Yesterday my Civil War classes watched a bit more of Ken Burns’s The Civil War. We’ve been talking quite a bit about the evolution from Limited to Hard or Total War so I decided to show them Episode 8 which focuses on “Sherman’s March to the Sea.” In fact, their final exam – scheduled for next Wednesday – will explore just this issue. We had a very interesting discussion about how Burns interprets the event through images, sound, and narrative as opposed to the treatment in our text by Brooks Simpson. A few of the students were struck by the differences in their respective approaches. At least one student suggested that Simpson was minimizing Sherman’s destructiveness and the sheer brutality of his operation against the civilians.
In addressing the issue I asked the students to consider how both Burns and Simpson approach the subject. To make a long story short, by the end of the class we were discussing the role of empathy and emotion in documentary and the more detached perspective that historians are expected to take when writing about the past. I also talked a bit about the literature that has come out on Sherman’s March over the past 15 years, including Mark Grimsley’s Hard Hand of War.
Back to the reason for this post. In the prologue to Episode 8 Shelby Foote says the following:
Shelby Foote Interview – As a Southerner I would say one of the main importances of the war is that Southerners have a sense of defeat which none of the rest of the country has.You see in the movie Patton, the actor who plays Patton saying, “We Americans have never lost a war.” That’s a rather amazing statement for him to make as Patton because Patton’s grandfather was in Lee’s army of Northern Virginia and he certainly lost a war.
One of my students asked if it is true that Southerners have a sense of defeat. I suggested, first, that he might want to distinguish between white and black Southerners. It’s not clear to me that black Southerners view the war as a defeat, if it makes sense to generalize at all. Even for white Southerners, however, I wasn’t quite sure what to say. I’ve heard it said that this sense of defeat persists, but have never taken the opportunity to explore what it might mean or how it manifests itself in our culture. Any suggestions?