The History of Sherman’s March is Finally Becoming History

Yesterday the New York Times published a piece by Alan Blinder on Southern memory of Sherman’s March and the new marker commemorating its 150th anniversary. The article pretty much raises the same questions about our Civil War memory in the South as other events during the sesquicentennial. The theme of the article is struggle. White Southerners are supposedly struggling with how to commemorate and remember Sherman’s presence in Georgia in 1864, but what emerges by the end is how little resistance there seems to be. In short, the author overstates his case.

No doubt, there are some people in Georgia who would rather ignore the anniversary of the event or put it behind them in the way that North and South Carolinians have done almost from the beginning. I suspect that most people just don’t care or have other things to worry about, which is certainly magnified as you interact younger Americans. Professor Cobb of the University of Georgia put it this way:

You all the time run into college kids who don’t know which side Sherman was on — and their parents and certainly their grandparents would be aghast to know that,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of education. It’s a matter of being the blank slate that younger generations present for revision or education that older generations don’t because they’re steeped in the mythology of their ancestors.

Memory of the Civil War simply does not function in the same way for Southern youth as it once did.

There has certainly been a shift in how the history of Sherman’s March is interpreted in Georgia and elsewhere. The events that I have followed over the past few weeks, including the dedication of this newest marker, reflect a more muted and detached approach. Book discussions and museum exhibits suggest that for those interested this past is something that can be explored without a rash prejudgement.

This is certainly not the case for everyone, but the most extreme voices have failed to make an impact. They blow steam on Facebook pages or meet up at their monthly SCV and UDC meetings. Their failure has nothing to do with a Northern/Liberal/Revisionist/Politically Correct invasion. This change is happening from within Georgia.

The history of Sherman’s March is finally becoming history.

18 thoughts on “The History of Sherman’s March is Finally Becoming History

  1. Pat Young

    I found the Blinder article interesting. One thing it pointed out was that the relatively inexpensive placing of a historically more accurate marker produced more publicity about Sherman than all of the reenactments and “Signature Events” combined.

    I found the line in the Blinder article “That marker, placed in Atlanta at a time when more and more of its residents are not natives of the area, drew relatively little criticism,” a little confusing. I don’t know what it means.

    92% of Atlantans were born in the United States. In fact the city has one of the smallest immigrant community’s as a percentage of population of any in the country.

    While we all know that many people have moved to Atlanta from elsewhere in the U.S., their Atlanta-born children are surely “Native Atlantans”.

    53% of Atlantans are black, and presumably many were born in Georgia or elsewhere in the South.

    I think that the relaxed attitude towards the monument is less of a reflection of nativity and more that the white hegemonic voice of supremacist aggrievement is no longer the only one heard.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I think he just meant that more and more Georgians are not native to the state. That younger generation may have been born in Georgia, but they would certainly have not been reared on traditional stories of Sherman. Could have been more clearly articulated by the author.

      I think that the relaxed attitude towards the monument is less of a reflection of nativity and more that the white hegemonic voice of supremacist aggrievement is no longer the only one heard.

      Which was what I was trying to get at with my last point. White and black (Northern and Southern) Americans simply think about the war differently now and have a very different relationship to it than earlier generations.

      Reply
      1. Jimmy Dick

        I agree about the younger generation. They look at the past very differently. They really do not know if they had ancestors in the Revolution or the Civil War. Many do not know if they had ancestors in WWII or Vietnam. This has definitely impacted how I teach. It is also somewhat humbling. They just are not my generation and that is very critical when it comes to teaching history.

        I find this allows me to get into explaining how historical analysis and historians work so they can use the sources to develop their own interpretations while also providing them context via secondary sources. They like history in this Interactive Pedagogical Model. Their interpretations are interesting because often they are breaking down barriers of disconnect placed there haphazardly in K-12.

        Reply
    2. James Harrigan

      …the white hegemonic voice of supremacist aggrievement
      love that phrase, Pat!

      One of the things I liked about the article were the quotes from James Cobb, where he is careful to identify the opinions of “white Southerners”, therefore avoiding the all-too-common conflation of white Southerners with all Southerners. And of course I got a kick out of the incoherent splutterings of SCV honcho Jack Bridwell.

      Reply
  2. Betty Giragosian

    Kevin, we rarely get around to discussing Sherman at our meetings. In fact, I cannot remember when we ever did discuss Sherman. Please stop lumping us with the SCV. We are two separate organizations. This news that has come before the public is backed by the Georgia Historical Society.
    Surely they know whereof they speak. I posted your column on my facebook and have not heard a word. Maybe folks don’t read me anymore.

    Reply
  3. Ben Allen

    “Memory of the Civil War simply does not function in the same way for Southern youth as it once did.” Amen to that statement, Kevin. I’ve found to the blank slate rationale to be true even with youth who sport the Saint Andrews cross battle flag, or who as yet hold the delusions of the Lost Cause.

    PS: I have one of your friends, Dr. Jeffrey McClurken, as one of my teachers for this semester. I’m in his U.S. History in Film class. He sure is connected! 🙂

    Reply
  4. Nelson A. Logan

    I am severely bothered by the current efforts to revise the history of Sherman’s March. I was just 10 years old and lived in central Georgia in 1934 [70 years after Shaerman’s March. He may have spared most of the residential area of Atlanta but in my mind I see today [at age 90] the destruction still visible along his “path to the sea.” Unfortunately. I was too young to be camera savy and capture the images of isolated brick chimneys in the countryside all along his path — 70 years afterwards. Most stand out in my mind as the chimneys of small 2 or 3 room houses — seldom were they the large two-story chimneys of plantation homes. Both my mother’s and my father’s side were descended from families who were burned out by Sherman’s March. My mother’s mother was born only 12 years after the March. She lived to age 94 and to her dying day hated “the damn Yankees”. I am age ninety and I see in my mine’s eye the desolution of still-standing intect chimneys with essentially all signs gone of the remainder of the structures from burning followed by 70 years of decay. Since the chimneys may be gone after 150 years, the revisionists are busy denying what happened.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I don’t think anyone argues that homes and other structures were destroyed. It’s not clear given your comment exactly what aspect of this revised understanding of the “March” is being called into question.

      Reply
    2. James Harrigan

      Mr. Logan, your memories of your childhood and family stories are just that, memories. They are not history. The difference between history and memory is what Kevin’s blog is all about.

      Reply
      1. Dudley Bokoski

        I’m not sure I understand Mr. Harrigan’s point. Historians always place high value on memories of events which are closer in time to the event itself. Mr. Logan’s memories certainly have historical value. I’ve always thought of historical writing and analysis as very much akin to journalism, in that they involve assembling facts into an accurate narrative of events. The more sources, including memories of people in the region, contemporary accounts, official records you can access the more likely you are to understand what went on. And Mr. Logan’s memories would seem to fit with contemporary accounts, such as Oliver O. Howard’s letter in the Official Record which describes his attempts to discourage acts of arson during the march.

        Reply
        1. James Harrigan

          Dudley, my point is that Mr. Logan was not a witness to Sherman’s March. Of course the memories of participants in or witnesses to Sherman’s March would be potentially useful sources for historical research – but family stories, which are then repeated down through the generations, much less so. Mr. Logan’s is “severely bothered” because contemporary historical research doesn’t jibe with what he has always believed.

          An interesting, related phenomenon is the myth that immigration officials at Ellis Island anglicized or otherwise simplified the names of immigrants on arrival. There are countless family stories to this effect, and people who have heard the stories from their beloved grandparents and great-grandparents often believe the stories with great fervor. But historical research has shown that the family stories are not true, just as historical research has shown that many of the stories about the depradations of Sherman’s March are not true.

          Reply
          1. Jimmy Dick

            My family always played that angle on the name change. However, in digging through records, I have discovered that one branch’s story became the entire family’s story with the others being dismissed or no longer discussed. It turns out the family name was altered after 1860 for a reason I have not been able to discover due to my academic pursuits sucking up most of my time and resources. The name change may have had something to do with the Civil War or it could have been a bankruptcy for all I know or maybe a family dispute. The branch that stayed in the East and South still go by Holtzclaw while the Missouri branch changed the Z to an S.

            It could have been due to guerrilla leader Clifford Holtzclaw and his role in the war and then again maybe not. It is a mystery, but there was no Ellis Island involved. In fact, the lack of being in those immigration records was one of the tips that led me to looking elsewhere for the family history and sure enough there it was somewhere else.

            In doing the research on my family and my wife’s family I also found similar situations. Once the living could no longer describe someone they had known in life the margin of error shot up. Also, memory is the opposite of fact. Sorting through the errors just within living memory was interesting enough. The further back I went, the more errors I found. Birth certificates, marriage licenses, county records, and even death certificates revealed huge gaps.

            Let’s face it, family histories are often crafted fabrications made to cast ancestors in the best possible light. Reality often shatters those illusions.

            Reply
            1. Andy Hall

              In doing the research on my family and my wife’s family I also found similar situations. Once the living could no longer describe someone they had known in life the margin of error shot up. Also, memory is the opposite of fact. Sorting through the errors just within living memory was interesting enough. The further back I went, the more errors I found. Birth certificates, marriage licenses, county records, and even death certificates revealed huge gaps.

              Let’s face it, family histories are often crafted fabrications made to cast ancestors in the best possible light. Reality often shatters those illusions.

              I haven’t found anything earth-shattering in my own family history, but I’ve found plenty of things that, by design or not, ended up excised from the family oral tradition before it got down to me. It’s a multi-generational game of telephone, and it’s ludicrous to think that such stories are somehow sacrosanct, especially when contemporary evidence refutes them.

              Reply
              1. Kevin Levin Post author

                It goes without saying that such stories can be quite interesting in exploring how various generations from the same family chose to remember their past. However, it is the height of irresponsibility to draw conclusions based on it alone.

              2. Ken Noe

                I’ve mentioned this here before, but when I lived in Georgia, I heard several stories from very nice people who wanted to tell me the terrible things Sherman did in town. In fact Sherman never passed through, although John Croxton did some damage at the end of the war.

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