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.
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."