Robert E. Lee, the Historical Jesus, and the Lost Cause

Reading reactions to my post on this past weekend’s Lee conference reminded me of a couple of entries from last spring.  Given the number of new readers I thought it might be worthwhile to post them again.

April 15, 2006

I’ve been reading with interest about the recent “discovery” of the so-called Gospel of Judas, which some scholars believe sheds new light on the story of Jesus and his death. I should say upfront that I am not a Christian; that said, I am very interested in the debates surrounding the interpretation and understanding of the historical Jesus. In other words, I am interested in better understanding the life of an incredibly important man. Of course, there is a deep-rooted tension here between what we can know historically about this individual and what many claim to “understand” through faith. If we are interested in the historical Jesus than the rules of historical inquiry seem to apply, but this is controversial as anyone who examines the historical data knows that it is problematic. Much of our information about the historical Jesus comes from the gospels contained in the New Testament; however, the earliest gospels are estimated to have been written anywhere between 70 and 120 years after the death of Jesus. This gap raises a number of difficult problems for the historian, including the question of authorship and motivation. A number of scholars have raised the possibilities that later gospels were either copied directly or paraphrased from the earlier texts. What this means, of course, is that the New Testament gospels do not necessarily provide independent confirmation of the subject in question. This gap also suggests that the earliest gospel was not written by someone who knew Jesus personally. Finally, even if we could confirm that the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels were his own, we would still have the challenge of interpreting what he meant by what he said. And as any historian knows this can be extremely difficult if the questions of when, where, and why the words were spoken are unknown.

Getting back to the gap between the life of Jesus and the estimates of when the first accounts were written, imagine that the earliest documents we have of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were dated to the late 19th century and penned by people born after the event. How much of the motivation of the Founders could we uncover? Given the difficulties of interpreting the Constitution today even with a rich history of what they said and why, how far could we go in my imaginative scenario? I have to admit that I don’t know much about this new Judas document, but I welcome any new piece of information that may help peel back the layers of this intriguing individual and the life of Jesus. From what I’ve read the document is dated to the 4th century, which places it at a point later than the gospels. The dating of the document, however, does not seems to render it otiose. It’s been interesting reading reactions from individuals who relish the additional information as opposed to those who almost instinctively resist any challenge to their preferred interpretation. I suspect that part of the reason involves the faith that people exercise in reference to the life and resurrection of Jesus. But this raises the interesting question of the role – if at all – historical sources should play in one’s overall view. Should a believer be concerned about the history and/or historical inquiry that many scholars are presently engaged in surrounding the life of Jesus? If one’s belief in a certain interpretation of the life and death of Jesus is based entirely on faith are there any constraints on such a view; in other words, can I believe anything about Jesus on faith. If there are interpretve constrainsts, what exactly are they and who gets to exercise the authority? And if some historical content that is based on a close reading of a wide range of texts is necessary, how much and who gets to decide and why?

The tension between faith and a need to understand the past resonates in Civil War circles. There are those who have little patience with traditional views of the Confederacy and the Civil War which are rooted in the Lost Cause. Debate is difficult as both camps have divergent agendas. Lost Cause advocates seem more concerned with protecting a specific set of assumptions while historians with a more professional bent tend to find it easier to question deeply-rooted interpretations. I am fascinated by people who stick to their guns when it comes to defending a traditional interpretation of Lee, Jackson or even the “benevolent institution of slavery.” Notice that challenges are dealt with by utilizing the language of betrayal or sacrilege. Those who question “the faith” are called “northern liberals,” “communists,” “revisionists,” and yes, “academics.” For these people no amount of discussion, debate or even the introduction of new sources matters. (I should say that I’ve met some pretty stubborn/close-minded academics in my day. These are not mutually exclusive categories.) Their view is a matter of personal faith and not a function of serious historical inquiry. I am not necessarily judging such an approach, but it is clearly not an approach that I find productive in my own quest to better understand 19th century America. Of course there is a broad area in the middle where both camps merge in creative and at times confusing ways. It can be said that both sides are looking for some kind of meaning in the past, but the routes taken have little in common.

The Da Vinci Code and the Lost Cause

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Historians, Revisionism, and Robert E. Lee

Looks like everyone who attended this weekend’s conference on Robert E. Lee sponsored by the Stephen D. Lee Institute had a grand old time.  I came across this short article in the Washington Times which focuses most of its attention on some of the comments by Robert Krick.  The conference is premised on the assumption that R. E. Lee is under attack by politically correct or so-called revisionist historians.  I tend to stay away from responding to these types of claims in large part because I don’t really understand what the criticisms imply.  Serious historians should address the relative merits of individual interpretations rather than hide behind vague generalizations. 

As evidence of this bias Krick claimed that the last few years has witnessed the publication of a "wretched flood of biographies."  He’s absolutely right about this and no doubt I have a couple of these titles on my shelf.  The counterfactual approach that Krick references can be seen clearly in Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered which was published about 15 years ago.  It has spawned a small cottage industry of imitators who tend to publish with small presses and whose authors include Bevin Alexander, Edward Bonekemper, and John D. McKenzie.   Most of these historians adopt Nolan’s assumptions and conclude that Lee lost the war with his overly aggressive strategy and/or conclude that Lee’s reputation was entirely the result of the postwar Lost Cause movement.  This latter argument was made forcefully by Thomas Connelly in his excellent book The Marble Man (1978).  I’ve never really thought of these studies as the result of some kind of personal attack; in the case of Alexander, Bonekemper, and McKenzie we are talking about bad history.  On the other hand, Connelly was a very serious historian and while I disagree with some of his arguments I’ve never been tempted to suggest that his conclusions were being driven by politics. 

Krick cites this postwar construction argument as evidence of revisionism, but is it?  Did Krick at any point in his presentation mention the incredible amount of scholarship published over the past decade that has worked to correct this assumption?  Gary Gallagher has spilled a great deal of ink in various essays arguing that Connelly’s assumptions are mistaken and that Lee’s reputation was solidified before the end of the war, and Krick has shown the same thing regarding "Stonewall" Jackson.  Even more historians have answered the Nolan-counterfactual approach by investigating the reasons why Lee engaged in an aggressive strategic and tactical approach throughout much of the war.  Based on this scholarship I surely do not interpret Lee’s reputation as simple postwar Lost Cause construction.  Of course, this does not imply that the postwar scene did not influence the way we remember the war and Lee specifically

While I admit that there is a great deal of bad history out there let’s keep things in perspective.  Is everything that challenges long-standing assumptions revisionism or politically correct?  I guess that’s what you get when you bring together a bunch of people who are all working under the same false assumptions that imply conspiracy and political motivation.  You end up reinforcing one another without spending time in critical analysis.

And in the end isn’t that what a conference is supposed to be all about?

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Preserving What for Whom?

The well known reenactor and battlefield preservationist Robert Lee Hodge has a short editorial in the Roanoke Times in which he warns residents living in the Lynchburg-Appomattox area to resist plans to build another Wal-Mart:

As I toured Appomattox last year, I saw that development in historic areas has increased more in the last five years than in the past 142 years since the surrender. Wal-Mart announced this month that it will build on the ground that was fought over primarily by a Federal cavalry brigade under Gen. Henry Davies and Confederate troopers under Gen. Thomas Munford — including the 2nd Virginia Cavalry in which Company H was the Appomattox Rangers.

This is where Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fired its last shots and suffered its last casualties. The Confederate dead are buried on the ground slated for development. The Robertson house that once stood there was used as a Federal headquarters and probably a hospital. This is of interest to reverent people throughout the country.

Now make no mistake I have a great deal of respect for battlefield preservationists and I’ve been known to give money to at least one organization.  That said, I cringe at these sappy and vague references to the importance of our Civil War past:

Whether you are a Southerner or a Northerner; Democrat or Republican; domestic or imported; black, white, yellow, red, blue or gray — these places tell us more about who we are than any other single historical period in our brief existence. It is our road map to tell us who we are, where we are, where we have been, and where we may go.

I for one can’t stand the sight of Wal-Marts and I resist shopping there whenever possible.  I am even willing to pay more for an item rather than walk into these cookie cutter – fake hospitality asylums.  However, I honestly don’t know why I should resist plans to build one of these monstrosities on land that was fought over by Federal cavalry.  More importantly, Wal-Marts provide people with jobs and even with all of the controversy surrounding benefits packages that has to have some value – definitely more value than preserving land because Federal cavalry fought over it. 

I am going to go out on a limb here and it will probably upset some, but I actually doubt that most battlefield enthusiasts/preservationists really agree with Hodge’s assessment these sites constitute some kind of road map of national identity.  Most people’s interest in the Civil War extends no further than the battlefields themselves.  Just consider the opposition over the past few years to the NPS’s efforts to broaden our understanding of Civil War battlefields in a way that would connect them to broader issues that go very far in addressing our national identity. 

My guess is that in the end most people desire to save Civil War battlefields so they can walk the ground and imagine for themselves the movements of troops and the fighting that took place there.  We’re not talking about serious reflection about issues of national identity, we’re talking about entertainment.  How can Hodge claim that saving land that was fought over by a Federal cavalry brigade translate into anything other than saving a small piece of a larger military campaign puzzle?  In short, it’s a chance to play soldier in the "Mind’s I."   The problem is that the people who enjoy walking battlefields constitute a very small interest group. 

If you want to save the battlefields than raise the money and purchase the land.  Hell, I will even help, but don’t preach to me that this issue somehow transcends region, race, and politics. 

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“Lee at 200”

I know it is a bit early, but those of you in the Charlottesville area should mark your calendars for a series of talks that will take place on Wednesdays beginning on September 26 and ending on October 31.  The conference, which is being organized by the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing Education, will explore various themes connected to the history of Robert E. Lee.  Participants include Gary Gallagher, Robert Krick [check out Krick’s article on Ralph Happel in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star], Elizabeth Pryor [her new book on Lee is due out next week], Holt Merchant, and William Davis.  The final evening will be a roundtable discussion and I’ve been asked to prepare a brief presentation based around the session title, "The Relevance of Lee Today." 

I will pass on additional information as it becomes available.

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“Robert E. Lee: Hero or Traitor?”

What does it say about an organization that structures a conference around a mutually exclusive choice?  This is a perfect conference for those of you who like your history overly simplistic and based around a strawman argument:

But opinions are changing in this era of Political Correctness. Was Lee a hero whose valour and leadership were surpassed only by his honour and humanity? Or, as some suggest today, was he a traitor whose military skill served a bad cause and prolonged an immoral rebellion against his rightful government?

To many, Robert E. Lee is a remote figure, a marble icon. To others he was simply a great battlefield commander. But Lee was much more; his character shines brightly from the past, illuminating the present. The Symposium will cover Lee the man, his views on government and liberty, his humane attitudes toward race and slavery, Lee and the American Union, Lee as inspired commander and his relationship with the Army, Lee as a Christian gentleman, and the meaning of Lee for today.

Am I to believe that it is possible to have an analytical discussion about these issues?  Given the list of speakers is this really going to be a serious discussion with panelists taking different positions or are they simply going to sit around and toast the general with their words?  At least they were smart enough to invite Bob Krick  and Kent M. Brown who are the only two on the list qualified to talk about Lee’s generalship.  I think I will pass on this one and spend some time Saturday reading a history of Lee.   

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I’ll Tell You When Enough is Enough

Eric Wittenberg has an interesting post up in which he raises the issue of when a historian has collected sufficient research material for a given project.  While I sympathize with Eric and others in reference to this question I don’t believe the problem is as bad as he makes it out to be.  And the reason, as Eric points out, is that you can’t collect all of the relevant information.  Perhaps most of what is out there is still lying in shoe boxes in people’s attics.  Fortunately, you don’t have to collect all of it.  The piece of the puzzle that I wish Eric had discussed in more detail is the importance of analysis in historical interpretation.  It’s the analysis that needs to drive the project based on the materials collected.  There is always the concern that the analytical aspects of the interpretation are supported by insufficient materials; in the worst case scenario the historian simply begins with a set of assumptions and collects data that supports those assumptions  However, as long as the historian remains open to revision there is room for the interpretation to grow and hopefully become more sophisticated.  The relevant question is whether data that has the potential to significantly alter the analysis has not been uncovered. 

I am quite confident that there is plenty of material on the Crater that I missed in the course of my research.  There are no doubt some pretty colorful accounts of Confederates sharing their perceptions of having to fight black soldiers that would enliven my narrative.  That said, I am pretty confident that there is little out there that would significantly alter the main analytical points that I make in the manuscript.  I decided awhile back that I was not going to try to cram as many voices into the project just for the sake of inclusion.  My published work hopefully balances data and interpretation effectively. 

In the end there is no answer to the question of when enough is enough.  The philosopher Raymond Martin once likened the process to a "Brewmasters’ Nose."  You stir the pot around for a bit and if you do it long enough and fail at it a number of times you eventually "know" when it’s ready. 

So, my advice to Eric (whatever it’s worth) is to think about the main interpretive points that have been made and whether a sufficient range of materials have been collected which support those points. 

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Congratulations to Peter Carmichael

While on my daily run today I met up with a fellow historian who mentioned that Peter Carmichael has just been named the Eberly Distinguished Professorship in Civil War Studies at West Virginia University.  As many of you know Peter is currently Director of Graduate Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  He has published widely, including a biography of William Pegram and more recently, The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion.  In addition he has edited a nice collection of essays on Robert E. Lee

Over the past few years Peter has been kind enough to comment on my own work and has been instrumental in pointing out a number of publishing opportunities.  Not only is WVU getting a top-notch scholar, they are also bringing on board a great guy.

Congratulations Pete!

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Bringing the Civil War to the Classroom

I received a letter from a fellow teacher today and thought that given that a fairly large number of k-12 teachers read this blog I would respond in a way that might benefit all those interested:

I am teaching a class next year called “The Civil War and Reconstruction.” It is a semester class. We are the only school in my district, and maybe the state, to offer the class. I am searching for an appropriate text with supporting materials to use. The students will be college bound 11th and 12th graders. Any ideas would be appreciated. I will use Furgurson’s book as supplemental. (Freedom Rising) Any books I buy have to come out of my pocket since there is no budget. I am also looking for a good primary source packet. I would appreciate any ideas to help me get this class going. I have taught U.S. History survey courses for almost twenty years.

First, let me say that it is always nice to see teachers introducing the Civil War on the high school level.  The material literally teaches itself and you are likely to inculcate a love for history through the material.  There is an abundance of materials and much of it is worthless so it is important to be able to judge for quality.  As far as a textbook is concerned I tend to use titles that serve as supplements for other documents.  I assign pages for students to read as background and rarely as their primary reading.  You want to find something that is short, concise, and written by a competent scholar who understands historiography.  The best book I can recommend is Brooks Simpson’s America’s Civil War (Harlan Davidson, 1996).  It is 217 pages long, relatively inexpensive, and does an excellent job of balancing the relevant military, political, social, and economic factors.  I’ve also used This Terrible War: The Civil War and It’s Aftermath by Michael Fellman, Lesley Gordon, and Daniel Sutherland but it is too expensive and a bit more difficult to use in the type of class that I teach. 

There are a number of decent primary source texts that should be considered.  I’ve used with some success the volume from the Major Problems Series which is published by Houghton Mifflin.  It includes some very good primary sources as well as excerpts from various secondary sources.  Of course you can find pretty much anything online if you know where to go.  Check out some of the links on the left hand side of the blog as a place to start. 

I’ve taught my Civil War course as both a readings class and as a research seminar.  In the case of the former my textbook supplements articles and chapters from various secondary sources.  One of the best sources is North and South Magazine which I’ve used with great success.  The articles are authored by some of the top scholars who understand the complexity of the subject and are able to convey these issues to a wide audience.  Back in 2005 I published an article on how I use this source in the OAH’s Magazine of History.  I want my students to understand that the Civil War is incredibly complex, and the best way that I’ve found to introduce students to this is by using the work of professional historians.  My classes are structured as seminars where students take turns leading the discussion and focusing the class on thesis evaluation.  In addition to printed material I’ve used segments from Ken Burns to illustrate interpretive points through film as well as music.  Last semester I used Ken Burns and a chapter in a recent edited collection to highlight the way we perceive Lee’s decision to resign his commission from the U.S. Army.

I have also organized the class as a research seminar where students spend the semester researching various topics from the Valley of the Shadow.  Students are introduced to every aspect of the research process from the formulating of questions to learning how to properly document sources.  Throughout the semester students are required to update the class on their progress and share both ideas and source material.  Fortunately, I have a mobile laptop lab with 16 computers, but you could conceivably use a computer lab on campus if available. 

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So Simple Even My Students Understand It

[An attempt to connect some ideas that are currently floating around in my head into one coherent post.]

Today I took a small group of students up to Chancellorsville.  We spent about 4 hours driving to different locations and had lunch on the battlefield.  Our stops included the Zoan Church, Chancellor House, and the spot where Lee and Jackson met for the final time.  We followed Jackson’s flank march and ended up back at the Visitor’s Center where we followed Jackson’s reconnaissance and fatal shots.  Following lunch we drove over to Hazel Grove where I discussed the action on May 3.  The Park Service has done quite a bit since the last time I visited the battlefield.  The trees around Fairview have been cut, which provides an excellent view from Hazel Grove and makes it very easy to interpret the ground along with its significance to the fighting.  At the Chancellor House I noticed two new markers by the remnants of the foundation.  One focuses on the Chancellor slaves and the other on the Chancellor women who were forced to take refuge in their basement for much of the battle.  I mentioned that the two markers reflected an attempt on the part of the Park Service to broaden their interpretations of the military to include issues of race, slavery, and civilian life.  At one point I mentioned that this was a divisive debate and that many believe that the Park Service should stick to coverage of the movement of troops and other issues strictly related to battles and campaigns.  As we walked back to the bus one of my students inquired why this was so controversial.  If I remember correctly the student said: "Isn’t it true that civilians and slaves were often caught up in the confusion of battle?"  Leave it to a student to reduce an emotionally-charged debate down to the essentials.

Speaking of civilians I’ve read a few reviews of "Sherman’s March" and am not surprised to find that there are people who will continue to take issue with the "destructiveness" of his campaign and the image of the Union army as engaged in plunder and rape.  I don’t mind that people still find a reason to get emotional about it all, but I refuse to consider it as having anything to do with history.  As I toured the battlefield today I thought a bit about our tendency to understand Georgia’s civilian population as a white civilian population.  Apparently, Georgia’s blacks do not count in many peoples attempts to understand Sherman’s movements.  The two groups experienced that march very differently, which must be acknowledged by historians in writing about the campaign.  This acknowledgment is not a moral judgment, but the result of a responsibility to tell as complete a story as possible.  What I find so fascinating is the tendency of many to identify with people who lived during the Civil War.  Yes, there are people who have ancestors who fought on both sides, but even here I wonder whether such a close identification is useful in and of itself as a means to greater understanding.  I say this as someone who has no personal connection to the war nor as someone who was raised on stories of the war or groomed on battlefields during my formative years.  I didn’t read my first Civil War book until my mid-20s.   

What I mean to say is that I have absolutely no interest in any type of moral vindication for either side.  I am pleased that slavery ended as a result of the war, but I have no interest in any moral identification with the men on the battlefield or with the civilian leaders in Richmond and Washington, D.C.  As a historian my primary interest is in better understanding why events transpired from as many perspectives as possible.  I am not psychologically wedded to any assumptions about the relative goodness of Southerners vs. Northerners, but I am fascinated by people who do.  You can see it in people’s expressions when they leave the realm of history to another place that is more about their own personally constructed ideas about what happened and what it means that it happened.  While I admit to finding the language and tone worth dissection it is not from the perspective of a historian, but as someone who is interested in the ways we become emotionally invested in our ideas of the past. 

Sherman’s march brings this out in a visceral kind of way.  Most people find a need to reduce his decisions down to an overly simplistic condemnation as if Sherman was the first and last general to bring war to civilians.  Interestingly we tend not to have these types of discussions when it comes to the bombings of German and Japanese cities during WWII.  The Civil War was not WWII but the kind of war fought was similar if not much more severe.  Allied planes bombed many cities into rubble which collapsed any neat/traditional distinction between military and civilian targets.  The latter, one could argue, were targeted to bring about military ends.  Within this broader context Sherman’s campaign was mild at best.  His army destroyed infrastructure and lived off the land to survive and this served to drain the will to continue to fight from many on the home front.   Please don’t write  me to share the personal hardship stories of ancestors or to try to convince me of some vague "moral monster" label that you believe ought to be applied to Sherman.  I am not interested.  I have nothing at stake in the way I perceive Sherman as a moral being.  I don’t get goose bumps from certain images or from my own self-perceptions of the general.  Again, I am interested in historical questions surrounding the campaign.  How can the campaign be understood as a logical extension of Union war policy?  Did it succeed?  How did Sherman and his men relate to the civilian population – both black and white?

To those of you who have watched "Sherman’s March on the History Channel I would ask you to think about any strong reactions you may have.  Are your reactions the result of careful review of recent published works, including biographies of Sherman as well as studies of the campaign?  Or is it an extension of deep-seated feelings that have more to do with the luck of family and geography than with a genuine interest in the past?

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This Isn’t Your Grandmother’s W.T. Sherman: A Review of the History Channel’s “Sherman’s March”

[If you haven’t done so already make sure you read the guest post by Bill Oberst Jr. who played Sherman in the movie.]

Little has changed in the format of historical documentaries since the 1990 release of Ken Burns’s The Civil War.  The formula is straight-forward: It includes interviews with respected scholars, powerful imagery, narrative voice, and the words of the historical actors themselves.  The final product must balance a respect for historical interpretation, entertainment, and drama.  Different parties are rarely satisfied, but that is perhaps inevitable in a medium that works to blend what appear to be competing elements.  All too often the goal of entertainment takes precedent over sound scholarship even if the program includes short clips of interviews with respected scholars.  Perceptive viewers must deal with and balance what appear to be distinct narratives, one from the historical advisers and the other provided by the narrator.   While the scholars attempt to infuse the latest in historical scholarship to the production they are often drown out by a narrator who pushes a more traditional/mythical line of interpretation.  While I strongly disagree with a number of interpretive points, roughly 15 years later Ken Burns continues to set the standard for what is possible in the genre of historical documentaries.

More common in recent years is the inclusion of scripted scenes involving reenactors, which lends itself to more of a movie-style approach.  The danger here is that movie producers end up with a final product that entertains more than it educates.  With this in mind I turn to a review of the History Channel’s latest historical production titled Sherman’s March.  I should say at the outset that I went into the viewing of this movie with very low expectations.  It’s been a number of years since I watched the History Channel (we don’t have cable television) and all I can remember are endless loops of documentaries about 20th century military technology and the last days in Hitler’s Bunker.  You can understand my skepticism. 

With this in mind I was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of this movie from the perspectives of both an educator/historian and as someone who wants to be entertained.  A production like this needs to do both well.  The producers of Sherman’s March educate by including an impressive list of historical advisers, including historians John Marszalek, Joseph Glatthaar, Steven Woodworth, Mark Grimsley, Theodore Delaney, and Christine J. Carter along with the voices from primary sources.  The movie entertains with scripted scenes that feature William T. Sherman  (played by Bill Oberst Jr.), his relationship with Ulysses S. Grant as well as Sherman’s relationship with his men.  Finally, there are the various battlefield scenes involving Confederate and Union reenactors.  The computer-generated visuals are pleasing to the eye, especially the scenes which depict Atlanta in flames, which actually looks like its burning.

For a movie like this to succeed it must offer a smooth transition between the historical advisers ("talking heads") and the scripted scenes.   The campaign must be understood from multiple perspectives and the script cannot confine itself to the all-too-common language of "rape" and "plunder."  Based on the amount of time that the historical advisers enjoy in the final version it is obvious that the producers wanted to ensure that viewers were introduced to the latest in historical scholarship.  From Marszalek we learn that the campaign is best understood as "psychological war on the South" and from Glatthaar that this was an "attack on infrastructure."  [The only problem with such a strong emphasis on historical advisers is that at times their presence is overwhelming, which makes it difficult to maintain the overall narrative flow. Still, viewers are forced to think about the burning of Atlanta (30% of the city) and the march through Georgia within a political context and as a logical step in the overall Union strategy to win the war.  This approach runs the risk of alienating those who are wedded to their preferred explanations or interpretations of Sherman.  I think it is important to keep in mind, however, that for these people no amount of history is going to shake the foundation of their preferred explanation.  In these cases beliefs are not about history, but about something else entirely.

The attention to perspective is never lost in this movie, but the challenge of how to represent white Southerners in the path of Sherman’s army is an interesting one.  White Southern women bore the brunt of this campaign, but as many of the advisers point out at the end of the movie, there is a great deal of myth surrounding this campaign.  The solution is to find wartime rather than postwar sources which highlight their hardships without the more vitriolic and suspect accounts that paint Union soldiers as engaged in mass rape.  Producers rely on Dolly Binge who owned 100 slaves and who offers a very descriptive account of what it was like to have to face foragers ("bummers) who sought both food and other valuables.  The viewer hears the voice of Binge who describes these men as "demons" who "rush in."  Mark Grimsley offers a few comments that point out the essential differences between the way Union soldiers and Southern white women viewed these operations: "Foraging operations are not how a Southern woman experienced it."  Christine Carter follows by noting that these raids "intend to be personal violations" of home and property.  Such commentary serves to keep the focus on history rather than raw emotion. 

Given my own research interests it should come as no surprise that I would point to the slave perspective as a crucial addition to the understanding of the campaign that is offered in this movie.  The issue is complex and filled with even more misunderstanding.  The segment begins by bringing the viewer back to January 1, 1863 and the Emancipation Proclamation along with the recruitment of black men into the Union army.  From the perspective of Georgia’s slave population Sherman’s army is seen as a liberating army.  Glatthaar suggests that many Union soldiers were disgusted by their contacts with the slaves along with their harrowing stories of bondage and the sight of scars.  Steve Woodworth makes the important point that Union soldiers "trust the slaves" as guides and for protection in the case of separation from the rest of the army.  Theodore Delaney makes it a point to note that Sherman does not share the enthusiasm of some of his and his stand against the recruitment of black soldiers is mentioned and also mentions that the Union army included a wide range of racial attitudes.  That said, the commentators emphasize that events on the ground and Sherman’s own practical concerns forced him to take steps that he otherwise would not have taken.  [Such a view echoes Chandra Manning’s latest study of how the war altered the way Union soldiers viewed race and slavery.]  These include the formation of a Pioneer Brigade made up of newly-freed slaves who were charged with building roads and other structures.  Some will no doubt find the commentary and scenes of Sherman interacting with the slaves as an attempt to rewrite the past.  At one point one of the talking heads suggests that while Sherman held racist views he was able to easily engage individual blacks along the march.  At one point Sherman is shown talking with the head of a black family and asks, "What do you think of this war?"  The man responds: "Mighty depressing, but without it the right thing would never get done."  At another point in the discussion Sherman mentions that the Confederacy is thinking about recruiting black soldiers and inquires, "Will you fight against us?"  The response leaves little doubt as to the wartime loyalty of black Southerners: "The day they give us arms will be the day the war ends."

The movie covers the crossing of Sherman’s army across Ebeneezer Creek which left 600 freed slaves within striking distance of Confederate General Joe Wheeler’s cavalry.  Grimsley captures the significance of the moment by mentioning that these people went "from freedom to being reenslaved."    Glatthaar described it as a "sad moment" and the newly-freed slaves as having "felt horribly double-crossed."  The strongest words come from Delaney, who while describes the decision as "practically justified" given the material constraints on the army, concludes that Union General Jefferson C. Davis (slaveowner) had a "problem with humanity" and "acted disgracefully."  In the end, Sherman’s decision is understood as militarily necessary and almost as another example of the harshness of "hard war."  The coverage of this incident serves to balance the suggested Union racial outlook as understood in earlier scenes.

The movie does not shy away from pointing out the destructiveness of the campaign and the acts of cruelty that were exhibited on both sides.  There is coverage of the battle of Griswoldville which left 600 Confederate casualties, many of whom were older men and younger boys.  Some viewers will no doubt point to a bias in the tendency of the narrator and commentators to attempt to justify Union foraging operations as "legitimate activity."  I suspect that the attempt to reach a balance between Union military aims and Confederate retaliation will be seen as "revisionist" given traditional interpretations which take a white Southern perspective as paramount.  There are scenes describing the burning of Millen and the use of Confederate prisoners to uncover torpedoes placed in the road by Confederate forces, but there are also images of murdered Union soldiers in both Georgia and North Carolina. 

While multiple perspectives are presented in this movie it is clear that this is Sherman’s story.  There is an emphasis on forcing the viewer to understand Sherman’s decisions within a strict military context.  Distinctions are drawn between the way Sherman orders his men to treat the property and civilians in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.  Sherman’s orders in N.C. remind his men that the state barely voted for secession while in S.C. his men are given more liberal orders.   

Though it is unlikely that their comments will have much effect most of the historians offer a few final thoughts concerning the postwar mythologizing about Sherman’s March.  Woodworth suggests that white Southerners dealt with defeat by creating the image of Sherman as a brutal monster.  Marszalek emphasizes that Columbia was not burned to the ground by the Union army.  He gets at many of the exaggerated postwar accounts by reflecting on the number of people who have approached him over the years to share stories of the burning of ancestor’s farms.  In all almost every case, according to Marszalek, the location of the home of the ancestor in question was nowhere near the route of Sherman’s army.  Finally, Theodore Delaney offers some perspective in reminding viewers that Ulysses S. Grant killed many more white Southerners compared with Sherman; he goes on to suggest that he would much rather have a general destroy property as opposed to people.

This program is not going to satisfy everyone.  I fear that for many the movie is going to bring out the typical cries of "revisionism."   For others it will no doubt challenge long-standing assumptions and may even lead to further reading.  I would recommend that viewers look at the published work of the historical advisers as the best place to start.  John Marszalek is the author of an excellent biography of Sherman while Steve Woodworth’s latest book on the Army of Tennessee covers their march through Georgia and the Carolinas.  Joe Glatthaar’s study of Sherman’s March is one of the best analytical studies of the campaign.  Finally, you don’t want to ignore Mark Grimsley’s first-rate study of the evolution of the Union war effort.

Let me end with a comment made by Bill Oberst Jr.:

"I hope Sherman’s March
rises above the standard. I hope it represents an evolution in the form. I hope
it raises more questions than it answers. A war, even a long-ago one, is not a product. It is the collective story
of real people who could never forget the hell that they lived through. We owe
it to them to remember, and to try and get it right."

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