Not Your Grandfather’s “March to the Sea”

Sherman's March

Update: Thanks to Craig Swain for sending along this link which includes information about an older marker. It offers a clear point of comparison with how our understanding of the campaign has evolved.

This week the Georgia Historical Society will dedicate the latest in its series of roadside markers commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The marker featured above, commemorating the start of “Sherman’s March”, will be located on the grounds of the Jimmy Carter library.

It reads:

On November 15, 1864, during the Civil War, U.S. forces under Gen. William T. Sherman set out from Atlanta on the March to the Sea, a military campaign designed to destroy the Confederacy’s ability to wage war and break the will of its people to resist. After destroying Atlanta’s industrial and business (but not residential) districts, Sherman’s 62,500 men marched over 250 miles, reaching Savannah in mid-December. Contrary to popular myth, Sherman’s troops primarily destroyed only property used for waging war — railroads, train depots, factories, cotton gins, and warehouses. Abandoning their supply base, they lived off the land, destroying food they could not consume. They also liberated thousands of enslaved African Americans in their path. Sherman’s “hard hand of war” demoralized Confederates, hastening the end of slavery and the reunification of the nation.

The marker’s content will not doubt ruffle the feathers of a select few, but overall it offers a more nuanced interpretation of the event. It may be the first marker that explicitly attempts to challenge “popular myth” about the march, which may explain why it is being placed at such a prominent site.

23 thoughts on “Not Your Grandfather’s “March to the Sea”

    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      It’s probably not a sufficiently visible target for flagging. The marker is, however, a wonderful example of the extent to which institutions focused on the history of the South have moved beyond the naive and reactionary positions of certain heritage groups. Flaggers may think that they are operating on the front lines of the heritage wars, but the truth is that apart from a few high profile cases they have been largely left behind by the mainstream historical community.

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  1. Sam Smith

    A monument to equivocation quite worthy of Jimmy Carter!
    If popular myth has to be exploded on the points of the depredations of Sherman’s armies, let us at least acknowledge that there is much horror still embedded in the phrases “primarily destroyed only property used for waging war” and “destroying food they could not consume.”
    And will we now allow another popular myth to spread, of how Sherman’s troops “liberated thousands of enslaved African Americans in their path”? That statement certainly deserves more attention, lest we forget the hundreds of black followers who were left to sink, swim, or be recaptured and returned to slavery after Sherman’s men pulled up the pontoon bridge at Ebenezer Creek, GA. Not to mention the black women shot and abused by the roadside, the black children under fire for sport, the black men bayoneted for no reason. Whether you were a white Southerner or a black refugee, murder, rape, and other indiscriminate violence was unquestionably commonplace on that march.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Apart from your first sentence, which I don’t understand I think you make a number of excellent points. We should indeed be careful when referencing the liberation of thousands of slaves along the march. Liberation did not preclude violence, intimidation and even death as was the case at Ebenezer Creek. That said, it is certainly true that the institution of slavery unraveled as Sherman’s men marched.

      Jim Downs’s recent book, Sick From Freedom, offers an incredibly rich portrait of the challenges that African Americans faced as a result of emancipation.

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    2. Bob Huddleston

      Sam wrote: ” That statement certainly deserves more attention, lest we forget the hundreds of black followers who were left to sink, swim, or be recaptured and returned to slavery after Sherman’s men pulled up the pontoon bridge at Ebenezer Creek” Any such marker would also tell why the fleeing escaped slaves were willing to jump into the water and drown rather than be reunited with their gentle masters.

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  2. Ken Noe

    In Milledgeville there will be a symposium at the old capital, and a Sherman reenactor is going to ride up and occupy the old governor’s mansion. When I was there a few weeks ago, there were some concerns about how the crowd would react to Uncle Billy. There will also be two reenactments of Yankees attacking Rose Hill plantation in hopes of stealing the owner’s silver. It should be quite a day.

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    1. Andy Hall

      “In Milledgeville there will be a symposium at the old capital, and a Sherman reenactor is going to ride up and occupy the old governor’s mansion. When I was there a few weeks ago, there were some concerns about how the crowd would react to Uncle Billy.”

      I’m sure there will be the requisite hissing and booing, not unlike the sort that happens when a WWE “villain” climbs into the ring. It’s audience participation, history-as-entertainment.

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  3. Jack

    We should take a closer look at the apologists for war crimes against civilians that make up the GA Historical Society. Revisionism and hagiography immediately stand out on this marker. I would be tempted to remove such offensive items.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      That’s the typical response from individuals who have nothing more to offer. In the event that something does happen to the marker I will be sure to pass on what information I do have about you to the proper authorities.

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  4. Jerry Sudduth Jr.

    Jack-

    The markers that these replace are the ones with hagiography, not the new ones. The old ones are fully awash in neo-Confederate, Lost Cause hokum.

    These new markers aren’t a part of some pro-Union, Dixie-bashing agenda on the part of the Georgia Historical Society but rather an attempt to present history correctly.

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    1. Jack

      Jerry, the GA Historical Society is interested in getting history correct. There is plenty of historical information of Sherman’s armies burning civilian homes and food resulting in leaving non-combatants homeless. This sign is pro-Union hogwash. (Image of this has been saved for proof of censorship.)

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      1. Jerry Sudduth Jr.

        The hard hand of war that Sherman showed Georgia has been shown during war for time immemorial. What happened to Georgia was and is tame compared to other human conflicts. Sherman’s aim was to show the citizens of the deep south the confederate army could no longer defend them as well as to deprive the rebels of valuable war matériel. Citizens felt the effects but it was mostly due to collateral damage.

        The citizens of Georgia and South Carolina weren’t special in what the war did to them. I’ve likened it before to the combined bomber offensive in the Second World War, the Allies attacked German industry from the air and any damage to civilians was collateral and not intended.

        In other words, these markers present what happened. If they are inaccurate I encourage you to do the research from legitimate sources and prove otherwise if you can. This is my last word on the topic as I want to be a hospitable guest to Mr. Levin’s blog. I don’t want my discussion with you to sidetrack the main conversation.

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        1. Jack

          You wouldn’t know that Southerners suffered by Sherman’s actions from this sign. I think the mention of slavery is to mislead the reader away from the human cost of invading the South for sustained hegemony.

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          1. James Harrigan

            Jack, you clearly seem to care only about the suffering of white Southerners, and any mention of the fact that the war liberated 4 million black Southerners is just intended to “mislead”. Do black Southerners just not matter in your calculation of the human consequences of the war?

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            1. Michael C Williams

              That madman’s men raped, murdered, and burned their way from Atlanta to Savanah and it didn’t matter if you where white or black free or slave.

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  5. JJ

    When I lived in Georgia, I undertook a project to find and document for myself as many of the historical markers I could find (mostly in the northern part of the state since I lived in Atlanta) based upon lists from the University of Georgia and the Georgia Historical Society. Among the ones I searched for were ones on the March to the Sea. I found, more often than not, that except for in a few areas, those markers were long gone, and those markers specifically so the others in the county/area were still around. In many cases there was not even sign of the pedestal for the markers any more. Very sad, so it’s good that they are looking to update this again.

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