GAN logo gold

150 Years Later, Wrestling With a Revised View of Sherman’s March

Follow us on Twitter: @GoAfricaNetwork

ATLANTA — This city would seem a peculiar place for sober conversation about the conduct of William T. Sherman.

To any number of Southerners, the Civil War general remains a ransacking brute and bully whose March to the Sea, which began here 150 years ago on Saturday, was a heinous act of terror. Despite the passage of time, Sherman remains to many a symbol of the North’s excesses during the Civil War, which continues to rankle some people here.

Yet this week, Atlanta became the site of a historical marker annotating Sherman folklore to reflect an expanding body of more forgiving scholarship about the general’s behavior. One of the marker’s sentences specifically targets some of the harsher imagery about him as “popular myth.”

“ ‘Gone with the Wind’ has certainly been a part of it,” W. Todd Groce, the president of the Georgia Historical Society, which sponsored the marker, said of regional perceptions of Sherman and the Union Army. “In general, we just have this image that comes from a movie.”


Gen. William T. Sherman of the Union Army, leaning on a cannon at right, with staff members on Nov. 16, 1864. Credit George N. Barnard/Library of Congress, via Associated Press

The marker near the picnic tables at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum is the fruit of a reassessment of Sherman and his tactics that has been decades in the making. Historians have increasingly written that Sherman’s plan for the systematic obliteration in late 1864 of the South’s war machine, including its transportation network and factories, was destructive but not gratuitously destructive. Instead, those experts contend, the strategy was an effective and legal application of the general’s authority and the hard-edged masterstroke necessary to break the Confederacy.

They have described plenty of family accounts of cruelty as nothing more than fables that unfairly mar Sherman’s reputation.

“What is really happening is that over time, the views that are out there are being challenged by historical research,” said John F. Marszalek, a Sherman biographer and the executive director of the Mississippi-based Ulysses S. GrantAssociation. “The facts are coming out.”

To that end, the marker in Atlanta mentions that more than 62,000 soldiers under Sherman’s command devastated “Atlanta’s industrial and business (but not residential) districts” and talks of how, “contrary to popular myth, Sherman’s troops primarily destroyed only property used for waging war — railroads, train depots, factories, cotton gins and warehouses.”

Sherman’s aggressiveness, the marker concludes, “demoralized Confederates, hastening the end of slavery and the reunification of the nation.”

The marker, placed in Atlanta at a time when more and more of its residents are not natives of the area, drew relatively little criticism ahead of its dedication on Wednesday morning, Dr. Groce said. But some say its text is an inaccurate portrayal of history that amounts to an academic pardon for a general some believe committed acts that would now be deemed war crimes.

Gen. William T. Sherman Credit Library of Congress


The historical marker for Gen. William T. Sherman and the March to the Sea, which began where the Carter Center lies. Credit Kevin Liles for The New York Times

“In the complex and convoluted course of Civil War writing, everyone is liable to make a mistake sometime,” said Stephen Davis, the author of “What the Yankees Did to Us: Sherman’s Bombardment and Wrecking of Atlanta.”

Jack Bridwell, a longtime leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter in Georgia, was more blunt: “How they can justify saying anything other than that he’s Billy the Torch, I don’t know.”

The reassessment of Sherman comes at a time when the South continues to weigh how to recognize its complex racial history. Earlier this year, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights opened in Atlanta, the same city where Gov. Nathan Deal last year ordered the removal of a statue of an avowed white supremacist from the grounds of the State Capitol. (Officials said that the relocation of Thomas E. Watson’s likeness was to accommodate a construction project and that the state could not afford to return the statue to its former position.)

But the Confederate battle emblem still flies on the grounds of the South Carolina State House, and there is a push underway in Mississippi to amend its Constitution to enshrine “Dixie” as the state song.

The new look at Sherman’s legacy, scholars of the Deep South readily acknowledge, challenges deeply held opinions of the general.

W. Todd Groce Credit Stephen Morton for The New York Times

“It has not been a legend that white Southerners have been particularly eager to surrender because it was all part of their sense of grievance, that they had been so severely wronged during the Civil War,” said James C. Cobb, a professor at the University of Georgia and a former president of the Southern Historical Association. “The old stereotype is a long way from disappearing. There’s this sort of instinctive sense of Sherman embodying the whole Yankee cause and the presumed vindictiveness and unrelenting harshness that the white South was subjected to.”

But Mr. Bridwell says such sweeping dismissals of Southern complaints about the March to the Sea are meritless and, in the eyes of many, repugnant.

“There’s still a strong resentment for what happened and how it happened and for Sherman himself,” Dr. Cobb said. “They want to whitewash everything and make it so much nicer than it was. It wasn’t nice. War isn’t.”

There are few expectations here that Sherman will be the beneficiary of an immediate and all-encompassing wave of Southern good will. But Dr. Cobb said he had sensed a shift in attitudes on his university campus in Athens, east of Atlanta.

“You all the time run into college kids who don’t know which side Sherman was on — and their parents and certainly their grandparents would be aghast to know that,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of education. It’s a matter of being the blank slate that younger generations present for revision or education that older generations don’t because they’re steeped in the mythology of their ancestors.”

The enduring nature of that lore, Dr. Marszalek said, was in itself a testament to Sherman’s maneuvers.

“His whole concept was psychological warfare,” Dr. Marszalek said. “He did such a good job getting into people’s minds, he’s still there in many ways.”

Read more at the New York Times

Scroll to Top
Open chat