Mark Grimsley on Myth, Memory, and Sherman’s March

I was doing a bit of snooping around on the internet looking for information on memory and Sherman’s March when I came across a short essay by fellow blogger and historian Mark Grimsley.  It is a nice concise overview of the campaign and how our popular perceptions of Sherman and his men have evolved.

"Thieves, Murderers, and Trespassers": The Mythology of Sherman’s March

8 comments… add one

  • John Smith Jan 18, 2007

    A much better and thoroughly researched account of Sherman’s march would be Burke Davis’s narrative. Sympathetic Northerners might like to believe Sherman’s “total war” concept was a myth, but the facts clearly show otherwise. And Mr. Davis’s account provides sources and documented research rather than opinion. As Library Journal points out: “A well-researched narrative. It captures the mood of the soldiers, and it graphically depicts the suffering that the army inflicted on those unfortunate persons who happened to be in its path.” This suffering was no “myth.”

  • Kevin Levin Jan 18, 2007

    Mr. Smith, — I am not going to get into a debate with you about this issue. Most informed readers know that Burke Davis’s study is dated. It does not have the analytical rigor that more recent studies enjoy. If you were not impressed with Grimsely’s short essay I recommend that you read his book _The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865_ (Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Jacqueline G. Campbell’s _When Sherman Marched North From The Sea: Resistance On The Confederate Home Front_ (University of North Carolina Press, 2003). No one is arguing that armies brought about hardship to civilians they came into contact with. The question is whether the wartime evidence matches up with our popular perception of Sherman’s march constituting a different kind of warfare. And please don’t reduce these historical debates down to the overly simplistic categories of north v. south. They are meaningless.

  • John Smith Jan 18, 2007

    Mr. Levin:

    Grimsely already reduced “these historical debates down to the overly simplistic categories of north v. south.” He wrote:

    “The reasons Southerners continue to embrace this myth are more elusive. I strongly suspect that for most Southerners, Sherman’s March has in fact lost its mythical significance. Instead it has become a little quaint, another piece of history that happened long, long ago. But for some it still continues to resonate, especially for whites discontented with Second Reconstruction; and for those unhappy with the rapid development and transformation of South, which seems to be as destructive of Southern distinctiveness and culture as Sherman’s March was of Southern property.”

    Is it ok for him to do it but not someone who disagrees? And for heaven’s sake, you too take frequent jabs at Southerners, as many others have already pointed out. Again, my point was that documentation and research clearly shows that the suffering was no myth. I didn’t start the North vs. South debate, I was just responding. Every writer has a perspective Mr. Levin, including you.

  • Anonymous Jan 18, 2007

    Of course he is referencing southerners because that is where these stories started to take shape and where they are still put forward. And yes my comments regularly reference southerners, but that is because my research tends to focus on the way that white Southerners chose to remember the war. But if you were to read just a bit more carefully you will notice that I also talk about northerners as well as the broader category of Americans.

    You continue to point out that Sherman’s March led to suffering. Again, I point out that that is not Grimsely’s point. It goes without saying that war leads to suffering. The question is whether the wartime evidence challenges the postwar stories that remain popular within Civil War circles and especially among white southerners regarding Sherman’s operation and his handling of civilians. His research as well as others seems to suggest that the march was not as bad as those stories suggest. I am sorry you disagree, but unless you’ve conducted your own research than it seems to me you should be silent on the matter. And thanks for pointing out that I have a perspective. Great…for the life of me I don’t know what it means to not have a perspective.

    Once again I will give you the last word.

  • John Smith Jan 18, 2007

    Mr. Levin:

    How “Southerners” reference the war? You mean south vs. north? Do you actually believe that the fact you grew up outside the South has no impact on your views/perspective about the South and how Southerners view the conflict? In other words, you and Grimsley believe that Southerners views are biased, simply because they are critical of how Sherman conducted his armies, but you and Grimsley are incapable of the same bias from a Northern perspective? Your arrogance is astounding. I have studied the war for over 30 years and have ancestors who experienced some of the sufferings you and Grimsley call “myths.” And the suffering to which I refer are not the expected sufferings of war. I refer specifically to civilians.

    Certainly there were some exagerrations, but there are more than enough documented atrocities to put aside any nonsense that the sufferings were myth. That assertion reveals a clearly biased Northern perspective and one that ignores volumes of evidence to the contrary. If you wish, I’ll refrain from further posts on your site, but I won’t remain silent.

  • Mark Grimsley Jan 23, 2007

    FWIW, I myself am a white Southerner, born and raised in North Carolina.

  • Anonymous Jan 24, 2007

    It is annoying that Smith chimnes in when you can have a serious discussion with other historians… Again, I love the emotional slant of the suffering of the people who were victims to Sherman’s march. OK then, the Iraquis that die every day for the democracy we bring to them are not even mentioned by the media and reasoned away by the white house to be a welcome sacrifice by the Iraqui population. It is not the “suffering” that is historically interesting, but the polemics behind the reports of it which are a distraction from following cause and consequences of wars. So, should Sherman have left his command and conclude that otherwise, he would have had to harm American civilians as he fought a war on American soil? Wars bring about brutality and suffering especially to women and children. That is the rule of the game, and therefore, not interesting unless you want to discuss in a class on gender what wars in general mean to different parts of the population.

    It is again odd how these wannabe historians like Smith discuss the Civil War on such an emotional level. Who cares if your great grandmother lost her left arm in it? It says nothing about the complexety of American History.

  • TexLady Apr 23, 2011

    Obviously Anonymous knows nothing about Southern pride, honor and dignity. How can any man with any resemblence of honor declare war on women and children; burn their homes, kill their stock, steal all their possessions, take or destroy all of their food and leave them homeless in the winter to starve? I don’t think that is the norm. I certainly wouldn’t expect that behavoir of our soldiers today.

    To quote Gen. Lee concerning the Union atrocities: “I have never witnessed on any previous ocassion such entire disregard of the usage of civilized warfare and the dictates of humanity. It must be remembered that we make war only on armed men, and we cannot take vengence for the wrongs our people have suffered without lowering ourselves in the eyes of all whose abhorrence has been excited by the atrocities of our enemies.”

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