Today I took a small group of students up to Chancellorsville. We spent about 4 hours driving to different locations and had lunch on the battlefield. Our stops included the Zoan Church, Chancellor House, and the spot where Lee and Jackson met for the final time. We followed Jackson’s flank march and ended up back at the Visitor’s Center where we followed Jackson’s reconnaissance and fatal shots. Following lunch we drove over to Hazel Grove where I discussed the action on May 3. The Park Service has done quite a bit since the last time I visited the battlefield. The trees around Fairview have been cut, which provides an excellent view from Hazel Grove and makes it very easy to interpret the ground along with its significance to the fighting. At the Chancellor House I noticed two new markers by the remnants of the foundation. One focuses on the Chancellor slaves and the other on the Chancellor women who were forced to take refuge in their basement for much of the battle. I mentioned that the two markers reflected an attempt on the part of the Park Service to broaden their interpretations of the military to include issues of race, slavery, and civilian life. At one point I mentioned that this was a divisive debate and that many believe that the Park Service should stick to coverage of the movement of troops and other issues strictly related to battles and campaigns. As we walked back to the bus one of my students inquired why this was so controversial. If I remember correctly the student said: "Isn’t it true that civilians and slaves were often caught up in the confusion of battle?" Leave it to a student to reduce an emotionally-charged debate down to the essentials.
Speaking of civilians I’ve read a few reviews of "Sherman’s March" and am not surprised to find that there are people who will continue to take issue with the "destructiveness" of his campaign and the image of the Union army as engaged in plunder and rape. I don’t mind that people still find a reason to get emotional about it all, but I refuse to consider it as having anything to do with history. As I toured the battlefield today I thought a bit about our tendency to understand Georgia’s civilian population as a white civilian population. Apparently, Georgia’s blacks do not count in many peoples attempts to understand Sherman’s movements. The two groups experienced that march very differently, which must be acknowledged by historians in writing about the campaign. This acknowledgment is not a moral judgment, but the result of a responsibility to tell as complete a story as possible. What I find so fascinating is the tendency of many to identify with people who lived during the Civil War. Yes, there are people who have ancestors who fought on both sides, but even here I wonder whether such a close identification is useful in and of itself as a means to greater understanding. I say this as someone who has no personal connection to the war nor as someone who was raised on stories of the war or groomed on battlefields during my formative years. I didn’t read my first Civil War book until my mid-20s.
What I mean to say is that I have absolutely no interest in any type of moral vindication for either side. I am pleased that slavery ended as a result of the war, but I have no interest in any moral identification with the men on the battlefield or with the civilian leaders in Richmond and Washington, D.C. As a historian my primary interest is in better understanding why events transpired from as many perspectives as possible. I am not psychologically wedded to any assumptions about the relative goodness of Southerners vs. Northerners, but I am fascinated by people who do. You can see it in people’s expressions when they leave the realm of history to another place that is more about their own personally constructed ideas about what happened and what it means that it happened. While I admit to finding the language and tone worth dissection it is not from the perspective of a historian, but as someone who is interested in the ways we become emotionally invested in our ideas of the past.
Sherman’s march brings this out in a visceral kind of way. Most people find a need to reduce his decisions down to an overly simplistic condemnation as if Sherman was the first and last general to bring war to civilians. Interestingly we tend not to have these types of discussions when it comes to the bombings of German and Japanese cities during WWII. The Civil War was not WWII but the kind of war fought was similar if not much more severe. Allied planes bombed many cities into rubble which collapsed any neat/traditional distinction between military and civilian targets. The latter, one could argue, were targeted to bring about military ends. Within this broader context Sherman’s campaign was mild at best. His army destroyed infrastructure and lived off the land to survive and this served to drain the will to continue to fight from many on the home front. Please don’t write me to share the personal hardship stories of ancestors or to try to convince me of some vague "moral monster" label that you believe ought to be applied to Sherman. I am not interested. I have nothing at stake in the way I perceive Sherman as a moral being. I don’t get goose bumps from certain images or from my own self-perceptions of the general. Again, I am interested in historical questions surrounding the campaign. How can the campaign be understood as a logical extension of Union war policy? Did it succeed? How did Sherman and his men relate to the civilian population – both black and white?
To those of you who have watched "Sherman’s March on the History Channel I would ask you to think about any strong reactions you may have. Are your reactions the result of careful review of recent published works, including biographies of Sherman as well as studies of the campaign? Or is it an extension of deep-seated feelings that have more to do with the luck of family and geography than with a genuine interest in the past?