Sherman’s March to the Sea in History and Memory

Photo Credit: New York Times
Photo Credit: Kevin Liles, New York Times

Saturday, November 12 marked the 150th anniversary of the start of General William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea, a crucial military maneuver in which roughly 62,000 United States troops ravaged Georgia businesses, railroads, train depots, factories, warehouses, and probably some private property as well. The March was intense and harsh, but its objectives were largely achieved. Confederates failed to defend Atlanta and the surrounding region from Sherman’s aggressive troops, whose easy movements through Georgia (and later the Carolinas) demoralized Confederate supporters and casted grave doubts about the Confederacy’s future.

The Georgia Historical Society recently dedicated a new historical marker about the March to coincide with the 150th anniversary of this important event, and as Alan Blinder’s New York Times feature on the marker suggests, there are critics who believe the marker’s text is the work of academic historians who have downplayed the ferocity and terror of Sherman’s march. Author Stephen Davis says these academics are “bending over backward to give Sherman a whitewash that he does not deserve,” while a Sons of Confederate Veterans leader refers to Sherman as “Billy the Torch.”

Sherman’s March, perhaps more than any other Civil War battle or campaign, captivates the imaginations of Civil War scholars and enthusiasts. A proliferation of stories about Sherman’s troops engaging in arson, rape, and murder have overwhelmed popular memory of the conflict to such a degree that it’s nearly impossible to determine historical fact from mythical memory. Books and films like Gone With the Wind have vilified Sherman’s troops, while stories of distant ancestors ruined by the March are commonplace. One time I met a person at a historic site who pulled me to the side and proceeded to tell me how her Georgia ancestors (who magically owned a plantation without slaves) were forced to run away from that plantation once they heard that Sherman encouraged runaway slaves to rape all white women within the area (which is untrue). Scholars nevertheless continue to debate the degree to which Sherman should be held responsible for Georgia’s destruction versus other Confederate generals like Wade Hampton and John Bell Hood, who did their own fair share of destruction throughout the state.

The March to the Sea raises some interesting questions about history and memory, and it’s not surprising to see such bitter debate today about this new historical marker. In the course of a recent Facebook conversation about the new marker, however, an acquaintance made the following remark:

It always amuses me that a war fought 150 years ago still “ruffles feathers”. 4 generations removed and they are still sore losers.

Can and should we “move on” from Sherman’s March to the Sea? Can we accept the Civil War as a resolved conflict that occurred 150 years ago? Should those who embrace the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the Civil War–which argues that secession was legal, that the war was about “states’ rights,” and that the United States only won the war through larger numbers and resources, not superior military skill and strategy–stop being sore losers? Are there problems with the text of this historical marker? I provided the following answer:

1. The Civil War is still relevant to contemporary political discussion and probably always will be because the fundamental questions that war provoked are still contested today. Those questions include but are not limited to: 

  • What is freedom?
  • Who is an American, and what rights come with American Citizenship?
  • Can states leave a county if they disagree with the results of a democratic election?
  • What is considered free labor and a fair wage?
  • To what extent should we compromise with those we disagree with versus sticking to our values and beliefs?

As long as these complex questions are contested, people will use the Civil War to justify their specific perspective. Robert Penn Warren famously remarked in 1961 that the Civil War was our “felt” history, and while I think that concept is vague, I’d say it might have something to do with the presence of the war’s memory in our contemporary discourse.

2. The old canard about “the victors get to write the history” is patently false, and we don’t have to look any farther than the Lost Cause for evidence. From the Appomattox surrender to today, Confederate apologists have cornered the history and literary markets through books, articles, monuments, public speeches, and history textbooks. Anyone can get online today and read the various state Declarations of Secession or Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s biography of the Confederacy if they so choose. I too grow tired of folks who want to keep fighting the Civil War, but for many Lost Causers that perspective reigns dominant in their imagination because it’s what they’ve been taught to believe all their lives. History and memory are not the same thing, and it can be tough for someone to take historical documents seriously when they grew up hearing Grandpa’s stories about Uncle Billy’s troops in Georgia. Grandpa’s stories are worthy of acknowledgement because they hold an interpretive power that shapes how his loved ones and friends understand history, but I think it’s important that his stories be scrutinized and compared to the available historical evidence we have about the March to the Sea.

3. I take a bit of an exception with the line “they also liberated thousands of enslaved African Americans in their path” in the marker, which I think could potentially mask as much as it enlightens. Yes, Sherman and his troops played a vital role in the demise of slavery through the Atlanta Campaign, the March to the Sea, and the March through the Carolinas, but it was a role that Sherman and many of his men were reluctant to embrace or deal with in the first place. Sherman was an outright racist who didn’t care about slavery one way or the other, and we can’t forget about General Jefferson C. Davis (not to be mistaken with Confederate President Jefferson Davis) and his rather deplorable actions at Ebenezer Creek, which left a large group of freed African Americans at the mercy of Confederate General Joe Wheeler and facing possible re-enslavement. Nor does the marker acknowledge the slaves’ agency in emancipating themselves. While I don’t think the marker addresses these tensions, I’m honestly not sure how they would do so in the first place.