William Sherman Continues to Play Mind Games on the South

This weekend, the Georgia Historical Society and the Georgia Battlefields Association erected a plaque to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s “March to the Sea.” The brief passage on the plaque explains that Sherman’s men, who attacked both the ability and the will of the Southern people to wage war, “demoralized Confederates, hastening the end of slavery and the reunification of the nation.”

March to the Sea Historic Marker, erected in commemoration of the 150th Anniversary (The New York Times)

But the details that are coming under scrutiny among Southern communities are the explicit claims that Sherman’s army “only destroyed property used for waging war,” and specifically state that they did not target residential areas. Such assertions fly in the face of the collective Southern memory of the past 150 years, of “Billy the Torch” ravaging the South, destroying house and home.

A recent piece in The New York Times examines the struggles over Sherman’s memory, exacerbated recently by the Sesquicentennial and the erection of the marker. The article looks at how recent scholarship has been more favorable to Sherman. Historians are defending his actions against the public memory which has prevailed for generations. But while some seek to justify Sherman’s actions, others criticize such efforts as attempts to whitewash history. Stephen Davis, author of What the Yankees Did to Us: Sherman’s Bombardment and Wrecking of Atlanta, claimed that such men and women were “bending over backward to give Sherman a whitewash that he does not deserve.”

The article is thought-provoking, especially in light of Dr. Rubin’s talk a few weeks ago. How powerful (and reliable) is historical memory? In her talk, Dr. Rubin also suggested that Sherman’s army targeted primarily the facets of war. She added that his legacy has been vilified in Southern memory, due in no small part to Gone with the Wind, which the article also suggests. But Dr. Rubin also commented on the reliability of memory. She cited stories with questionable details, and others which could not have possibly happened. This is not to say that southern vilification of Sherman is unjustified, but perhaps the memory of “Billy the Torch” is tarnished by memories not completely based in fact.

For the past few years, the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War has allowed (or in some cases forced) us to revisit and reconsider the legacy and memory of the conflict. In the case of Sherman’s March to the Sea, one of the most controversial moments in our nation’s history, the Sesquicentennial has brought out both defenders and detractors. How do we balance memory with trying to uncover historical truths? In the case of such momentous events like Sherman’s March, is it possible to separate the two?

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