This Isn’t Your Grandmother’s W.T. Sherman: A Review of the History Channel’s “Sherman’s March”

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[If you haven't done so already make sure you read the guest post by Bill Oberst Jr. who played Sherman in the movie.]

Little has changed in the format of historical documentaries since the 1990 release of Ken Burns’s The Civil War.  The formula is straight-forward: It includes interviews with respected scholars, powerful imagery, narrative voice, and the words of the historical actors themselves.  The final product must balance a respect for historical interpretation, entertainment, and drama.  Different parties are rarely satisfied, but that is perhaps inevitable in a medium that works to blend what appear to be competing elements.  All too often the goal of entertainment takes precedent over sound scholarship even if the program includes short clips of interviews with respected scholars.  Perceptive viewers must deal with and balance what appear to be distinct narratives, one from the historical advisers and the other provided by the narrator.   While the scholars attempt to infuse the latest in historical scholarship to the production they are often drown out by a narrator who pushes a more traditional/mythical line of interpretation.  While I strongly disagree with a number of interpretive points, roughly 15 years later Ken Burns continues to set the standard for what is possible in the genre of historical documentaries.

More common in recent years is the inclusion of scripted scenes involving reenactors, which lends itself to more of a movie-style approach.  The danger here is that movie producers end up with a final product that entertains more than it educates.  With this in mind I turn to a review of the History Channel’s latest historical production titled Sherman’s March.  I should say at the outset that I went into the viewing of this movie with very low expectations.  It’s been a number of years since I watched the History Channel (we don’t have cable television) and all I can remember are endless loops of documentaries about 20th century military technology and the last days in Hitler’s Bunker.  You can understand my skepticism. 

With this in mind I was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of this movie from the perspectives of both an educator/historian and as someone who wants to be entertained.  A production like this needs to do both well.  The producers of Sherman’s March educate by including an impressive list of historical advisers, including historians John Marszalek, Joseph Glatthaar, Steven Woodworth, Mark Grimsley, Theodore Delaney, and Christine J. Carter along with the voices from primary sources.  The movie entertains with scripted scenes that feature William T. Sherman  (played by Bill Oberst Jr.), his relationship with Ulysses S. Grant as well as Sherman’s relationship with his men.  Finally, there are the various battlefield scenes involving Confederate and Union reenactors.  The computer-generated visuals are pleasing to the eye, especially the scenes which depict Atlanta in flames, which actually looks like its burning.

For a movie like this to succeed it must offer a smooth transition between the historical advisers ("talking heads") and the scripted scenes.   The campaign must be understood from multiple perspectives and the script cannot confine itself to the all-too-common language of "rape" and "plunder."  Based on the amount of time that the historical advisers enjoy in the final version it is obvious that the producers wanted to ensure that viewers were introduced to the latest in historical scholarship.  From Marszalek we learn that the campaign is best understood as "psychological war on the South" and from Glatthaar that this was an "attack on infrastructure."  [The only problem with such a strong emphasis on historical advisers is that at times their presence is overwhelming, which makes it difficult to maintain the overall narrative flow. Still, viewers are forced to think about the burning of Atlanta (30% of the city) and the march through Georgia within a political context and as a logical step in the overall Union strategy to win the war.  This approach runs the risk of alienating those who are wedded to their preferred explanations or interpretations of Sherman.  I think it is important to keep in mind, however, that for these people no amount of history is going to shake the foundation of their preferred explanation.  In these cases beliefs are not about history, but about something else entirely.

The attention to perspective is never lost in this movie, but the challenge of how to represent white Southerners in the path of Sherman's army is an interesting one.  White Southern women bore the brunt of this campaign, but as many of the advisers point out at the end of the movie, there is a great deal of myth surrounding this campaign.  The solution is to find wartime rather than postwar sources which highlight their hardships without the more vitriolic and suspect accounts that paint Union soldiers as engaged in mass rape.  Producers rely on Dolly Binge who owned 100 slaves and who offers a very descriptive account of what it was like to have to face foragers ("bummers) who sought both food and other valuables.  The viewer hears the voice of Binge who describes these men as "demons" who "rush in."  Mark Grimsley offers a few comments that point out the essential differences between the way Union soldiers and Southern white women viewed these operations: "Foraging operations are not how a Southern woman experienced it."  Christine Carter follows by noting that these raids "intend to be personal violations" of home and property.  Such commentary serves to keep the focus on history rather than raw emotion. 

Given my own research interests it should come as no surprise that I would point to the slave perspective as a crucial addition to the understanding of the campaign that is offered in this movie.  The issue is complex and filled with even more misunderstanding.  The segment begins by bringing the viewer back to January 1, 1863 and the Emancipation Proclamation along with the recruitment of black men into the Union army.  From the perspective of Georgia's slave population Sherman's army is seen as a liberating army.  Glatthaar suggests that many Union soldiers were disgusted by their contacts with the slaves along with their harrowing stories of bondage and the sight of scars.  Steve Woodworth makes the important point that Union soldiers "trust the slaves" as guides and for protection in the case of separation from the rest of the army.  Theodore Delaney makes it a point to note that Sherman does not share the enthusiasm of some of his and his stand against the recruitment of black soldiers is mentioned and also mentions that the Union army included a wide range of racial attitudes.  That said, the commentators emphasize that events on the ground and Sherman's own practical concerns forced him to take steps that he otherwise would not have taken.  [Such a view echoes Chandra Manning's latest study of how the war altered the way Union soldiers viewed race and slavery.]  These include the formation of a Pioneer Brigade made up of newly-freed slaves who were charged with building roads and other structures.  Some will no doubt find the commentary and scenes of Sherman interacting with the slaves as an attempt to rewrite the past.  At one point one of the talking heads suggests that while Sherman held racist views he was able to easily engage individual blacks along the march.  At one point Sherman is shown talking with the head of a black family and asks, "What do you think of this war?"  The man responds: "Mighty depressing, but without it the right thing would never get done."  At another point in the discussion Sherman mentions that the Confederacy is thinking about recruiting black soldiers and inquires, "Will you fight against us?"  The response leaves little doubt as to the wartime loyalty of black Southerners: "The day they give us arms will be the day the war ends."

The movie covers the crossing of Sherman’s army across Ebeneezer Creek which left 600 freed slaves within striking distance of Confederate General Joe Wheeler’s cavalry.  Grimsley captures the significance of the moment by mentioning that these people went "from freedom to being reenslaved."    Glatthaar described it as a "sad moment" and the newly-freed slaves as having "felt horribly double-crossed."  The strongest words come from Delaney, who while describes the decision as "practically justified" given the material constraints on the army, concludes that Union General Jefferson C. Davis (slaveowner) had a "problem with humanity" and "acted disgracefully."  In the end, Sherman’s decision is understood as militarily necessary and almost as another example of the harshness of "hard war."  The coverage of this incident serves to balance the suggested Union racial outlook as understood in earlier scenes.

The movie does not shy away from pointing out the destructiveness of the campaign and the acts of cruelty that were exhibited on both sides.  There is coverage of the battle of Griswoldville which left 600 Confederate casualties, many of whom were older men and younger boys.  Some viewers will no doubt point to a bias in the tendency of the narrator and commentators to attempt to justify Union foraging operations as "legitimate activity."  I suspect that the attempt to reach a balance between Union military aims and Confederate retaliation will be seen as "revisionist" given traditional interpretations which take a white Southern perspective as paramount.  There are scenes describing the burning of Millen and the use of Confederate prisoners to uncover torpedoes placed in the road by Confederate forces, but there are also images of murdered Union soldiers in both Georgia and North Carolina. 

While multiple perspectives are presented in this movie it is clear that this is Sherman’s story.  There is an emphasis on forcing the viewer to understand Sherman’s decisions within a strict military context.  Distinctions are drawn between the way Sherman orders his men to treat the property and civilians in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.  Sherman’s orders in N.C. remind his men that the state barely voted for secession while in S.C. his men are given more liberal orders.   

Though it is unlikely that their comments will have much effect most of the historians offer a few final thoughts concerning the postwar mythologizing about Sherman’s March.  Woodworth suggests that white Southerners dealt with defeat by creating the image of Sherman as a brutal monster.  Marszalek emphasizes that Columbia was not burned to the ground by the Union army.  He gets at many of the exaggerated postwar accounts by reflecting on the number of people who have approached him over the years to share stories of the burning of ancestor’s farms.  In all almost every case, according to Marszalek, the location of the home of the ancestor in question was nowhere near the route of Sherman’s army.  Finally, Theodore Delaney offers some perspective in reminding viewers that Ulysses S. Grant killed many more white Southerners compared with Sherman; he goes on to suggest that he would much rather have a general destroy property as opposed to people.

This program is not going to satisfy everyone.  I fear that for many the movie is going to bring out the typical cries of "revisionism."   For others it will no doubt challenge long-standing assumptions and may even lead to further reading.  I would recommend that viewers look at the published work of the historical advisers as the best place to start.  John Marszalek is the author of an excellent biography of Sherman while Steve Woodworth’s latest book on the Army of Tennessee covers their march through Georgia and the Carolinas.  Joe Glatthaar’s study of Sherman’s March is one of the best analytical studies of the campaign.  Finally, you don’t want to ignore Mark Grimsley’s first-rate study of the evolution of the Union war effort.

Let me end with a comment made by Bill Oberst Jr.:

"I hope Sherman’s March
rises above the standard. I hope it represents an evolution in the form. I hope
it raises more questions than it answers. A war, even a long-ago one, is not a product. It is the collective story
of real people who could never forget the hell that they lived through. We owe
it to them to remember, and to try and get it right."

8 comments… add one

  • Matt Apr 22, 2007

    Great post. I have similar feelings about the History Channel–they do put out something decent every once in a while, but generally, I just don’t get interested in “Modern Marvels.” Nevertheless, you may have persuaded me to catch “Sherman’s March.”

    I love the passage: “I think it is important to keep in mind, however, that for these people no amount of history is going to shake the foundation of their preferred explanation. In these cases beliefs are not about history, but about something else entirely.”

    I think too often people who attempt to make history entertaining try to toe some imaginary line that will make “good history” without offending “these people.” Maybe it’s an attempt to bring them ’round. But you’re exactly right–they aren’t interested in “good history” or even “history” at all in some cases. They’re interested in mythology. So why try to toe that line? Let’s write the histories and let them keep their myths.

  • Jim Apr 23, 2007

    “Sherman’s orders in N.C. remind his men that the state barely voted for secession while in S.C. his men are given more liberal orders.”

    Kind of ironic that NC succeeded only after Lincoln called for 75K additional troops for southern invasion, but that the state also supplied the Confederacy with the most troops and had the most casualties. What a great and tragic contribution this NC made for independence and southern loyalty.

    “The response leaves little doubt as to the wartime loyalty of black Southerners: “The day they give us arms will be the day the war ends.”

    This type of presentation must be understood in context of who was asking the question and what response was expected. I’m not saying this wasn’t a true heartfelt response, rather it’s something to consider. In addition, while history is utterly void of richness and information without quotes by the participants, it does fall prey to the fact that the sample size is often one, leaving the distribution of the majority of opinions often unknown.

    This gives the storytellers great latitude in cherry picking which quotes are mentioned for reflecting their version of the story. Nevertheless, it makes for an entertaining and sometimes informative view.

    “At the start of the war, the value of all manufactured goods produced in all the Confederate states added up to less than one-fourth of those produced in New York State alone.” – Ken Burns

    The fact that Sherman’s tactics were effective in closing the war more quickly does not in itself reflect well in either history or myth for such a lopsided conflict. My point is that it is difficult to balance such an unbalanced war.

  • Cash Apr 23, 2007

    Kevin,

    I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. I still cringed whenever the narrator mentioned “total war,” but at least none of the historians brought it up.

    Regards,
    Cash

  • Kevin Levin Apr 23, 2007

    Jim, — You said: “This type of presentation must be understood in context of who was asking the question and what response was expected. I’m not saying this wasn’t a true heartfelt response, rather it’s something to consider. In addition, while history is utterly void of richness and information without quotes by the participants, it does fall prey to the fact that the sample size is often one, leaving the distribution of the majority of opinions often unknown.”

    Once again I fail to see your point. How is it cherry picking if there is wartime evidence of Sherman talking with newly-freed slaves about the war? Doesn’t the fact that a significant number of Southern blacks followed Sherman’s army and even worked for them suggest that they viewed the army as a liberating army? I nor the movie are suggesting that this should be considered beyond the often racist statements of Sherman or the wide spectrum of racial views within the army. I don’t remember hearing about large numbers of blacks following the Confederate armies as freedpeople. Just about every historian interviewed for this program noted the reaction of Georgia’s slave population to the arrival of Sherman.

    Of course there is a wide range of information to consider and you are correct in raising this as an issue. That said, citing this fact does not constitute an argument of any kind. If you have evidence to the contrary that would serve to question the prevailing view than present it.

  • Jim Apr 23, 2007

    My point is that I don’t know if the blacks following Sherman were “hot for southern blood” as the citation suggests or if blacks thought more of using Sherman to safely reach freedom with less intent on joining the fight.

    “I don’t remember hearing about large numbers of blacks following the Confederate armies as freedpeople”

    I don’t know what you mean by “large numbers”, but since you bring it up, how many have you heard of fighting for the Confederacy? It must have been a very complex decision.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 23, 2007

    Jim, — Well, we do know that many of the black Union soldiers did view their service in the Union army as an act of freedom.

    I don’t speculate on the number of black Confederates because we simply don’t have any decent research on the numbers. Clearly individual Southern blacks may have joined the army, but the Confederacy did not actively recruit slaves until the very end of the war. Given the lack of decent analytical research it makes no sense to talk about black Confederates. We can, however, talk about black Union soldiers since the documentation is available.

    One problem in answering the question in reference to the South is how do we define race. Are we talking about physical appearance or someone’s family history? There may have been soldiers who appeared to be white, but have blacks in their family tree. Are they “black Confederates.” I wouldn’t know where to begin here.

  • Jim Apr 26, 2007

    “Are we talking about physical appearance or someone’s family history? I wouldn’t know where to begin here.”

    Funny, the Census was able to estimate blacks and even break them down into free and slave.

    “Southern blacks may have joined the army”

    If any blacks joined then I don’t see how this any difference than you quoting an single individual slave who said that he supported Sherman. That is, it supports the fact that there were cases, regardless of numbers, of black confederates. This would give us an idea of just how complex the decision to fight for which army really was, and I am in no way trying to prove any political point.

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