This is the final week of my survey course on the American Civil War. One of the subjects we’ve been looking at is the introduction of what Mark Grimsley describes as “Hard War” policy by the United States in 1864. The class was assigned a section of Grimsley’s book, Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 (Cambridge University Press, 1995), which allowed us to take a much closer look at Sherman’s “March to the Sea”. Rather than see the campaign as a foreshadowing of warfare in the twentieth century, Grimsley provides a framework that situates it within the history of warfare stretching back to the Middle Ages. [It’s always nice to be able to read and discuss the best in Civil War scholarship with my high school students.] He also speculates that this may account for why Grant, Sherman and the rest of the Union army did not regard the campaign as inaugurating a new kind of warfare. I’m not sure I agree with that, but nevertheless, Grimsley’s analysis does provide students of the war with a framework with which to analyze as opposed to our popular memory of Sherman and the campaign that is bogged down in strong emotions that tell us very little about the scale of violence and overall strategy.
Grimsley suggests that our tendency to view the campaign as “indiscriminate and all annihilating” fulfills “a vareity of agendas.” Here is a short list:
1. Going back to the war itself, “Confederate nationalists portrayed the enemy as demons and blackguards in a bid to create an unbridgeable chasm to reunion.”
2. After the war white Southern Redeemers used the campaign to suggest that a “terrible wrong” had been done to them. This was paricularly effective throughout the era of military Reconstruction.
3. The campaign also fed into the argument that Confederate defeat was simply the result of the North’s overwhelming resources rather than internal divisions within the Confederate South or mistakes made in Richmond and/or on the battlefield.
4. Sherman’s depredations also made it easier to look beyond the Confederate government’s own policies such as tax-in-kind, impressment as well as “scorched earth” practices carried out by the Confederate army.
5. [I think this one is the most interesting.] “Sherman’s March” also helps to explain the economic disaster that befell much of the former Confederacy after the war. While images of the campaign suggest complete destruction, this was anything but the case; much of the damage had been repaired within a few years. The most serious economic losses were the result of the emancipation of slaves, “which wiped out billions of dollars in Southern wealth, and the worthlessness of Confederate scrip, bonds, and promissory notes into which many Southerners had sunk most of their savings.” Grimsley argues that these economic losses can be traced to the states’ decisions to secede in 1861 rather than Sherman’s men and may point to the extent to which white Southerners resisted blaming themselves for their losses.