Untwisting Sherman’s Neckties

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.

You Are Not a Victim of Sherman’s March

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.

Following in Faulkner’s Footsteps

During a Q&A panel that I took part in for the Civil War Trust’s Annual Teacher Institute in Charleston an audience member asked us to speculate on  whether official recognition of the Confederate states by a European nation would have helped their cause.  My response began by pointing out that even if some kind of recognition had taken place actual intervention would have been extremely unlikely.  I then asked the audience to step back and reflect on why we are so caught up with Civil War counterfactuals and more importantly why the most popular involve imagining a scenario leading to Confederate victory?

What irks me is the playfulness of it all.  Why are so many of us caught up in imagining a Confederate victory?  Why would anyone even want to seriously consider it at all?  Lost in this imaginative act is the United States and union itself.  Think about it.  Apart from a small group of extremist kooks, most of us who engage in counterfactual thinking are not actively campaigning for the dissolution of this country.  I think it is safe to assume that the overwhelming majority of patriotic Americans hope that this experiment in republican government will continue, but its end is exactly what we are implying when we play this little game.

Today I arrived in Gettysburg, which owing to its place in our popular imagination as the great turning point of the war, has spawned countless counterfactuals.  We should walk this field not imagining what might have been, but grateful that the United States won this battle and the war.

More in the next few days about why I am in Gettysburg.

I Think the Union Army Had Something To Do With It

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….

William Faulkner, “Intruder in the Dust”