Tuesday, October 6, 2009

March to the Sea: 145 years later, some in South still smolder

While most folks don’t fight the Civil War these days, Georgia author Jim Miles remembers one scary occasion.

Miles, who 20 years ago wrote “To the Sea: A History and Tour Guide of Sherman’s March,” recalls what happened when he made a joke about the march while speaking to a civic group.

“I thought this guy might come at me with a knife or fork,” remembers Miles.

Nearly 145 years have passed since Union Gen. William T. Sherman and 62,000 Union troops left a conquered Atlanta and began a 36-day blitz to Savannah, foraging on the land and committing some atrocities.

As a result of Sherman’s successful campaign in Georgia, the Confederacy was split in two and deprived of much needed supplies, ending the war quickly with a Union victory.

The unparalleled march, bold for its size and its move away from supply lines, took the war to Georgia civilians and the state’s heartland. Homes and farms were burned. Familes were left homeless and hungry. Thousands of slaves left plantations and followed Sherman's army.

Many people are still passionate in their dislike of Sherman and the march.

“I think it’s a psychological scar,” says Miles.

At least one Georgia event is marking the 145h anniversary.

"Bummers 09" will be held Nov. 13-15 in Molena, about an hour south of Atlanta. The event "will be a scripted scenario which will recreate actual historic encounters between elements of Sherman's army and 11th Georgia State Militia," according to its Web site.

Several hundred people are expected to participate.

Miles, 56, knows a lot about Georgia and the Civil War. He taught history for more than three decades at Peach County High School.

Interested in the war since his early childhood in Mobile, Ala., he’s traipsed across the South to produce eight books that are part history, part tour guide.

His book on the march, which began Nov. 15, 1864, is considered his finest work. It includes battles in South Carolina and North Carolina that followed Sherman’s arrival in Savannah.

Civil War blogger Brett Schulte has praised its unbiased approach.

“It provides the starting point for tours of these places, and should lead those interested into further study of the material,” Schulte has written.

Miles says some readers with a Federal perspective think he was too sympathetic to the South or overstated the march’s effect. The Warner Robins resident says he took an open mind into his research, only to find that Sherman’s strategy and techniques truly were harsh.

“It makes Southerners angry,” says Miles of the march’s legacy.

At the same time, Miles says, the campaign shortened the war and saved lives. It demoralized Georgia and South Carolina troops serving in Virginia and the Carolinas and crushed their will to fight much longer.

“From the Northern perspective it was a grand campaign. They reached South Carolina. It was a triumph,” Miles told me.

Sherman famously wrote his ideas on war: “My aim, then, was to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and make them fear and dread us. Fear is the beginning of wisdom.”

The exact physical toll of the march is hard to figure. Sherman estimated $100 million in destruction, including the wrecking of 300 miles of railroad. Thousands of horses, cattle and mules were seized. Valuable corn and cotton were burned.

There is no agreement on the number of assaults on women. Miles says there is only one documented case in Georgia.

Sherman’s march is still the stuff of controversy and new books, such as “The Bonfire” and “War Like the Thunderbolts,” which detail the scorched-earth tactics.

Edward Caudill and Paul Ashdown had an apt summary in “Sherman’s March in Myth and Memory,” which was published last year.

“Grant only defeated an army,” the authors pointed out. “Sherman killed a culture.”

Readers can contact Jim Miles and learn more about his books at milesbooks@cox.net

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