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.
I came across this short video today that focuses on a new historical marker on Sherman’s March that was recently unveiled in Savannah, Georgia. For those of you in the classroom who may be pressed for time this video can be used to introduce your students to some of the basic questions surrounding Civil War memory. The video begins with Todd Groce of the Georgia Historical Society, who introduces the marker and the story behind General William T. Sherman’s meeting with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and twenty African Americans who were asked for their advice about what ought to be done for the newly freed slaves. It then cuts to Mayor Otis Johnson, who reads an account of how the black delegation, including Garrison Frazier responded.
Students can reflect on a number of questions surrounding the connection between race and politics and how the general public remembers its past:
Why is it important for your community to remember its past?
What kinds of events are memorialized in your community?
Do your monuments and other public historic spaces reflect the racial/ethnic profile of your community?
To what extent does the racial/ethnic profile of local government determine who and what is remembered?
There is an interesting camera angle that shows both the new historical marker and what I assume is a Confederate monument in the background. Remind your students that the overwhelming number of monuments that can be found throughout the South were erected between roughly 1880 and 1940 and at a time when African Americans could not vote or run for office. The dramatic shift in how local communities remember their past has taken place since the civil rights movement of the 1960s and could only happen as a result of increased voting rights for African Americans and their ability to run for public office.
What other questions might be brought up in your classroom?
Civil War buffs love to blame particular generals for lost battles and campaigns—McClellan, Bragg, McDowell, etc. Why do we like to hate them so much, and do they deserve it? Pick a couple from each side and examine what made them pariahs—and whether hindsight should rehabilitate their Images. Pick three from each side, 500 or so words on each, and a 500-word intro for about 3,500 words.
I guess the editor could have framed the question around major mistakes made in the field by Civil War generals, but the choice to inquire as to why some military figures engender such a visceral reaction in some is potentially interesting. Perhaps we should take one step back for a little perspective. Is there anything comparable in America’s other wars? Anyone out there hate Henry Knox, Winfield Scott, John J. Pershing, Omar Bradley, or William Westmoreland?