In addition to giving a talk on how to teach Civil War monuments in Charleston for the Civil War Trust, I also took part in a panel discussion in which participants could ask anything that was on their mind. Some of the participants submitted their questions beforehand. One participant asked what war crimes William Tecumseh Sherman could be brought up on for his actions in Georgia in 1864. Well, I jumped all over that one.
I recommended that if the individual in question is sincerely interested in the relevant history of Sherman’s March and how it fits into broader United States military policy during the Civil War that he/she ought to read Mark Grimsley’s The Hard Hand of War. I pointed out that Sherman did nothing that would warrant anything along the lines of a war crimes trial and that if we were to do so posthumously we would have to apply it to scores of American commanders throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries along with their civilian authorities.
While I wasn’t sure that it applied to this particular individual, I went on to suggest that people who pose these types of questions are motivated by some irrational belief that they themselves are victims of Sherman’s army. They maintain a close identification with those people who were impacted regardless of whether their ancestors lived in the army’s path.
I suggested that this type of identification has very little to do with history and everything to do with an emotional need of the individual. I certainly don’t believe that I or anyone else for that matter has a responsibility to acknowledge such a question as anything more than this. In short, it doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously beyond its significance as one of the last vestiges of the Lost Cause.
It’s one thing to imagine those involved and perhaps the next generation maintaining a less than gracious attitude toward Sherman, but as far as I am concerned such a stance carries no weight today. [On this point, see Thom Bassett’s recent article in the Civil War Monitor on Sherman. He argues that Sherman’s reputation remained fairly positive during the first few decades after the war.]
Regardless of where you live and how you happen to trace your family lineage, no one today is a victim of Sherman and his army. We would do well to find demons that did something other than help to preserve this nation during war.