As a quick follow-up to yesterday’s post on Sherman and Civil War memory I thought it might be helpful to cite a passage from William G. Thomas’s new book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America. No image of Georgia in 1864 is more iconic than that of Sherman’s men destroying southern rails and turning them into what became known as Sherman neckties. The destruction caused by Sherman’s army almost always eclipses the rebuilding that took place immediately following the war.
Reconstruction of the South in this respect was literally re-construction, a fact long obscured in the era’s twisted history, which the white South remembered long as punishment and subordination, conveniently forgetting the generous terms of their restoration….
No railroad suffered more than the Western and Atlantic (what Wright called the Chattanooga and Atlanta) because of both Union army maneuvers across it and Confederate cavalry raids against it during the Atlanta Campaign in the summer of 1864. The Confederates tore up twenty-five miles of the railroad in a massive raid aimed at disabling the Union’s key supply route. And in an effort to cut off Atlanta from external communication, Sherman just before his November March to the Sea, “very effectually destroyed the road” and gave orders for Wright’s Corps to remove sixteen miles of track between Resaca and Dalton. Yet, after Sherman’s March was completed, Wright’s Corps went back to Atlanta and rebuilt nearly all of the Western and Atlantic, laying down 140 miles of new track and cross-ties, raising 16 bridges, and erecting 20 new water tanks. Close to $1 million in construction labor and $1,377,145 in new material were expended on the Western and Atlantic before turning it over to the state of Georgia and its original corporate officers in September 1865. (pp. 183-84)
According to Thomas, in less than one year rail service in the South had been largely restored. The book details the rebuilding that took place throughout the South toward the end of the war. I highly recommend it.
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.
Thanks to fellow historian, high school teacher, and blogger Jim Cullen for taking the time to write a review of my Crater book for the History News Network. Jim’s critique is thoughtful and raises some important questions about my interpretation. I especially appreciate the following:
One also wonders about the next turn of the wheel. Like most historians of the last half-century, Levin renders this story as one of Progress. There was what really happened, then it got hidden by a bunch of racists, and now the truth has reemerged. Without denying the salutary consequences of writing African Americans back into history — or endorsing the mindless dead-ender insistence on “heritage,” whose advocates never seem to spell out just what they’re affirming a heritage of — one wonders if the story is this simple. What are we in the process of forgetting these days? How can such absences be traced? Where might the story go from here? These are difficult questions, and it may be unfair to expect Levin to grapple with them. Perhaps he gets credit for doing so much so well that he provokes them.
First, let me say that I do indeed consider the broad parameters of this story as one of progress. Early on one of the reviewers asked me to address some of these questions, especially the question concerning the future of our Civil War memory. While I decided to bring the story to the present day I never felt comfortable about abandoning the traditional ground of a historian. I suspect my next project will free me up in this regard.
I also agree with Jim that this story is predictable for those familiar with the literature, especially David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, which despite recent scholarly challenges, continues to exercise a profound influence on my thinking. That said, I didn’t write this book primarily for folks familiar with the historiography. Yes, I hope that the book appeals to scholars, but I wrote it primarily for folks who may never have read an entire book on Civil War memory. I wanted something that would serve as an introduction and lay out some of the tough questions that Americans have grappled with over the years.
Finally, I really appreciate the kind words about my blogging. In many ways, this book was made possible as a result of blogging and fits neatly into this broader project of how I’ve chosen to share my interest in Civil War history and engage the general public.
As part of my recent weekend with the Civil War Trust I took part in a tour of downtown Charleston. The organization made arrangements with a number of guides, most of which were at least somewhat knowledgeable. Unfortunately, my guide was an absolute disgrace and at times reckless with his interpretation of one of the most important historic sites in the city.
I guess it was an attempt to be charming, but at the beginning of the tour our guide asked us where we were from. In my case, he called me an abolitionist scoundrel, but thanked me for his job. I guess he was acknowledging the importance of tourism to the local economy. This was followed by a request to the group to hiss whenever William T. Sherman’s name was mentioned. I obliged by responding with, “Saved the Union” instead of the required hiss. Finally, our guide insisted on asking us if discussing slavery was permitted since it is such a “sensitive topic.” Apparently, he was unaware that his group was made up of history teachers.
So, you can imagine my concern as we walked toward the slave market. Any guide needs to think carefully about how to present the history of the slave market based on the profile of the group in question. The subject is sensitive and interpreters must tread carefully, but the history is crucial to understanding a huge chunk of Charleston’s history. Instead of introducing the subject our guide asked us to imagine that we were slaveholders coming to market to purchase property. We were to think about what kind of slaves we were interested in purchasing. No introduction to the site. No discussion of anything having to do with the history of slavery and race relations in Charleston. What I couldn’t believe was that the teachers in the group actually responded to this inane question. Finally, our guide came to me. I responded simply: “I am not interested in buying a slave.” Once we had finished this little imaginative exercise I asked the guide if he could talk a bit about how this may have looked from a slave’s point-of-view. He clearly knew very little. It was a surreal experience.
At the end of the tour our guide asked if I was offended back at the slave market. I think he was asking specifically if I was offended by the mere discussion of the subject. Rather than share my thoughts I simply thanked him for the tour and walked away. If you are going to Charleston make sure your tour of the city is led by a competent interpreter. Perhaps some of you who are more familiar with the city can offer some suggestions.
This was just one guide on one tour, but I suspect that this is a case of where there is smoke there is fire.