The Long Shadow of Sherman's March

I'd like you to look at the following images.
What do they have in common?
Which of them depict acts of war?

London under air attack, 1940
Aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising, 1943
Israeli woman wounded in terrorist attack, October 7, 2004

I teach a course on "The History of War." When the class first meets I do an exercise very much like this one, except that I use film clips instead of illustrations. I always look forward to the student responses. There’s no correct answer—the purpose of the exercise is ultimately to suggest how difficult it is to define "war." Nevertheless, it's interesting to see how students wrestle with the question.

Generally speaking, they readily accept the air raid as an image of war. The others are more problematic. They want to call the clearing of the Warsaw ghetto an act of genocide, not war, notwithstanding the fact that the men carrying out the operation are uniformed soldiers or the fact that the Nazi regime saw itself as conducting a war against the Jews and devoted considerable military resources to the task.

They want to call incidents--like the car bombs that killed 35 and wounded 100 at three Sinai resorts yesterday--acts of terrorism, not war, notwithstanding the fact that those responsible almost certainly see themselves as conducting a war against Israeli occupation in one of the few effective ways available to them. Or, in the case of 9/11, that it has led the United States to consider itself as waging a war upon terrorism.
 
In short, it seems to me that although every one of these images shows depicts attacks by people who are armed upon people who are not, students implicitly want to draw a distinction between "war," which to them has overtones of moral legitimacy, and acts--like the Holocaust or 9/11--which do not. My point is not that the students are fuzzy-headed or wrong. On the contrary, they are quick to grasp a key point. "War" is a value-laden term, a term of judgment. As a military historian I may think of myself as being a student of war, and I may want to study war dispassionately, intellectually, but that option is barred to me at the outset. As soon as I begin the study I step onto morally-contested terrain.

Now let’s look at one final image.

"War is Hell," by Mort Kunstler


Is this an image of war?

I think most people would regard this as being as straightforwardly an act of war as the air raid over London. But many people, especially white Southerners, see it as at best an illegitimate act of war, an atrocity.

The more extreme proponents of this view speak of a "Dixiecaust" in counterpoint to the "Holocaust." Having written a book that deals extensively with Sherman’s march and similar Union attacks upon Southern civilians, I have run across more than my share of these people. The most recent episode occurred last spring, when a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed me and a number of fellow Civil War historians for a piece he was writing on the 140th anniversary of Sherman’s Atlanta campaign in 1864.

"Sherman still burns Atlanta," read the main headline when the article appeared. But the thrust of the article was given by the sub-headline: "Despised Yankee general wasn't as evil as history has painted him."

"A growing body of research shows that long-standing horror stories about Sherman's pillage and mayhem - everything from widespread reports of rape to pouring syrup into church organs - cannot be documented," wrote the reporter.

"It was pretty scary, but the destruction is not that bad," said Anne J. Bailey, a professor at Georgia College and State University.
"Sherman's bark was a lot worse than his bite," said another historian, Richard McMurry.

Then:

"Mark Grimsley, an Ohio State University professor and author of The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865, said historical records show that Sherman destroyed accepted military targets. 'What Sherman did was more spectacular than what anyone else did, these marches through whole states,' Grimsley said. 'It was really dramatic and it arrested people's attention, but his army went after targets that by the standards of the time were considered fair game.'
Grimsley, who grew up in North Carolina, said he heard the Sherman-as-devil legends, but historic facts don't support this idea, especially in Georgia. 'That's not to say that what Sherman's army did was mild-mannered,' he said. 'It wasn't. It was destructive, but it was within bounds.'"

As you might imagine, the article attracted a lot of angry letters and, through the miracle of the Internet, a good deal of them soon showed up in my Email. My most determined correspondent was a Georgia woman named Michele Hamlin, whose views are worth quoting at length:

"I am writing to . . . ask you to explain why someone with the credentials you have would purposefully and willfully lie and discredit yourself in public to please a paper such as the Atlanta Journal Constitution that is clearly out for destruction of the Southern way of life and to break the spirit of the Southerners in the region?
 
"I am going to include just one link from Emory University plus others for you to read, although surely you must already know the truth about Sherman and his march to the sea. Just this one piece clearly demonstrates you lied to that reporter. I am going to point out your asinine statements and leave it to you to consult the documents. The days are over where you people can do your little fly over attacks and not have to answer to anyone or get any flak.

"I am offended that my tax proceeds pay for teachers who would masquerade as a credible experts and then lie to a major paper and thus discredit and attack Georgians who are fighting everyday for their heritage. Words cannot describe how disgusted I am with a scalawag such as yourself for lying and then using your professor status to gain credibility. There is a plethora of evidence that you don't know what you are talking about and by down playing this vicious attack, are a true enemy of the people of the South, but then you are a Yankee."

The other Civil War historians got similar missives--the stuff about tax proceeds paying for teachers was clearly meant not for me but for Anne Bailey, who teaches at a Georgia university--and they all chose, sensibly enough, to ignore them. But years ago I got interested in Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy of treating even his enemies with respect and patience, confident that sooner or later it would touch something in their hearts and cause them to reciprocate.

Mahatma Grimsley

So I did my own Gandhi routine with Ms. Hamlin. Ignoring all the cutting remarks, I treated her email as a genuine attempt at dialogue. As usual, Gandhi was right. Ms. Hamlin soon dropped her hostility and we swapped a number of emails back and forth.



From them, I learned that Ms. Hamlin thought of herself as a "Confederate American." I don't think she saw herself as racist, but she was certainly tired of hearing about the wrongs of slavery and segregation—"that’s all we hear about, 24/7"—and eager to believe that the socioeconomic playing field between blacks and whites had long since been leveled. "Now the blacks have everything they asked for and favorable status with regards to especially government jobs and have largely squandered their largesse through their social habits, crime rate and disrespect for education." And she saw the black community as dominated by the politics of victimization.

This was a little ironic, because plainly Ms. Hamlin saw herself as a victim—a white Southerner who was proud of her heritage but found outside forces insisting that that heritage consisted of evil and injustice; insisting, in effect, that she could only think of herself as Pharoah’s daughter. When you feel victimized, you need evidence of your victimhood.  For white Southerners, defeated in war, humiliated by Reconstruction, and in recent years bested by the Civil Rights movement, the preeminent badge of victimhood has for been, for well over a century, Sherman’s March. That's why Ms. Hamlin got so exercised by the newspaper article. That's why she got so mad at me.

Now it's easy to chuckle at someone like Ms. Hamlin, but as I move toward the end of this talk, I want to suggest that we take her seriously, because she intuitively grasped something that for a long time eluded me. When I think of myself as a historian, I think of myself as someone who tries to investigate the past for what it reveals about the human condition, not to support or rebuke some political position. Contrary to what Ms. Hamlin assumed, I had no intention of debunking the traditional view of Sherman’s March when I began researching The Hard Hand of War. I rather expected to find during Sherman's march evidence of murders, rapes, and widespread burning of private homes and towns. But when I didn't, I had to say as much, and to account for what I did and didn't find—and here’s the rub: Whether or not I intended to do it, I had challenged a historical memory that, for at least some Americans, is powerfully charged in the service of a particular political agenda. To the extent that I undermined its credibility, I undermined a component of that agenda. In short, whether I liked it or not, I had written a political book.

I can't say I mind having undermined the dreamy magnolia view of the Old South. True, in my youth I admired Stonewall Jackson, venerated General Lee, and sang along with Joan Baez as she mourned "the night they drove old Dixie down." I can truly say that I was a teenage Confederate American. But as a middle-aged man, I recognize how deeply racism has crept into my own psyche, how hard it is to exorcise, how much it impoverishes my life.

But the memory of Sherman’s march serves other political agendas besides that of a few besieged, bewildered neo-Confederates. It casts a long shadow through the whole American way of war. "Realists" have long pointed to it as a powerful object lesson: in war, you do what is necessary to win. But even more potent has been the sense, so redolent in Sherman’s march, of righteous vengeance.

Recently the neo-conservative author-historian Victor Davis Hanson placed the march at the center of a book, The Soul of Battle, which examined the armies of the Greek general Epaminondas, Sherman, and Patton, arguing that "Theban hoplites, Union troops, and American GIs were ideological armies foremost, composed of citizen-soldiers who burst into their enemies' heartland because they believed it was a just and very necessary thing to do."

Temperamentally I'm disquieted by the stridency of Hanson's political partisanship (he writes a regular column for National Review Online, has dined several times with Vice President Dick Cheney, and is a diehard cheerleader for Operation Iraqi Freedom). That kind of thing can’t help but distort one’s evaluation of the past. And yet in some respects Hanson's thesis in The Soul of Battle is not much different than a key conclusion I reached in The Hard Hand of War.

Indeed, to some degree I went Hanson one better by arguing that Sherman’s soldiers were not only righteous but comparatively well-behaved. I knew that in the European military experience during the 17th and 18th centuries, soldiers had behaved in ways that made Michele Hamlin's apocalyptic vision of Sherman's march seem positively quaint. When I found in my evidence base a picture of what I called "directed severity": a mixture of ferocity and restraint--much greater destruction of public property than private property, a willingness to steal but an unwillingness to harm the persons of civilians, and so on--I had to explain why Union soldiers had behaved so differently from their European counterparts. Ultimately I concluded, "It was the peculiar nature of the Federal citizen-soldier--his civic-mindedness, his continued sense of connection with community and public morality--that made possible the 'directed severity.' The Federal rank-and-file were neither barbarians, brutalized by war, nor 'realists' unleashing indiscriminate violence. Their example thus holds out hope that the effective conduct of war need not extinguish the light of moral reason."

I remember writing those lines. They form the final passage of the dissertation on which The Hard Hand of War is based, and I kept them when I revised the manuscript into book form. But I wrote them at the end of an extended sprint to get the dissertation finished and defended before I started my job as an assistant professor. I liked them principally because they at long last cornered and caged the five hundred fifty-page monster I'd been fighting for eighteen months. I didn't think a bit about their political implications, still less about the political implications of the book as a whole. Again, I didn’t think of myself as engaged in a task with political dimensions.

Even so, willy nilly, I was. Just as my book unintentionally attacked the neo-Confederate worldview, so too it unintentionally defended Sherman's march and, by extension, defended one of the most troublesome epigrams in the American lexicon: "War is hell."

Sherman didn't say those words during his campaign in Georgia or the Carolinas, and he didn’t say them quite that way, but the phrase will forever be associated with Sherman's march. And although it sounds tough—a head-on, no-nonsense facing up to war’s reality, I think "War is hell" functions in fact as an evasion, a turning away.


When I tell you that as of this morning the web site "Iraq Body Count" indicates that between 13,086 and 15,149 Iraqi civilians have been reported killed, I doubt that many of you will consider that statement without political implications. Inject that into a discussion of the current presidential campaign and it instantly becomes an implied criticism of the decision to invade. Probably the first reaction would be to question the figures—who says so? what’s their agenda? how was the data acquired? If persuaded that the actual figures are even half of what is claimed (though from what I can tell the "Iraq Body Count" seems fairly on target), the reaction would then be to object that most of these people were probably victims of insurgents, not American forces. If confronted with the idea that the insurgency is itself a consequence of the U.S. invasion, the obvious reply would be that things were worse under Saddam Hussein. If asked why it is so damned important to ignore these deaths, rather than to face up to them squarely and take responsibility for them as, if nothing else, a melancholy reality of this conflict, the easiest way you can avoid the issue is to invoke those three pregnant words: War is hell. In war, these things happen.

War is hell is a comfort to those in power. It implies a dynamic that lies beyond anyone’s control. We set out to liberate Iraq--we’re responsible for that--but we didn’t intend for civilians to die. It just happens. The bad guys do it on purpose, perhaps, but when we do it we don’t mean to. It's collateral damage. It's unavoidable. If you have to pin the blame somewhere, blame war itself, because war is hell.



But War is hell provides no comfort at all to those who are suffering. I say, as a matter of simple humanity, that it must be dreadful for those who live under threat of the car bombs, the booby traps, the spray of automatic gunfire. There's something distasteful in the way that our society, which has known so little actual warfare in the past century that we flock to films of imagined apocalypses like Red Dawn, Independence Day, and The Day After Tomorrow, can put a country like Iraq in such trauma--whether by necessity or not--and turn so coolly away from the human consequences.

But here is where I think the image of Sherman's march casts perhaps its longest shadow. Because it's a dual image. Aside from a few unreconstructed white Southerners, most Americans identify primarily with the righteous, remorseless power of Sherman’s troops, eradicating slavery at every step--

Hurrah! Hurrah!
We bring the jubilee!
Hurrah! Hurrah!
The Flag that makes you free!

--Yet at the same time they can kid themselves that they also identify with the frightened civilians in the path of war, albeit only in a stylized, Hollywood, Gone with the Wind sort of way. The first image gives us the inspiration to growl, "War is hell." The second gives us the license to let war be hell for others, since the national memory of Sherman's march tells us that we endured that hell ourselves, indeed, inflicted it on ourselves. But the real pain of that experience has long since passed away. And that's too bad. Pain is a great teacher.

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