What the Yankees Did To Who?

While in Gettysburg I picked up Stephen Davis’s most recent book, What the Yankees Did to Us: Sherman’s Bombardment and Wrecking of Atlanta (Mercer University Press, 2012). The book has received mixed reviews, but I decided to give it a chance. While the book thus far lacks an analytical edge those of you looking for excruciatingly detailed descriptions of pre-war and wartime Atlanta will be rewarded. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the many anecdotes included in the book, it’s that I also expect a historian to provide a close analysis of these sources.

I was struck at the beginning of the book by the author’s apparent need to explain his own personal interest in the Civil War stretching back to the 1950s and the Centennial, but even more by the choice of title. The title is based on a diary entry by a resident of the city, but Davis also intends something else with it.

And there is that word, us. In adopting it in both my title and text, I mean us as a deliberately vague combination of the people of Atlanta as well as the physical structures that defined our city, and that together–people and buildings–made us “Atlanta.” In summer 1864, civilian residents still in the city–white, black, free and slave, male and female, young and old, native-born or immigrant–all endured the same frightening ordeal of Yankee bombardment, occupation, and eventual expulsion. To that extent, we who are Atlantans, though we do not share a common ancestry, do nonetheless share a common history of the war, and a collective memory from it. So us does not mean solely white Southerners fighting Yankees. Even if it did, we have accepted the verdict of the war, and have transcended defeat, just as Henry Grady declared in his famous “New South” speech of 1886: “There was a South of slavery and secession–that South is dead. There is a South of union and freedom–that South, thank God, is living, breathing, growing every hour.” In the century-plus since then, Americans have continually redefined the meaning of the Civil War. Particularly important has been the African-American narrative of the war, which has enriched our understanding of the nation’s greatest conflict. (p. xviii)

I’ve said before that it is presumptuous to assume to speak for a diverse community about how the past continues to impact or shape (if at all) the present. I do think that this tells us about how Stephen Davis relates to Atlanta’s past and as far as I am concerned that is just fine, but I also don’t quite understand how this is meant to impact how the reader engages with this particular story.

Do black and white Atlantans really share a collective memory of the occupation and destruction of the city? What about those who arrived after the Civil War and specifically the many African Americans who in recent decades have returned to the city of their ancestors?

Seems to me that the “South of union and freedom” had something to do with the destruction of Atlanta.

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31 comments… add one

  • Pat Young Jul 7, 2014

    A lot of Atlantans are from the North. Three families related to me moved there over the last thirty years. As contemporary Atlantans do they really “share a common history of the war, and a collective memory from it.” Had Atlanta never fallen they would never have moved there.

  • Alec Rogers Jul 7, 2014

    Does he use “Yankee” ironically? It’s not the most scholarly term in this context.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Jul 7, 2014

    What people experienced 150 years ago in a place which has grown by leaps and bounds since then (with quite an influx of Yankees, although not enough to support two failed NHL franchises [:)]) should send a message about “we” and “us.” One could flip this and say that the experience of being used as human shields by a Confederate army that chose to hide behind its civilians should have given folks a common memory, too, but some people don’t remember it that way (and someone forgot who was willing to have civilians leave the city). Moreover, I assume that African-Americans whose ancestors were enslaved more than accept the verdict of the war: they welcome the fact that it destroyed slavery. But I’d rather ask them than presume what they think.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 7, 2014

      With so few physical signs of Sherman’s presence in the city extant I wonder what it even means to suggest that there is a collective memory of anything having to do with the Civil War.

    • Nathan Towne Jul 7, 2014

      Dr. Simpson,

      You wrote-

      “One could flip this and say that the experience of being used as human shields by a Confederate army that chose to hide behind its civilians should have given folks a common memory, too, but some people don’t remember it that way…”

      I have as little sympathy for the Confederate cause as anyone else, but I have studied the 1864 Georgia campaign in tremendous detail and I can attest to having absolutely no idea of what you may be referencing. May you please provide specific citations and elaborate on this claim.

      Thanks,
      Nathan Towne

      • Brooks D. Simpson Jul 7, 2014

        Are you suggesting that Confederate commanders were not aware of what they were doing when they chose to defend populated cities, rendering the civilian population vulnerable to bombardment? As Sherman pointed out, cries of outrage ignored the common understanding that if you made this choice, you put your civilian population at risk. It’s not as if cities were safe havens or “base” in a game of tag. This was as true of Fredericksburg and Vicksburg as it was of Atlanta. I’m sure you’ve heard of these events.

        Sherman is blamed for attacking civilians; he’s also blamed for urging their evacuation or removing them elsewhere. Like Obama, Sherman’s blamed for everything, it seems, including burning houses in areas that he never visited or destroying antebellum homes that you can still see in their original condition on tours of the Georgia countryside. I assume that what we are really worried about here is human lives, not property (even if slaveholders confused the two). One might point to the burning of Chambersburg or the November 1864 attempt to set fire to New York hotels as evidence that the Confederates had no such qualms about destroying property or killing civilians. Charles Royster’s The Destructive War is worth reading to see what old Stonewall and his friends envisioned when they thought of waging war.

        • Nathan Towne Jul 7, 2014

          You asked-

          “Are you suggesting that Confederate commanders were not aware of what they were doing when they chose to defend populated cities, rendering the civilian population vulnerable to bombardment?”

          Of course I am not suggesting that. You seem to be suggesting however, that Confederate command, openly, willingly (and ubiquitously) callously utilized civilian populations, as a matter of policy, as median’s with Federal forces, with little to no regard for the safety of those populations and that Confederate field armies acquiesced in this policy. Are you not suggesting this? Again, the statements that you have made are as follows-

          “One could flip this and say that the experience of being used as human shields by a Confederate army that chose to hide behind its civilians should have given folks a common memory, too, but some people don’t remember it that way…”

          and…

          “…It’s not as if cities were safe havens or “base” in a game of tag…”

          If that is what you are you insinuating, I think that the burden of proof rests firmly on your side of the aisle, using directives from the Davis administration, issued by authorized personnel, i.e. Davis, Bragg, William Preston Johnston, Samuel Cooper or subordinates in the Adjutant General’s or Inspector General’s Office, Jeremy Gilmer or other officers serving in the Confederate Engineer Bureau, the War Department e.t.c., to Field Commanders.

          As for Sherman, I have not accused him of any war crimes. As for Jackson, I am well aware of his opinions with regards to the prosecution of the war and I have Royster’s book.

          Thanks,
          Nathan Towne

          • Brooks D. Simpson Jul 7, 2014

            Having not presented the argument you claim I have presented, I see no reason to prove something I have not said. However, if you think that Confederate commanders were not aware of the consequences of their decisions, then you have a terribly low estimate of their intelligence.

            • Brooks D. Simpson Jul 7, 2014

              However, excerpts of the following exchange may prove illuminating:

              Sherman to Hood, September 10, 1864

              You defended Atlanta on a line so close to town that every cannon shot and many musket shots from our line of investment that overshot their mark went into the habitations of women and children. General Hardee did the same at Jonesborough, and General Johnston did the same last summer at Jackson, Miss. I have not accused you of heartless cruelty, but merely instance these cases of very recent occurrence, and could go on and enumerate hundreds of others and challenge any fair man to judge which of us has the heart of pity for the families of a “brave people.”

              Hood to Sherman, September 12, 1864

              I feel no other emotion than pain in reading that portion of your letter which attempts to justify your shelling Atlanta without notice under pretense that I defended Atlanta upon a line so close to town that every cannon shot, and many musket balls from your line of investment, that over-shot their mark went into the habitations of women and children. I made no complaint of your firing into Atlanta in any way you thought proper. I make none now, but there are a hundred thousand witnesses that you fired into the habitations of women and children for weeks, firing far above and miles beyond my line of defense. I have too good an opinion, founded both upon observation and experience, of the skill of your artillerists to credit the insinuation that they for several weeks unintentionally fired too high for my modest field-works, and slaughtered women and children by accident and want of skill.

              Sherman to Hood, September 14, 1864

              I was not bound by the laws of war to give notice of the shelling of Atlanta, a “fortified town” with magazines, arsenals, foundries, and public stores. You were bound to take notice. See the books.

            • Nathan Towne Jul 8, 2014

              This is just silly. I asked if you could elaborate on a claim that you made, that is obviously fallacious. You wrote-

              “One could flip this and say that the experience of being used as human shields by a Confederate army that chose to hide behind its civilians should have given folks a common memory, too, but some people don’t remember it that way.”

              I asked you to substantiate such a claim, using source material, as that heavily implies that Confederate command, willingly put Georgian civilians lives in jeopardy without deference to their security or well being and hence are responsible for any civilian casualties because the Confederate military defended areas in close proximity to civilians. That’s way over the top. Using that logic Federal forces would be responsible for any civilian casualties sustained during Confederate bombardment of positions covering civilian areas, like at Columbia during the 1864 Tennessee offensive. That would obviously be a totally preposterous argument to make.

              As for the last part, I do not have a “terribly low estimate of the intelligence of Confederate command.” That is pathetic and I never stated that Confederate command did not recognize the inherent dangers that the war presented to civilian populations. That is a laughable deflection.

              Again, I have not accused Sherman of anything and I am exceedingly careful when using historical material.

              Nathan Towne

              • Brooks D. Simpson Jul 8, 2014

                Who said you have accused Sherman of anything? Certainly not me.

                Please try addressing what I say instead of turning into something I have not said for purposes of challenging it. You agree with me that Confederate commanders were aware that they were putting civilian populations at risk when they defended populated cities. Intentions are one thing, but consequences are another. No one has said that Confederate commanders were under orders to use civilians as human shields, and to claim that I made this argument (especially when I have denied doing so–again) strikes me as curious.

                It appears that you agree with what I said and mean even as you state that you disagree with something I have not argued.

                Human beings should be aware of the consequences of their behavior. The Sherman-Hood exchange I excerpted suggests that Hood sought to evade accepting responsibility for the consequences of his (and Johnston’s) decision to defend a populated Atlanta. I am more in sympathy with Mr. Allen’s point that bombarding cities was militarily ineffective, perhaps even counterproductive, although it’s clear that Civil War commanders were less certain. However, sealing them off from supplies, including foodstuffs, affects civilian as well as military populations (see Vicksburg). There would seem to be no way to avoid that without evacuating those civilian populations to a point outside the arena of military operations.

                • Nathan Towne Jul 9, 2014

                  Dr. Simpson,

                  To use your phrase “Please try addressing what I say instead of turning it into something I have not said for purposes of challenging it.”

                  To reiterate, I asked you to elaborate on, using source material the statement that you made in the initial post, which read as follows-

                  “One could flip this and say that the experience of being used as human shields by a Confederate army that chose to hide behind its civilians should have given folks a common memory, too, but some people don’t remember it that way…”

                  Taking the following statement in the last post that you made-

                  “Intentions are one thing, but consequences are another. No one has said that Confederate commanders were under orders to use civilians as human shields, and to claim that I made this argument (especially when I have denied doing so–again) strikes me as curious.”

                  I am going to assume that either you have (albeit vaguely and only partially) recanted what you initially said, that I misinterpreted both your initial statement and the attempted justification, to which I demonstrated the obvious logical fallacy behind, or that you misspoke.

                  Again, the tone of this conversation has been less than pleasant and I really would not like to continue it.

                  Thank You,
                  Nathan Towne

                  • Brooks D. Simpson Jul 9, 2014

                    Whatever. You are free to assume whatever you want to assume, you are free to believe whatever you want to believe, and you are free to continue proceeding as you have, making snarky comments while deploring the tone of the conversation and prolonging an exchange you repeatedly wish would end (apparently with your having the last word).

                    I’ve made my point about the consequences of Confederate commanders defending populated urban areas, and anyone is free to agree or disagree.

                    • Nathan Towne Jul 9, 2014

                      Dr. Simpson,

                      I simply asked a question. I only deplored the conversation for its tone and your highly defensive and deflective attitude. I full well understand the ramifications of the defense of civilian by Confederate command. I asked you to elaborate on your statement with regards to the Army of Tennessee “hiding” behind civilians and “using them as a human shield.” You have simply refused to answer.

                      As for the last word, it means nothing to me. You can say whatever you like in reply, but if you don’t answer, I promise I won’t respond, leaving you with the last say.

                      Nathan Towne

            • Nathan Towne Jul 8, 2014

              I really wouldn’t like to be involved in a fight with you as I respect your work and I feel like this has become a frivolous exchange. It also is beginning to take on a nasty character, for some reason, which saddens me, considering the work that you have published that I have used and that we have never met before and hence don’t know one another.

              Nathan Towne

  • Ben Allen Jul 7, 2014

    Russell Bonds apparently does a better a job. He analyzes Sherman’s claims to the contrary by refuting them, sometimes with his own words. Criticizing the Ohioan’s decision to bombard Atlanta does have legitimacy. What use is it? You just harden the hearts of the populace even more. Better to save your ammunition for targets of military significance, and leave the “hard war” (“total war” would be an inaccurate phrase, as Noah Andre Trudeau points out) for when you have finally taken the city. So what if the cannons were not as lethal as those of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? They can still kill.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 7, 2014

      We can criticize all kinds of decisions with hindsight.

      What use is [was] it?

      Sherman and others tell us why it was used in Atlanta, Petersburg and elsewhere.

      One of the things that I am looking forward to is Davis’s analysis of the bombardment. In the title he alludes to the “wrecking” of Atlanta which Davis believes has been overlooked in favor of our images of the “burning of Atlanta.”

      • Ben Allen Jul 7, 2014

        “What use is [was] it?” (Sorry about that. By “it,” I meant the bombardment of cities in general.) Yes, he gives a contemporary explanation: for him at least, its purpose was psychological warfare. However, like the bomber campaigns of the Second World War, it never made an impact in that regard. Hence, what use was bombarding Atlanta really, except to waist precious ammunition and steel the Rebels’ resolve? The answer: none at all.

        “We can criticize all kinds of decisions with hindsight.” True, but back then it didn’t seem to be working at the time either. There were reasons to not bombard Atlanta that were neither ethical nor moral. Those were the aforementioned pragmatic ones. They can withstand the test of time… Of course, to “Crazy Bill” they might not have penetrated through his thick, sometimes bigoted irrationality.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 7, 2014

          The cannonading of towns and cities took place throughout the war. Why are we singling out Sherman?

          • Ben Allen Jul 7, 2014

            “The cannonading of towns and cities took place throughout the war. Why are we singling out Sherman?” Aren’t we talking about him? If not, then all right: Grant also deserves criticism for having Vicksburg and Petersburg shelled. However, it does seem that he eventually saw the futility of doing so, for in the case of Petersburg, it lasted only a little over a month, from June 16 to late July. Then again, it could have been all Meade’s doing, because Grant by that time wanted to impart his subordinate some independence. But that appears unlikely, given Meade was more of the “McClellan” than the “Sherman” school.

            • Kevin Levin Jul 7, 2014

              However, it does seem that he eventually saw the futility of doing so, for in the case of Petersburg, it lasted only a little over a month, from June 16 to late July.

              I suggest you read A. Wilson Greene’s Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War (University Press of Virginia, 2006). It is true that the shelling of the city lessened by late fall, but it picked up again in April.

              Of course, you are free to criticize any military officer for decisions made during the war.

        • Nathan Towne Jul 7, 2014

          Mr. Allen,

          Sherman went to great lengths to protect the citizenry in occupied areas over the tenure of his command of his Army Group (Military Division of the Mississippi), during the Georgia campaign through the capitulation of the city and the withdrawal of Hood’s army through Jonesboro to Lovejoy’s (and ultimately to Palmetto). This is evidenced by a number of incidents that occurred during the campaign and by Sherman’s orders and directives to the men of his Army Group, prior to and during active operations.

          Now, there are several incidents of alleged war crimes committed by men serving in the U.S. military during the campaign, as well as, of course, instances of burning and looting by U.S. cavalry during the campaign. In terms of War Crimes though, although there are several instances of crimes against both civilians and military personnel having taken place, some of which were caught and punished, they have to be dealt with individually, rather than as U.S. military policy during the campaign, which seems to me to be quite a reckless assertion.

          Nathan Towne

          • Ben Allen Jul 7, 2014

            I know, Mr. Towne, that Sherman was no absolute savage. That being said, it was his policy to deliberately target Atlanta’s civilians. As for the other aspects of his hard war, I have no problem with them. Taking belongings, even food, or burning buildings does not necessarily guarantee the death of relatively innocent civilians. I reiterate: “Better to save your ammunition for targets of military significance, and leave the ‘hard war’ (‘total war’ would be an inaccurate phrase, as Noah Andre Trudeau points out) for when you have finally taken the city.”

  • M.D. Blough Jul 7, 2014

    Also, does Davis comprehend that Atlanta was a military target? I’m not sure that this fine distinction between civilian and military ever existed but it had really broken down by the 19th century. The rather thorough destruction of Richmond was the result of acts in furtherance of a military objective (a retreating army taking steps to ensure that military resources that it could not take with it did not fall into the hands of the enemy) by its own army. That army put that military objective over the risks to the civilian population due to the limitations on how they could destroy those resources and on how fires could be fought at that time.

  • Nathan Towne Jul 7, 2014

    You don’t seem to like the book very much? I haven’t really used it extensively yet, but I found it to be lacking in detail.

    Nathan Towne

    • Kevin Levin Jul 7, 2014

      Like I said, it’s an incredibly rich narrative, but there is very little analysis. I guess having read and appreciated Megan Kate Nelson’s Ruin Nation and Mark Grimsley’s Hard Hand of War I expect a bit more analysis. How many descriptions of washed graves and damaged buildings do I need? Tell me what it means. Tell me why I am reading this. I have to say that Davis does a very good job of debunking the myth that the first Union shell killed a child, though I understand Russell Bonds did so a few years ago.

      There is some great primary source material in it.

      • Nathan Towne Jul 8, 2014

        Sorry, I was watching the Germany v Brazil World Cup game and just saw your response.

        I should have been more specific. When I stated that the book was not to the level of detail I was looking for, I was referring to detail of military operations. Again though I haven’t really used it extensively yet.

        From a general perspective though, I am not sure I necessarily agree with you. I prefer authors who provide tremendous amounts of information (often times the more the better) and are exceedingly careful with their conclusions and statements. That is just my character and I see this as the clear objective of the historical writer. Of course, with that said, analysis is absolutely crucial. To me though the analysis from the finest historian is presented with tremendous levels of detail, usually at the expense of emotion.

        Then again though, I doubt we are far off one another.

        Nathan Towne

  • Mark H. Dunkelman Jul 7, 2014

    Kevin, permit me to chide you for offering what is in essence a review before you have finished reading the book in question. You did that with one of my books a few years ago, offering some ambiguous comments when you were part way through the book–

    http://cwmemory.com/2007/01/10/placing-a-stone-on-a-grave/

    –and you later told me that you had really liked the book and were thinking about using it in one of your classes. I realize you were not writing a formal review of Stephen Davis’s book, but I think most of your readers will interpret your post as a review. Fairness would seem to dictate that you wait to comment on a book until you complete it, or follow up with another post when you do.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 7, 2014

      Hi Mark,

      Nice to hear from you. Interesting because I don’t think that post is ambiguous at all. I really liked the book. You are right that it’s not a formal review. Quite often I will comment on books as I am reading just to share specific questions, concerns, etc.

      It should be clear that this post is not a review. I was simply commenting on the author’s title. The comment thread has, as you note in your comment, to the book itself. It should be clear to the discerning blog reader that I am still reading it.

      Thanks for the comment, Mark. Hope you and your wife are having a pleasant summer.

      • Mark H. Dunkelman Jul 8, 2014

        Thanks, Kevin. In your post and subsequent comments you raised some valid concerns about Davis’s book. I’ll be interested in your overall assessment once you’ve finished reading it.

  • London John Jul 7, 2014

    “to whom?” please.

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