This being the 150th anniversary of Sherman’s March to the Sea, the venerable New York times has an article questioning just how bad Uncle Billy really was. Seems we have a new crop of historians who think that the Southern demonization of him was unwarranted, a sour grapes myth by the defeated Confederates perpetuated by movies like Gone With The Wind.
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. Grant Association. “The facts are coming out.”
To do this you have to ignore, reinterpret or dismiss a lot of real history, but this unfortunately seems to be the trend in academia today.
… contrary to popular myth, Sherman’s troops primarily destroyed only property used for waging war — railroads, train depots, factories, cotton gins and warehouses.
Really? What is one to make, for instance, of the forced deportation of several hundred women factory workers from the mills at Roswell, half of them under 17 and some as young as nine? This was done not by some out-of-control subordinate but on Sherman’s express orders. Or the indiscriminate bombardment of Atlanta, and its subsequent torching? Are these not facts also, or do we just ignore them? Or does the word “primarily” mean we ignore the rest?
Two other articles in the Times look at who burned Atlanta, which was firmly in Federal hands at the time.
One by Philip Leigh, whose book I recently reviewed, and another by historian Megan Kate Nelson. Both come to the same conclusion – it was Sherman’s men, and although he might not have explicitly ordered it he turned a blind eye and made no serious attempt to stop it.
So it seems to me that modern historians are doing pretty much the same thing they accused the Southerners of – trimming the facts to fit a predetermined narrative. Substituting one myth for another isn’t good history.