On Wednesday, October 22, Historian Anne Sarah Rubin gave a talk at Villanova on Sherman’s famous (or infamous) March to the Sea and African American memory. Her talk stemmed from a chapter in her new book, Through the Heart of Dixie: Sherman’s March and American Memory, which coincides with the upcoming 150th anniversary of the March.
In her talk, Dr. Rubin focused on the memories of African Americans of the March, a group often left out of the legacy of the momentous event which hastened the end of the war at the expense of tremendous destruction to Southern communities. By looking at records of African American experiences of Sherman’s March, most notably Works Progress Administration interviews of former slaves conducted in the 1930s, she found that Sherman was not unilaterally hailed as a great emancipator, spreading freedom on his march through the Confederate states.
To be sure, Sherman’s Army was a catalyst for the destruction of slavery in the areas through which it marched. But Rubin argued that Sherman tended to tolerate emancipation more than he embraced it. While some memories of the WPA interviewees tie Sherman to freedom, many more detailed his cruelty. Much like the memories of Southern whites, African American men and women remembered Sherman destroying property, and, more importantly, confiscating food that could have gone to their families. Rubin also described Sherman’s disdain for any African American families (not including young, single men who the Army could put to work) who sought to follow the marching army.
One striking instance of Sherman’s disregard for fleeing African Americans was a December 1864 incident at Ebenezer Creek in Georgia. Seeking to escape approaching Confederate cavalry, one of Sherman’s officers ordered the construction of pontoon bridges across the water. But after they crossed, the Union soldiers disassembled the bridges, condemning hundreds of African American families to death either by drowning or from the Confederates. While Sherman did not give the order personally, he did not condemn it either.
Indeed, Sherman’s now-famous order of “40 acres and a mule,” Rubin argued, was not an altruistic action, but rather a utilitarian move, both a response to outrage over the Ebenezer Creek incident and a means to prevent more African Americans from following his army in the future. The failed implementation of this order only added to the anger of African Americans during Reconstruction and beyond. Much of this anger was directed at Sherman.
Overall Dr. Rubin’s talk was a thought-provoking look at the legacy of Sherman’s March. She explored the nuances of Sherman’s ambivalence toward emancipation, and how even if he delivered freedom to thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of slaves, his legacy is tied just as much (if not more so) with the destruction he wrought in the South.
Her talk also provoked questions about the power, but also the risks, of memory. In thinking about the former slaves telling their stories to WPA interviewers, how have emotions changed in seventy years? Moreover, Rubin found false memories, things that did not actually happen. How do incorrect details influence the usefulness of the memories themselves?
In conjunction with Through the Heart of Dixie, Dr. Rubin is also developing a website tracing Sherman’s March and highlighting important areas from the memories of both soldiers and civilians, and even landmarks in tourism and fiction. Following the lecture, she joined Dr. Giesberg and several graduate students for a discussion on the process and prospects of digital history. She predicted that the prospect of a legitimate digital history project taking an equal place with a dissertation or book in traditional scholarship is still a ways off, but found that historians are increasingly using digital tools to practice their craft. While she admitted that she is no computer expert, her experiences with digital tools have allowed her to develop a working understanding of the basics, or enough to know what questions to ask, as she put it. Her advice was to dive in and experiment. Once you are comfortable in knowing that you cannot irreparably break anything, playing around with tools such as WordPress is a great way to begin incorporating digital tools into historical study.
Special thanks to Dr. Rubin for a great talk on Sherman’s March and a thought-provoking discussion on Digital History. It is safe to say that the University owes her an appointment with Sherman’s coat once they get it back from the Union League.
Anne Sarah Rubin is an Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for Digital History and Education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. You can check out her website here.
Her website, Sherman’s March and America: Mapping Memory is set for a full launch in mid-November.