Friday, April 05, 2013

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2013, April 7: Sympathy for the devil William Tecumseh Sherman

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman is certainly a devil in Lost Cause pseudohistory. In fact, he's a key figure in the posture of white Southerners as victim that is at the center of Lost Cause hokum. Unfortunately, Lost Cause conjuring of false claims about Gen. Sherman has been taken up by historians and journalists who should know better.

Wesley Moody's Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History (2011) does a good job of taking apart those Lost Cause claims about Sherman in an accessible manner, although there's inevitably a lot of military history involved, so "accessibility" is relative here.

Moody doesn't deal with Sherman's postwar command in the American West and his role in the Indian Wars, for which I would be much more inclined to criticize him than for his role in the Civil War. Moody starts with a brief sketch of Sherman's career through the Civil War. The remainder of the book describes the evolution of Sherman's popular image and elaborates on Sherman's actions during the Civil War through debunking Lost Cause claims against him.

The set-piece of the Lost Cause case against Sherman is his famous March to the Sea through Georgia, followed by a similar march through South Carolina, the leading state in the secession movement. In the later Lost Cause version, promoted with gusto by pro-Confederate, pro-segregation organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), the United Confederate Veterans (UCV) and its successor group the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) and the magazine Confederate Veteran which began publication in 1893.

The March to the Sea was commemorated with a song written in 1865 by Henry Clay Work, "Marching Through Georgia," here in a version from Tennessee Ernie Ford; this embed will require you to go to the YouTube site for some reason, but it plays there:

Here's another version from Jay Ungar:

And why not an autoharp instrumental version from Ernest Stoneman?

Ironically, Sherman came "to hate that song," Moody writes. "It had been played for him from Europe to Californa. Perhaps he had just hear it too many times ..."(p. 122) So with three version of it available here, I'm sure this blog post would have irritated the General, too.

Despite his well-entrenched image, Gen. Sherman did not pioneer "total war." His marches through Georgia and South Carolina were not intended to break the morale of the civilian population. They were not defined by plunder, violence against civilians or wanton destruction of property. He didn't even come up with the idea of economic warfare, as he is often credited with doing. He was a good general who beat the Rebs enough times.

Sherman's becoming the "demon of the Lost Cause" is ironic in many ways. In the years immediately following the war, Sherman was fairly well regarded in the South and was well received there. He was very critical of the Republican version of Reconstruction, "Congressional Reconstruction" as it is sometimes called, and was even critical of federal efforts to combat Ku Klux Klan type terrorism. He was seriously considered as a Democratic candidate for President, in no small part because of his popularity among whites in the South. His name still comes up in Presidential politics in the form of the proverbial "Shermanesque statement," referring to his insistent rejection of the possibility of becoming a Presidential candidate.

Moody sometimes sounds like an attorney arguing his client's case. But the polemical edge is necessary for a writer taking on a well-established image of a famous historical figure. He points out, for instance, that if Sherman had really been widely regarded in the South as a monstrous villain that had committed widespread atrocities, it seems unusual that he would enjoy the postwar acceptance among white Southerners that he did.

This is a circumstantial argument, but an entirely legitimate and plausible one in this case. He argues that Sherman's March to the Sea in late 1864 had a straighforward military goal, "to reach Savannah and put his army into position to move north in order to trap the Army of Northern Virginia between himself and Grant. His army very quickly reached its destination with minimal losses." He also notes in another valid circumstantial argument:

Sherman moved his army as quickly through Georgia as possible. While he did destroy the manufacturing capabilities of Atlanta and destroyed all the railroads in his path, he completely bypassed the industrial cities of Macon, Columbus, and Augusta. If Sherman's mission had been to destroy the ability of the enemy to wage war (the definition of "total war"), he left untouched three of the enemy's biggest assets. Macon and Columbus still had river access to the Gulf of Mexico, and Augusta with its powder works was still connected to Lee's army by railroad. (p. 33)
Plus, destroying the morale of Georgians wasn't exactly an urgent task, since morale was pretty lousy by late 1864. "The lack of resistance that Sherman's army found in Georgia is the best evidence that the state was suffering a serious morale problem." Newspapers elsewhere in the South complained at the Georgians' lack of opposition to Sherman's Yankee army.

And he observes, "The Georgia legislature met in March 1864 to discuss offering peace terms. The people of the north Georgia Mountains had never been loyal to the Confederacy, and as the war dragged on southern Georgians lost their dedication to the Confederate cause. Taxes and conscription had more to do with this than Sherman." (p. 139)

Moody observes a remarkable fact about Sherman's military reputation as it evolved over the 20th century. Military historians and even philosophers drew conclusions about his actions and strategic thinking based on Lost Cause claims without asking too closely whether those claims were factually correct. Particularly important in this regard were three British military historians: Garnet Wolseley, Basil Henry Liddell Hart and John Frederick Charles Fuller:

These English officers formed the background for the argument that Sherman fought the first modern war, even though the heart of their argument was that Sherman's famous march was reminiscent of an older form of warfare. Hart's argument that Sherman used economic warfare and Fuller's that Sherman fought a barbaric war led many Civil War and military historians of the post-World War II era to ask the question as to whether the Civil War was total war.
This view of Sherman's ruthlessness was further by John Walters in an article called "General Sherman and Total War" for the Journal of Southern History 14/4 (Nov 1948). Moody identifies several problematic aspects of Walters' argument and his sloppy historiography. "Walters's argument were little different from what had been published in the Confederate Veteran between twenty and forty years earlier," he writes.

Dick Cheney's favorite historian Victor Davis Hanson even got into the act, accepting the Lost Cause version of Sherman as a savage monster but recommending him as a model to follow. Since VDH's name is practically synonymous with hackery, I don't know if we should consider it snark when Moody refers to him as "the eminent historian of ancient warfare" and a "well-respected military historian." But he says nicely that when it comes to Sherman, VDH is a hack: "Hanson was by no means attempting to disparage the US Army. He simply fell into the trap off assuming that the orthodox view was accurate. Hanson made the argument that total war can be a positive thing when it is used to defeat slaveholding tyrants. He failed to examine the question as to whether Sherman truly fought a total war." In other words, the "well-respected military historian" is a cheap hack.

He's a little easier on Mark Grimsley (The Hard Hand of War, 1995) and Charles Royster (The Destructive War, 1991), though he finds them falling into excessive credulity about the Lost Cause version of Sherman's career, because they both cite facts that do contradict the Lost Cause approach. A particularly sad case is that of reporter James Reston, who wrote Sherman's March and Vietnam (1984) accepting a Lost Cause version of Sherman apparently derived from a 1973 book by Walters, Merchant of Terror: General Sherman and Total War. Here Moody finds it harder to be generous: Reston's main difficulty was how to portray Sherman as a brutal monster who destroyed Georgia while at the same time making fun of Southerners for believing Sherman was a brutal monster who destroyed Georgia." Reston did enough research in Georgia that he encountered one of the difficulties of the Lost Cause version, the fact that numerous antebellum structures were still standing that were in the path to which Sherman supposedly laid waste. (Philip Van Doren Stern wrote in his 1940 The Life of Abraham Lincoln, "Sherman set out from Atlanta on November 15, severing his lines of communication and marching across Georgia, cutting a swath of destruction sixty miles wide as he went.") Moody explains, "The myth that merged around many of these homes was the Sherman had a romance as a young officer with one of the ladies of the house. As Reston pointed out, if this were true in half the cases, Sherman would have been 'one of the great ladies' men of all military history[']."

Recalling the comments on Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (2012) which I discussed in the first two posts of this year's series, Moody writes in a short chapter on "Sherman in Film":

The movie industry has perhaps done more than any other group to cement the Lost Cause version of Sherman in popular culture. The ideas presented were not original, but they certainly reached such a wider audience. Although most of the themes of the great epics are viewed as outdated today, the Lost Cause themes and especially those dealing with General Sherman have been too easily accepted. (p. 131)
He gives the most famous of all Civil War movies, Gone With the Wind (1939), credit for not completely sucking in this regard. "While the movie shows Union soldiers in a negative light, Sherman and his men are portrayed much better than they could have been. ... Even the Union soldier whom Scarlett O'Hara kills to prevent his raping her was identified as a deserter." But he also notes that the film portrays Sherman's bombardment of Atlanta "as a break from civilized warfare. What the film ... did not mention is that Atlanta was a fortified city and the rules of war have allowed firing on them since cannon fire brought down the first castle wall."

Moody makes a good point about how the Lost Cause version of Sherman's March to the Sea and the South Carolina campaign plays into over-optimistic claims by air power advocates that massive destruction aimed at the civilian population will break the enemy's will to resist:

The idea that atrocities hurt the morale of an army or a people is counter-intuitive. Historically, the type of behavior Sherman's army is accused of would rally an enemy's troops to fight harder. The Confederate government and its allies in the major newspapers of the South obviously believed this, as they published numerous propaganda stories about Sherman and other callous Union generals in order to motivate Confederate soldiers. Before Sherman had even accepted a position in the Union army, Jefferson Davis predicted that the North would behave that way in order to engender support for the Confederate cause. (p. 140)
It's refreshing to see an effective challenge to a key Lost Cause claim like the demonization of William Tecumseh Sherman.

Tags: , ,

No comments: