Some Myths Die Hard

From across the ocean the Guardian offers a short review of recent Civil War novels, including E. L. Doctorow’s, The March. I am ashamed to admit that I haven’t read much fiction in recent years so I can’t comment on the titles reviewed. What is interesting to me is the way in which the reviewer sets the scene for Doctorow’s story of Sherman’s “March to the Sea” following the capture of Atlanta in 1864:

The March by EL Doctorow, author of Ragtime and many other novels, follows the brutal progress of General William T Sherman’s army of 60,000 Union soldiers through the South in 1864. After setting Atlanta ablaze, they marched to the sea, then north through the Carolinas. Everywhere they slaughtered troops and livestock, burned cities, villages and plantations, and lived off the land. Their blithe disregard for civilians established a pattern that dogs American forces to this day.

I assume that remembering an embellished or exaggerated version of Sherman’s march makes for better fiction even for our friends across the ocean. Again, I can’t comment on Doctorow’s narrative, but this reviewer seems to view the subject of the story through the lens of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Few will doubt that Sherman’s march highlighted the final transition in Union policy to total war, but it should be remembered that this shift did not usher in a brand new style of warfare. As Mark Grimsley has demonstrated in his book, The Hard Hand of War: Union Policy Towards Southern Civilians, 1861-1865, the tenets of “hard war” policy had a rich history going back to the medieval ages. Grimsley also shows through an analysis of letters and diaries from Sherman’s men that very few commented on the march as a shift in policy. Rather the war had evolved from “limited” to “pragmatic” to “total” war policy. Both sides engaged in operations which collapsed the distinction between civilians and the battlefield. Of course Sherman’s policies stand out since much of the war was fought in the South. This is a wonderful example of how a certain perception of the past becomes ingrained in our collective memory thus bringing about a sense of “seeming understanding.”

1 comment… add one
  • Lyssa Dec 5, 2007 @ 12:27

    Just curious-

    Do you have a way to get just those bits of the movies you’re using for my classroom? Gathering that stuff can be so time consuming!


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