Category Archives: Civil War Culture

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."

Bill Oberst Jr. on the Making of Sherman’s March

Sherman_marching_with_his_troopsThis is a guest post by Bill Oberst Jr. who played William T. Sherman in the History Channel’s movie, Sherman’s March.  The show will air tomorrow evening at 9pm.  I want to take this opportunity to thank Bill for agreeing to share his thoughts about the making of the movie along with his very poignant thoughts about memory and Sherman.  My review of the movie will follow later today or tomorrow morning. 

Playing William Tecumseh Sherman for The History
Channel’s Sherman’s March was an
exercise in dichotomy.  Often, no significant character development is required for
a documentary portrayal. The standard documentary format calls for more
re-enacting (i.e., characters performing motions that visually reinforce the
narration; their dialogue audible only in snippets) than acting. But writer and
director Rick King was
attempting a new hybrid of documentary and drama. Using words from the
historical record, he had created several bonafide dramatic scenes with real
interaction and dialogue.

Which brings me back to dichotomy. I was born and raised in South Carolina, and grew up hearing stories (many apocryphal) of the march. There was both sadness and glee in the telling
of these inherited tales, nearly all of which were told from a woman’s point of
view (rapes and near rapes; the ripping open of feather mattresses with sabers;
the disinterment of recently buried loved ones, etc.) The old women at church told us that our belly buttons were "where the Yankee shot you."

Year later, when I read Faces
of The Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination
by Sam Keen, I thought of Sherman and wondered
if he (or the idea of him) had served some unifying purpose in the Southern
reframing of the late conflict, fragments of which were still around when I was
a kid. So encountering him as an actor was ironic.

The promos for this project featured a simplified version of
the question regarding Sherman:
"Hero or Terrorist?" (there are other choices, of course, but too
many choices make for bad sound bites). I thought that Rick King’s script lent
itself to the notion that Sherman was a bit of both. Under Rick’s direction I played him as both.

And so, as Sherman and his officers watch the burning of Atlanta, I tried to flash
a haunted look across his eyes before he turns to his men and justifies the
destruction. As he speaks to the elder statesman of a slave community, I tried
to play his assertion that "We are your friends" with a hint of glib
transparency, given Sherma’s
well-known views on the inequality of the races. Rick had written a
conscientious and compassionate script; a sort of prequel to his 2005
documentary Voices
In Wartime
.
The victim’s point
of view was never far out of the frame.

Whether such nuances come across in the context of flipping
channels on a Sunday night in America is another question. I have made my living portraying historical figures in
their own words onstage (and teaching about them in schools) for a dozen years,
and have seen our collective capacity to accept ambiguity and duality decline
along with our attention span. I have read Twain’s acerbic War Prayer
to students and performed it for adults, only to be met with the same puzzled
expressions at the tale’s seemingly contradictory last line. I have stood
onstage as John F. Kennedy speaking of an America that is respected “as much
for its civilization as for its strength,” and have known instinctively that
they only heard the strength part. And that’s on a stage with real people no
more than twenty feet away. The difficulty of presenting a layered portrait of
a contradictory human being to 21st century Americans is infinitely
greater when historical figures are subjected to the standard documentary
treatment or worse, the one-note docudrama treatment.

At this writing, I haven’t seen the finished program. But I
love history, and for the sake of that love, 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.

Bill Oberst Jr. on the Making of Sherman’s March

Sherman_marching_with_his_troopsThis is a guest post by Bill Oberst Jr. who played William T. Sherman in the History Channel’s movie, Sherman’s March.  The show will air tomorrow evening at 9pm.  I want to take this opportunity to thank Bill for agreeing to share his thoughts about the making of the movie along with his very poignant thoughts about memory and Sherman.  My review of the movie will follow later today or tomorrow morning. 

Playing William Tecumseh Sherman for The History
Channel’s Sherman’s March was an
exercise in dichotomy.  Often, no significant character development is required for
a documentary portrayal. The standard documentary format calls for more
re-enacting (i.e., characters performing motions that visually reinforce the
narration; their dialogue audible only in snippets) than acting. But writer and
director Rick King was
attempting a new hybrid of documentary and drama. Using words from the
historical record, he had created several bonafide dramatic scenes with real
interaction and dialogue.

Which brings me back to dichotomy. I was born and raised in South Carolina, and grew up hearing stories (many apocryphal) of the march. There was both sadness and glee in the telling
of these inherited tales, nearly all of which were told from a woman’s point of
view (rapes and near rapes; the ripping open of feather mattresses with sabers;
the disinterment of recently buried loved ones, etc.) The old women at church told us that our belly buttons were "where the Yankee shot you."

Year later, when I read Faces
of The Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination
by Sam Keen, I thought of Sherman and wondered
if he (or the idea of him) had served some unifying purpose in the Southern
reframing of the late conflict, fragments of which were still around when I was
a kid. So encountering him as an actor was ironic.

The promos for this project featured a simplified version of
the question regarding Sherman:
"Hero or Terrorist?" (there are other choices, of course, but too
many choices make for bad sound bites). I thought that Rick King’s script lent
itself to the notion that Sherman was a bit of both. Under Rick’s direction I played him as both.

And so, as Sherman and his officers watch the burning of Atlanta, I tried to flash
a haunted look across his eyes before he turns to his men and justifies the
destruction. As he speaks to the elder statesman of a slave community, I tried
to play his assertion that "We are your friends" with a hint of glib
transparency, given Sherma’s
well-known views on the inequality of the races. Rick had written a
conscientious and compassionate script; a sort of prequel to his 2005
documentary Voices
In Wartime
.
The victim’s point
of view was never far out of the frame.

Whether such nuances come across in the context of flipping
channels on a Sunday night in America is another question. I have made my living portraying historical figures in
their own words onstage (and teaching about them in schools) for a dozen years,
and have seen our collective capacity to accept ambiguity and duality decline
along with our attention span. I have read Twain’s acerbic War Prayer
to students and performed it for adults, only to be met with the same puzzled
expressions at the tale’s seemingly contradictory last line. I have stood
onstage as John F. Kennedy speaking of an America that is respected “as much
for its civilization as for its strength,” and have known instinctively that
they only heard the strength part. And that’s on a stage with real people no
more than twenty feet away. The difficulty of presenting a layered portrait of
a contradictory human being to 21st century Americans is infinitely
greater when historical figures are subjected to the standard documentary
treatment or worse, the one-note docudrama treatment.

At this writing, I haven’t seen the finished program. But I
love history, and for the sake of that love, 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.

What Would An Obama Presidency Mean to Civil War Memory?

One of my readers responded to yesterday’s post on the forthcoming Civil War Centennial study by firing off a private email.  Though the email was relatively brief this reader gave me a great deal to think about in connection with how the Civil War will be remembered in a few short years during the sesquicentennial.  For this reader "the [centennial] observance was a celebration in plastic soldiers and cool pictorials in
Life Magazine, any political considerations were far above my buzz-cut
little head."  Indeed, little has changed  within the more popular audiences that attend reenactments, Civil War Roundtables, and read the popular magazines.  This stands in sharp contrast with the direction of recent scholarship of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and black history generally. 

What I failed to consider, which was pointed out in the email, is the possibility that the sesquicentennial observances may coincide with the election of our first black president.  How will that shape the national narrative that will arise out of political speeches, state sesquicentennial commission plans, and other observances?  My friendly emailer asks:

As the bellowing over the Confederate battle flag seems to be nearing
crescendo, how relevant will Confederate heritage appear four years from
now?  And with, perhaps, a black president, how empty will any Confederate
legacy be revealed to be?

The more I think about it the more it seems obvious that an Obama presidency could radically reshape our understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rest of the American history right down to the Civil Rights Movement.  We’ve already seen – and I assume this will emerge in Cook’s study – how a push for black civil rights in the 1950s and 60s served to challenge the work of various centennial commissions.  This led to a noticeable waning in enthusiasm among white Americans for centennial celebrations by 1963.  The difference this time around could be that with Obama potentially elected in 2008 that this will leave plenty of time for the nation to begin to rethink its history and the place of slavery and emancipation within the overall narrative.  Think about it: We will hear about how far the nation has come since before the Civil War.  Part of that narrative will highlight the Civil War as leading to emancipation through the sacrifice and bravery of black soldiers themselves along with the actions of countless others.   It is reasonable to expect that the work of various organizations involved in setting up events for the sesquicentennial would be influenced to some extent by this natural curiosity as to how the nation has come to elect its first black president.  In short, the "emancipationist legacy" of the Civil War would return to center stage. It has the potential of becoming overly celebratory; however, my interest is in the way the nation’s focus would be shifted.

Returning to the passage quoted above it is necessary to point out that the "emptiness" referred to in connection with "Confederate heritage" is not meant to denigrate the very strong desire on the part of Southern whites to remember and acknowledge the service of ancestors.  I’ve said before that there is nothing necessarily wrong or even strange about this personal need to remember.  It is meant, however, to point out that this view reduces both the war years, Reconstruction, and the history of race and slavery in a way that fails to acknowledge salient factors and relevant perspectives as part of the overall historical narrative.  It tends to reduce Southern history and the Civil War to the perspective of white Southerners and equates the Confederacy with the South.  More importantly, Southern history is equated or understood along the overly narrow lines of the four years of the Confederacy.  In short, the narratives coming out of Confederate Heritage groups would be inadequate to explain a black president.

This post is not meant in any way as a justification for a vote for Barak Obama.  The election of a black president would be an important milestone for this country, but in our attempt to understand how we as a nation arrived at this point it also has the potential of radically shifting the way we think about our collective past.

Thanks reader.

New Study of the Civil War Centennial

This is a book that I’ve been looking forward to for some time.  Little has been published about the Civil War Centennial celebrations and even less on its continued influence on the way we remember.  Much of what has been published has in fact been written by Robert Cook who is the author of the present study.  Two essay come to mind, including a recent Journal of Southern History article and another which appeared in the edited collection, Legacy of Disunion by Susan Mary-Grant and Peter J. Parish.  Here is the description for Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (forthcoming June 2007):

In 1957, Congress voted to set up the United States Civil War Centennial Commission. A federally funded agency within the Department of the Interior, the commission’s charge was to oversee preparations to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the central event in the Republic’s history. Politicians hoped that a formal program of activities to mark the centennial of the Civil War would both bolster American patriotism at the height of the cold war and increase tourism in the South. Almost overnight, however, the patriotic pageant that organizers envisioned was transformed into a struggle over the Civil War’s historical memory and the injustices of Jim Crow. In Troubled Commemoration, Robert J. Cook recounts the planning, organization, and ultimate failure of this controversial event and reveals how the broad-based public history extravaganza was derailed by its appearance during the decisive phase of the civil rights movement.

Cook shows how the centennial provoked widespread alarm among many African Americans, white liberals, and cold warriors because the national commission failed to prevent southern whites from commemorating the Civil War in a racially exclusive fashion. The public outcry followed embarrassing attempts to mark secession, the attack on Fort Sumter, and the South’s victory at First Manassas, and prompted backlash against the celebration, causing the emotional scars left by the war to resurface. Cook convincingly demonstrates that both segregationists and their opponents used the controversy that surrounded the commemoration to their own advantage. Southern whites initially embraced the centennial as a weapon in their fight to save racial segregation, while African Americans and liberal whites tried to transform the event into a celebration of black emancipation.

Forced to quickly reorganize the commission, the Kennedy administration replaced the conservative leadership team with historians, including Allan Nevins and a young James I. Robertson, Jr., who labored to rescue the centennial by promoting a more soberly considered view of the nation’s past. Though the commemoration survived, Cook illustrates that white southerners quickly lost interest in the event as it began to coincide with the years of Confederate defeat, and the original vision of celebrating America’s triumph over division and strife was lost.

The first comprehensive analysis of the U.S. Civil War Centennial, Troubled Commemoration masterfully depicts the episode as an essential window into the political, social, and cultural conflicts of America in the 1960s and confirms that it has much to tell us about the development of the modern South.

It would have been nice to have this book as I finished up my project on memory and the Crater.  Click here for excerpts from pamphlets published by the Virginia Civil War Centennial Commission.  While there were plans at the beginning of the centennial to commemorate the battle of the Crater on July 30, 1964 enthusiasm clearly dropped off owing to the Civil Rights Movement and interpretive divisions within various centennial committees.