conflict of 1861-65, but were created later, for a specific purpose that's been forgotten. People assume "it was always this way," when it actually wasn't.
 
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Allie

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Sherman I believe was sincere in wanting to end the war quickly. A lot of good men with reason to hate him discovered they liked him. There. Now that I've proven I can be fair, I still hate him, because he personally gave the order to destroy Randolph, not once but twice (not that there was much left the second go round) despite knowing and admitting that there were no rebels there at the time. And my people had homes in Randolph. And that's not the only thing he destroyed that I care about and would like to be able to see. I, me today, profoundly resent the loss of my family's history. Sherman and everyone who lived back then is dead today. But the history should not be gone, and it is gone, for so many people, because of him.

He was a vandal. And that's me being polite.
 

diane

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I've always wondered why Sherman wasn't vilified more for his operations in Mississippi and West Tennessee - he did a lot more damage in those states than in Georgia. Davis, though, wasn't at the end of his tether until Atlanta went down - what he was on about was Sherman's march was the death knell of the Confederacy. Davis had been encouraging the people, promising they would win, all of that - and Sherman made a liar of him. I don't think Davis lied - he believed what he said - but Sherman represented an affront to his personal honor and Southern honor in general.
 

Elennsar

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I'm not fond of Sherman for reasons much like Allie said (though I'm not aware of any ties to anyone tied in any way to what happened in Randolph).

But there's a very large difference between a man with things to answer for, and a demon who sought to ravish simply for the sake of ravishing.

And as relates to the issue of intentionally writing the "history" to make a point - it speaks poorly of Davis's knowledge of history to compare anything done in the ACW by regular army commanders (as opposed to the kind of guerrillas that were more brigands with uniforms) to the worst excesses of the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th century and claim the Yankees were worse.

That's not to excuse what was done. But Atlanta was not even a shadow of Magdeburg.
 
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JPK Huson 1863

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Oh dear. I don't know. It's a more than excellent post, thanks very much and spectacularly enlightening. Makes you wish it did not have to be, since all someone has to do is tiptoe through a thread and whisper the name ' Sherman ' to start a good, old punch-em up around here. It has always seemed crazy to me emotion rather than reason runs those threads since none of us were affected; it was 150 years for one thing. For another it was the Union army's Sherman who had him marching off to the sea, this never was a group of guerillas rampaging free of authority. Yet Sherman alone gets the Sharpied beard and staches, the never-dulled vitriol.

His taste in overly young females as girlfriends creeps me out and I'm mad at him for sending the Roswell women away ( not that the rest of Roswell was nice about them either, it wasn't just a Yankee thing ), but no one can say the man did not warn the entire country. Not about his march to the sea, but about how terrible, how awful this war would be. " You people of the South.. ". Haven't read anything else so eerily prophetic, from anyone else. Not even close. Still gives me chills.

I hope the project takes wings- talk about worthwhile since flat facts have to be included in the little folded papers in those sealed plastic packs we fish out of the bottom of the box, instruction manuals Time sends us when we profess to study History.
 

brass napoleon

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While I agree that revisionism has grossly exaggerated Sherman's actions, I think we have to guard against a revisionist stretch in the opposite direction to suggest that Sherman's actions weren't detested by Southerners (and even some Northerners) at the time. For example, here's an excerpt from a letter written home by Colonel Giles Shurtleff, commander of the 5th USCT, who were assigned to Sherman's command during the march through the Carolinas:

"I confess I have been disappointed in the action of our army while marching through the enemy's country. The plundering and pillaging have been fearful - it seems to me disgraceful. The army of course has lived on the country as far as possible. This is right. Contributions would be demanded from the civil authorities and in case they failed to make them then there should be a system of foraging organized.

But the people should in no case be stripped of the means of subsistence. I fear Sherman's army has impoverished the whole country which he has traversed. For thirty miles in rear of Sherman's army, the country is full of "foragers". They have stripped everything from the people. I do not see how the people can live during the summer. Now I am not at all sure but the people merit this and it is perhaps the just retribution of the Almighty. Still, I believe it is cruel and wicked on the part of our army.

I have prevented this sort of action in my own regiment and have gained the ill will of many officers and men in doing so. While on the march the men in the regiments next to ours would break from the ranks and rush into houses and strip them of every particle of provisions. Of course it seemed surprise to my men that they should be made an exception, while rations were short and they were worn out with hard marching. I detailed men - placed them under an officer and sent them to plantations away from the road with instructions to leave all that was necessary for the subsistence of families. In this way I obtained all that was necessary for my men and injured no one - while I maintained discipline of my regiment. In many cases hundreds of country cured hams would be found buried on plantations."


- Union Colonel Giles Shurtleff, commanding officer 5th USCT, March 29, 1865

Source: Catherine Durhant Vorhees, The Colors of Dignity, pp. 186-188 (Nookbook version)​
 
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Barrycdog

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I have just a few questions about the article. There are many theories about how Sherman was received but I don't believe feelings about Sherman waited till Davis's book 1879 to change everyone's minds.

Lets pretend I am a correspondent for Harpers Weekly and I followed Sherman's Army into Georgia and as the March to the Sea began I stopped at a local farm just visited by Union troops, found a resident there and asked, " So how is the War going for you so far?"

The what if is a far fetched notion because one Sherman did not like the news media. So the correspondent would have to move in secret. Most people left the area before Sherman got there and those that could not flee were stuck in Sherman's path. The newspaper in Atlanta even left and began reporting in Chattanooga. Most other news came from as far as Athens, Augusta and Milledgeville. But lets carry the correspondent idea a little further. The resident is talking to the reporter. What would they say? The Union army has just passed. Unless they were a die hard secessionist, or if they were thought to be a secessionist they would be very nervous to say the least. If you spoke out against the Army that just took your cattle and chickens and could take your life you would be very careful about what you say at that moment.

Let say you are Lizzie Gaines, a bolder woman, who just last her cattle and in need of a mean to survive you might have a few choice word for the current administration. You have to face the fact that there would be only a few bold enough to speak out. This is still a modest country to say the least. You have lost loved ones and saw what your opinion about secession got you. Kinda leaves a lump in your throat.

Not long after you are no longer in Georgia. Your now in Federal District 3 and your Governor has been replaced with a puppet. A puppet delivering edicts from the new administration. Do you speak out now? If you look at some of the Atlanta papers then you did hear some speaking out but may did with a pen name like "Bill Arp" and some with a one word name like SOLDIER or CONCERNED. Generally though no matter how unhappyyou were no one spoke out because they were much to busy picking up their lives. They were done with war. No one appreciated John Wilkes Booth at the time either because they wanted to move on.

Just like today you had many veterans who were displaced, homeless, and if you cant call it PTSD you label it whatever. Would they speak out? and who would listen? By 1879, the only people who might of had the gumption to speak out was the Klan and they chose to wear a hood and work in secret.

By 1879, Atlanta was in resurgence, rising out of the ashes so to speak. By the Cotton Exposition, the newspapers referred to the old veterans rivalry as old hat with cartoons showing two very old veterans one in blue and the other in tattered grey preparing to fight. At Kennesaw mountain, local residents seeded the area with mini balls for veterans to pick up souvenirs. The war was over and many wanted to put strife behind them. At that point even the most bitter residents or veterans were pretty close to passing away. Was it a good time to speak out then? No, but there are plenty of stories about what happened.
 

Elennsar

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Judging by that Georgia's 1873 senators are ex-Confederate generals

http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=G000313
http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=C000724

(I'm not counting Stephens and Johnson (as ex-Confederate politicians) because they weren't seated, although if we want to be completely accurate they're elected in 1866)

I'm really not seeing the foundation for the idea that Georgians post-war were unable to speak out any sooner.


There might be plenty of accounts of stuff like what Shurtleff is lamenting from the POV of those on the receiving end. But this is not the stuff of Sherman the Inhuman Monster, who burned everything in his path for kicks and giggles. I'm not going to defend what it was in any shape or form, simply note that it isn't something to regard as an outrage of historic proportions - its too typical of armies foraging for that.
 
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johan_steele

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Sherman was respected by those who had the stones to face him across the field of battle. Those who only had the courage to face him across a written page were and are another matter.

The CS couldn't stop Sherman or his 60,000 troops as they passed through Georgia, SC & NC... they never even managed to slow him down. He introduced the stay behinders and wannabes to war; they didn't like it much and it's clear they still don't.
 
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Nathanb1

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@JPK Huson 1863

Actually someone did. A very wise man in Texas, as a matter of fact:

Union
"I would lay down my life to defend any one of the States from aggression, which endangered peace or threatened its institutions. I could do more for the union, but I wish to do more; for the destruction of the union would be the destruction of all the States. A stab in the heart is worse then a cut in a limb, for this may be healed."

"This feeling has been impressed my heart by the instruction and example of the great man (Andrew Jackson) whom when I was a boy, I followed as a soldier."

"I beseech those whose piety will permit them reverently to petition, that they will pray for this union, and ask that He who buildeth up and pulleth down nations will, the mercy preserve and unite us. For a Nation divided against itself cannot stand. I wish, if this Union must be dissolved, that its ruins may be the monument of my grave, and the graves of my family. I wish no epitaph to be written to tell that I survive the ruin of this glorious Union."

Civil War
"To secede from the Union and set up another government would cause war. If you go to war with the United States, you will never conquer her, as she has the money and the men. If she does not whip you by guns, powder, and steel, she will starve you to death. It will take the flower of the country — the young men."

"In the name of the constitution of Texas, which has been trampled upon, I refuse to take this oath. I love Texas too well to bring civil strife and bloodshed upon her."

"I declare that civil war is inevitable and is near at hand. When it comes the descendants of the heroes of Lexington and Bunker Hill will be found equal in patriotism, courage and heroic endurance with the descendants of the heroes of Cowpens and Yorktown. For this reason I predict the civil war which is now at hand will be stubborn and of long duration."[/QUOTE]

--Sam Houston
 

AndyHall

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I don't really take issue with folks (then or now, like Allie) who have a clear complaint or charge against the man. But a lot of what gets tossed around about Uncle Billy is simply irrational nonsense coming from people who want to be angry about something. That sort of thing should be poked with stick at every opportunity.
 

brass napoleon

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I don't really take issue with folks (then or now, like Allie) who have a clear complaint or charge against the man. But a lot of what gets tossed around about Uncle Billy is simply irrational nonsense coming from people who want to be angry about something. That sort of thing should be poked with stick at every opportunity.
Agreed. And what's really interesting about that, is that those people who feel it necessary to exaggerate Sherman's actions, are in fact trivializing what really happened. It's as if they're saying what Sherman really did wasn't bad enough, so we've got to concoct something worse. (I'm looking at YOU, DiLorenzo :cautious:)
 
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18thVirginia

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The Georgians seem somewhat like the New Orleanians to me. New Orleans had no buildings destroyed, no burnt district of their city and yet they whined and whined about the horrors of Union occupation because they had to take a loyalty oath and couldn't whip their girl slaves.

If you look at the timelines, there are few battles in Georgia in the early part of the war.
 

redbob

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Without getting into modern politics, perhaps we would have been better off in the late 2oth and 21st centuries if we had taken some plays from his (Sherman's) playbook on war. This is my opinion only and blame should be directed solely at me.
 

OldGreyMare

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I am of the opinion that Sherman also became the victim of his own good strategy -- it made very good sense to play himself up as the boogeyman during the march -- psychological warfare is often the best sort of warfare after all...and Sherman appeared particularly interested in using it to avoid the real thing (this is the mark of a highly intelligent, sensible man in my book, not cowardice).
And I'm very certain that the press was only more than willing to help him along with this -- in fact, I'm pretty sure that while it was true he detested reporters (for good reason), he also used the knowledge of this (and the reporters' expected reaction as well as the usual MO of war reporters) to help his plans along.
Perhaps sadly for him it worked rather well (although I get the feeling that Sherman probably had few real regrets in this regard -- in very many ways he was quite the sensible and pragmatic man, as well as clever).
 
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DR_Hanna

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I think it is easy to criticize Uncle Billy because of the fact that his army marched through GA where there was no significant military opposition. He was without question targeting civilians and their property. It is easy to cry foul when the object of the destruction is clearly civilians.
The military effect was to deprive the Confederacy of provisions, and to increase the desire of soldiers to want to go home to protect their families - not so much from the Federal Army, as they had come and gone, but from the privations that are the inevitable result of an army marching through an area. Both Union and Confederate armies were notorious for stripping an area bare of resources. These were city-sized groups of soldiers moving across the landscape.
Had Sherman actually done what it is claimed he did - to the degree claimed , there would be no argument about it today. Conversely, if he had marched though without any significant disruption to the area, then it would not have accomplished the goal.
 
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KLSDAD

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I don't really take issue with folks (then or now, like Allie) who have a clear complaint or charge against the man. But a lot of what gets tossed around about Uncle Billy is simply irrational nonsense coming from people who want to be angry about something. That sort of thing should be poked with stick at every opportunity.
Poked with a stick while calmly minding their own business??

.....or slapped down whenever they rise up of their own accord spouting their nonsense??
 
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