I read with great interest Mark Grimsley’s most recent post over at Civil Warriors which discusses his recent involvement in a History Channel documentary that focused on "terror" during the Civil War. One can easily feel for a professional historian who goes out of his way to ensure that a popular documentary will present an interpretation that is grounded in the best current historical interpretations. Anyone familiar with Grimsley’s Hard Hand of War knows that he is well qualified to comment on the distinction between the myth and historical reality behind Sherman’s 1864 "March to the Sea." That this event was even included in a documentary about terror reflects the clash between history and historical entertainment. Perhaps Mark should have known beforehand that the producers would be concerned as much (if not more) with the traditional story of Sherman’s March that includes countless rapes and pillaging by the "yankee hordes." Their primary concerns are in pushing a narrative that viewers find entertaining, and what unfortunately qualifies are the colorful stories from "Lost Cause" and reconciliationist history. From his post:
I haven’t seen the whole thing [Hist.Channel Doc], but I did view the chapter on Sherman’s Marches (which included a couple of other historians, among them William C. “Jack” Davis, in addition to myself). It was very interesting to see. On the one hand, we talking heads all made the point that Sherman’s Marches overwhelmingly targeted property, not people, and that assaults and rapes were surprisingly rare. On the other, our commentaries were interspersed with lurid reenactments of the few instances in which people were targeted, most notably a man partially hanged to extort from him the hiding place of his money (see the upper left part of the poster), and a Union soldier leering at a comely young white Southern lass, grabbing her by the arm, and pulling her off camera, presumably to suffer The Fate Worse Than Death.
Which scenes do you suppose made the biggest impression on the audience: me doing my patented “interplay of severity and restraint” routine or folks getting hanged and (by implication at least) raped?
I still applaud Mark for taking the time to contribute to this documentary. Yes, there will be plenty of viewers who brush his segments off as another piece of so-called revisionist history, but professional historians have a responsibility to take advantage of opportunities to educate the general public. Too many have ignored their responsibilities in this area in favor of narrow audiences that rarely include those from outside academia. Civil War historians like Mark Grimsley have a unique opportunity to engage wide audiences through the publication of books, interviews, etc.