Looking For Conflict Along Sherman’s March

I’ve said it before. Mainstream media can’t help but report a Civil War related story without resorting to the popular meme of an “unfinished war.” Americans are supposedly still fighting the war. This afternoon I caught this interview with Professor James Cobb of the University of Georgia, who discussed the history and especially the legacy of Sherman’s March. The reporter pressed him on explaining why the new marker placed by the Georgia Historical Society to commemorate the anniversary of the march is still so divisive.

Well, it’s not. Cobb correctly noted that while there may still be small, but vocal groups of Americans who are still upset about what Sherman did to their state most people have not given it any thought. Keep in mind that this breaking news is not coming from some transplanted Yankee carpetbagger. Just listen to that accent. In short, the placement of the marker that supposedly includes a “revisionist” account of the events of November-December 1864 is, in the end, not a big deal. It changes nothing for the vast majority of white and black Georgians.

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15 comments… add one
  • Sam Smith Nov 19, 2014 @ 7:00

    I agree with you and the professor on this one! The unfinished war meme simply does not ring true these days. I would be interested to know what alternative narratives you might propose.

    To add to the point, note this recent video in which college students can’t even identify who won the war: http://www.npr.org/blogs/theprotojournalist/2014/11/18/364675234/who-won-the-civil-war-tough-question

    I would estimate that 90-99% of modern Americans don’t know enough about the war, as in knowing virtually nothing at all, to get worked up about it one way or the other.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 19, 2014 @ 7:11

      I am always suspicious of these videos. Sure, it’s embarrassing, but I have to wonder what the results would be if you asked students questions about American history 40 years ago. This just feeds into that other meme of ‘once upon a time Americans were actually informed.’

      • Sam Smith Nov 19, 2014 @ 7:49

        Oh yes, I certainly don’t want to feed that meme. Civil War studies certainly illuminate the fact that Americans have *never* been very well informed. The article details a couple of interesting stats beyond the gotcha video: a survey of 2,500 adults that found only half could name all three branches of government, and a survey of 1,000 in which 40% could not identify the year the Declaration of Independence was signed.

      • Will Hickox Nov 19, 2014 @ 10:37

        Charles Shindo’s “1927 and the Rise of Modern America” quotes from surveys conducted in the ’20s that indicated a similarly alarming lack of basic knowledge among students, these being high schoolers.

      • Dudley Bokoski Nov 23, 2014 @ 4:27

        40 years ago, I would have been a senior in high school then, society valued history being taught more than it does now so we spent more time on it. I don’t believe we would have been quite as embarrassed by those questions but it depended in large measure on who you asked. I grow so tired of hearing about “world class” educations and how we have to focus on math and science almost to the exclusion of anything else. Our students and teachers get compared with test results from societies which are often very different than ours and consequently we overreact to a mythological competition between, for example, a student in Detroit and one in Tokyo. Getting children through their senior year with a broad working knowledge of many things, history included, positions them to be successful citizens and employees. This idea that you have to give them a trade school education in high school is not going to accomplish anything useful in the long term.

  • M.D. Blough Nov 19, 2014 @ 5:01

    Kevin-By any chance, is he related in any way to Howell and T.R.R. Cobb?

  • Jack Nov 18, 2014 @ 23:16

    Of course only after people have forgotten history or no longer care could that revisionist sign be erected.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 19, 2014 @ 2:03

      Actually, quite the opposite is the case. A lot of really talented historians (North and South/Black and White) have done important research on the war in Georgia and the Carolinas in 1864 and 1865. You should check it out.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 18, 2014 @ 22:09

    I’m not quite sure what you are getting at in this post. In most instances Americans simply don’t have a deep or informed understanding or passionate interest in matters that capture our attention and engage our interest. That the mainstream media engages in patterns of inquiry to stir up interest and to make unsubstantiated claims is nothing new. People move on. That’s been a challenge for some folks, like the Virginia Flaggers. Successful at gaining media coverage for the Butler Flag at Chester, they received some short-lived publicity for the Burnside Flag north of the Rappahannock, and next to nothing from anyone about their latest efforts. Were it not for the internet even fewer people would know about these matters (same goes for the new wayside marker). Indeed, the stories about Sherman’s march to the sea (and the reactions to those stories) were rather easy to predict.

    Perhaps memory isn’t what it’s sometimes cracked up to be.

  • Hugh Lawson Nov 18, 2014 @ 16:20

    I’ve never seen any expressed interest here in *why* some get into this flagger business. It seems strange to track social actions without reflecting on causes. Do you have shared understanding of the causes that doesn’t need explicit expression?

    • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 18, 2014 @ 22:01

      I think that’s an excellent research project for you to pursue, Dr. Lawson. I believe the people who flag have expressed their reason why they flag. That rationale is often challenged by their actual behavior. That you never have seen such discussions is, I submit, suggestive of your lack of effort in investigating the activity and reactions to it. Rather, you appear to want people to speculate on what the flaggers “really” want to do. Why?

      After all, shouldn’t the flaggers be the arbiters of their original meaning and intent?

      Why don’t you ask them? I’m sure they would welcome your curiosity.

      • Hugh Lawson Nov 19, 2014 @ 7:40

        Thanks for the question, Dr Simpson.

        My question is *not* what do flaggers think is the cause of their movement?

        My question is whether posters here who comment on the flaggers have any ideas about this causes of the movement. Hence, it seemed proper to put the question here.

        hope this helped.

        • Brooks Simpson Nov 23, 2014 @ 0:42

          I’m sure many people speculate about the causes of the flagger movement. I’d say it’s a combination of various issues, going far beyond a simple desire to honor a somewhat undefined “heritage,” and that motives vary a good deal across participants. Those bloggers who have discussed flagger activities have left a rather rich record that you should examine for the answer to your question.

          That said, I doubt these groups would receive much attention were it not for the ability of social media and blogs to broadcast a message to all who run across it. Even then, I would not have paid attention to them had it not been for their own desire to comment on various blogs. One suspects that had Kevin not lived in Virginia when he did, he might not have become aware of them, and the rest would remain a mystery.

          I have not spent much time speculating about the motives of such people. However, their own actions often contradict their professed reasons for engaging in the enterprise. Nor do I spend time pondering the causes of the practice of protesting by flagging. Rather, I find the manifestation of their behavior and activities to be mildly interesting … and usually remarkably funny. Frankly, if their exploits did not come across as a sort of reality show tale with comic aspects, I would lose all interest, because in truth they are a rather small group of folks who have lost the ability to draw significant attention to their cause.

  • Will Hickox Nov 18, 2014 @ 12:56

    I can’t help thinking that as profits for journalism vendors continue to shrink, we’ll be treated to ever more breathless claims of widespread conflict over a war that, in reality, most Americans today are barely aware even happened.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 18, 2014 @ 13:00

      Hi Will,

      I don’t think it’s as much a concern about profits as it is a lack of imagination. The “Unfinished War” and “South Will Rise Again” memes are within easy reach.

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