Saturday, November 14, 2009

Have a drink with Billy Sherman?

I've decided that William Tecumseh Sherman is the Civil War figure I most would have liked to meet.

Sunday marks the 145th anniversary of Sherman and his 62,000 Yankees beginning their infamous March to the Sea.

It's not that Sherman is likable. My feelings are not reverential. His troops inflicted cruel punishment at various times on the 1864 march.

But, I find the grizzled, wild-haired general fascinating.

His mastery of modern warfare. The good lieutenant to Ulysses S. Grant. His ability to grasp Abraham Lincoln's strategy. The willingness to take the war to civilians.

I're written recently about Sherman in several of my posts, including one on Bummers '09 this weekend. The living history "immersion" event south of Atlanta poses several scenarios for participants portraying Union foragers.

I also thought today of the fascinating 1986 film by Ross McElwee. In "Sherman's March", McElwee set out to document the march's impact in the South, but the story really is about his romantic life and interest in women.

Still, there are times McElwee does ruminate on the film's title figure.

"I'm really intrigued by William Tecumseh Sherman," McElwee said in one scene. "I think he's one of history's tragic figures."

Sherman, as one observer writes, was destined to make war against the South, which he liked before the war, and then was rebuked by the North for offering the South an easy peace.

The Union was saved. The South was in ruin. Slaves were freed.

One hundred and forty-five years later, America still has a hard time categorizing Sherman.

That's because he engenders so many opinions and passion.

Sherman thought of himself as a soldier/educator. E.L. Doctorow's accout of "Cump" Sherman in "The March" doesn't try to explain his psychology. Hee sees the general as an incredible force, ushering a tide of change.

Sherman's own writings provide a glimpse of the motivation.

"My aim was, to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their innermost recesses, and make them fear and dread us. Fear is the beginning of wisdom," he wrote.

I had wanted to retrace much of the march this month, but other obligations prevent this.

To have been at Sherman's elbow would have been witness to history, in all its horror and glory.


  1. Have you read Marching Through Georgia by Lee Kennett? Doesn't cover the March in terms of Logan went here and Stoneman went there and Wheeler did this or that. There's some of that, but it's a lot of the experience of the soldiers and civilians.

    One thing we don't really appreciate is that when he severed his moorings and headed into the heart of the Confederacy, there was great concern he would just be swallowed up, consumed by bushwackers and starved by scorched earth resistance. Fortunately, Georgians were disinclined.

  2. Kennett points out Sherman was ambivalent about war on civilians. He would post orders prohibiting depredations on civilians and then pay no attention to guys carrying off hams, chickens, and anything else.

  3. Good points. There wasn't much to oppose him, as you know. Some militia and cavalry. You don't get the impression he cared a lot about the slavery issue. I have not read that work. Thanks for recommending it.