Interrogating the Project of Military History

May 14 - Some entries write themselves.

A month ago I was interviewed over the phone by a reporter from the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.  This year marks the 140th anniversary of Gen. William T. Sherman's campaign to seize Atlanta; also of that city's evacuation and partial destruction on the eve of Sherman's (in)famous March to the Sea.  The reporter's editor had assigned him to do a feature on Sherman's March.

I trotted through a quick summary of my views as published years ago in The Hard Hand of War.  I can't say I was much interested to hear myself saying the same stuff I've been saying for years.  However, I was fascinated to learn that a Georgia folklorist, Elisse R. Henken, has spent years tracking down the stories people still tell about Sherman's March.  Afterward I looked up Prof. Henken's  email address and wrote to inquire if she'd published her findings.  Today I received her reply.  After apologizing for the delay and explaining how busy she had been, she said that yes, she had indeed published an article:

"Taming the Enemy:  Georgian Narratives about the Civil War."  Journal of Folklore History vol. 40, no. 3 (2003):289-307."

It turned out the journal is available online through the OSU library, so I found her article and printed out a copy.  I look forward to reading it--after I finish reading Melville's Billy Budd, which I am reading in order to finish my review of, you guessed it, Elizabeth Samet's Willing Obedience (see Entry 30 and others).

By coincidence, I learned this very day that the reporter's piece has been published, thanks to the kindness of one Michele Hamlin, who emailed me this afternoon:

Dear Mr. Grimsley,


I am writing to tell you that I take issue with the comments you made to Cameron McWhirter, reporter for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution to be included in his piece on Sherman, and 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 AJC that is clearly out for destruction of the Southern way of life and to break the spirit of the Southerners in the region?  Even Jim Wooten, Associate Editor of the Editorial Section of the AJC mocked you people in his column this morning.  I don't know what you  are trying to prove whitewashing the atrocities of the United States government on their own citizens, but it is not going to promote the "reconciliation and healing" you all claim to want so much, whereby the truth would set those wheels in motion.


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 guess how bad it was depends on whether "you" are the civilian shelled upon without warning, forced out of your home, relocated and not repatriated, had all your food and animals taken when you could not get more and thus starved, possibly to death, watched your children starve, had your home burned, blankets stolen, literally had everything of value to anyone taken.  There is also ample documentation that the Union soldiers did burn homes, raped black women at will and detested the black slaves who followed them and caused a large number to drown.  They stole more than they needed and threw it on the ground to rot.   In the slave diaries one slave woman relates that the meanest thing she ever saw was when the Yankees cut the hams out of the shoats and rode off leaving them quivering on the ground.  THIS KIND OF CRAP IS "WITHIN BOUNDS"???


<<What Sherman did was more spectacular than what anyone else did, these marches through whole states, 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.  It was within bounds.">>  Just the first link (Emory) I am providing refutes every word you said.  Attacking civilians and raping women was not within bounds then as it would not be now.  Our entire country is up in arms over soldiers behaving in a way that is mild by comparison.


I am offended that my tax proceeds pay for a 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.  Imagine yourself in the circumstances; I guess you would not think it was "too bad"? I guess the Kurds didn't think it was too bad either when Saddam whacked them, and just why did we go to war because 1200 people were killed in Kosovo and the rest were being harassed?  You should have piped up and told them "It's not too bad.?


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.   


Deo Vindice [the official motto of the Confederate States of America],


Michele Hamlin

[Address deleted]



To the petulant and persistent secessionist, why, death is mercy, and the quicker he or she is disposed of the better. . ." --William T. Sherman

Related Links

Sherman War Crimes - Emory University
Sherman's March to the Sea - University of Georgia
How About Yankee War Crimes Trials? - Patriotist
Why American Lost the Civil War - DixieInternet
Should Old Glory Wave over the Capitol?
Sherman in Georgia - - Confederate version
Sherman in Georgia - - Yankee version


I get emails like this about half a dozen times a year, usually by someone offended by my online essay The Mythology of Sherman's March (which, come to think of it, may be how the reporter first learned of me).  I've decided it's kind of nice when someone takes you seriously enough to find you offensive, and Ms. Hamlin was far more eloquent than most, so I wrote back:

Hi Michele (if I may),

Thanks for your email.  Could you send me a copy of the article?  It turns out to be very cumbersome to get into the AJ&C site if you're not registered.  After I see the whole piece, I'd be glad to respond.

With best regards,


Michele was kind enough to send it along this evening:

Sherman still burns Atlanta
Despised Yankee general wasn't as evil as history has painted him

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 05/07/04

One hundred and forty years ago this month, 100,000 Union soldiers marched into Georgia. Less than eight months later, the Yankees captured Savannah. Along the way, they fought more than 20 major battles, crushed Confederate resistance, destroyed at least $100 million worth of railroads, warehouses, plantations and factories, and left Atlanta in smoking ruins.

It remains one of the most famous military campaigns in American history: Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's March through Georgia. It's still taught to cadets at West Point as an example of how to break an enemy's will to fight. And without the trauma of Yankees plowing from Dalton to Savannah, "Gone With the Wind" could have to be called something like "It's Kind of Breezy."
Civil War buffs would consider Georgia to be, well, just Alabama with major league baseball.

But the current consensus of historians and other academics is that Sherman's vilification by the South stems from tall tales. Uncle Billy, the gruff Ohioan who promised to "make Georgia howl," did destroy a lot of infrastructure and military targets in Georgia. He ordered railroads ripped up and food confiscated.

Still, by the standards of war at the time, "that devil Sherman" really wasn't that bad a guy.

"It was pretty scary, but the destruction is not that bad," said Anne J. Bailey, a professor at Georgia College and State University and the author of "War and Ruin: William T. Sherman and the Savannah Campaign."

"If [Sherman] had told his men to lay waste to the land, they could have done a lot worse than they did."

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.

"Sherman's bark was a lot worse than his bite," said Richard McMurry, author of "Atlanta 1864: Last Chance for the Confederacy."

Many Southerners consider Sherman the quintessential villain, sort of a cross between Attila the Hun and Godzilla.

The famous editor of The Atlanta Constitution, Henry Grady, chided Sherman for being "careless with matches." But today the criticism is blunt. On Web sites, in newsletters and in books, Sherman is referred to as "the Nero of the 19th Century" or "the grand arsonist." One Web site has gone so far as to put up a doctored photo of the general with horns and a tail.

"He's a general that many people still love to hate," said Steven Woodworth, a Sherman biographer and associate history professor at Texas Christian University.

Sherman and his men did do a lot of damage in Georgia, as well as the Carolinas. They laid waste to large swaths of countryside. His soldiers ransacked and looted farms for food. They confiscated animals. Newly freed slaves fled farms when his troops showed up.

His artillery bombed Atlanta, which later burned after he captured it. He ordered the destruction of factories, warehouses, railroads and plantations. Battles between Sherman and Georgia's Confederate defenders caused tens of thousands of casualties.

His army slugged its way through North Georgia from May through July, when it surrounded Atlanta. After heavy fighting around the city for the next two months, the Confederates pulled out. On Sept. 2, 1864, Sherman took Atlanta. Later that month, he ordered all remaining civilians to leave.

Sherman wrote a letter at the time to officials in Washington: "If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity-seeking."

Selective targets

On Nov. 15, he left Atlanta with about 60,000 men and marched in three columns across Georgia. As he left, much of what remained in Atlanta burned.

Many Southerners have been reared to believe he ordered his troops to burn the entire city. In fact, he ordered soldiers to burn military targets that the Confederates had not destroyed themselves when they abandoned Atlanta, according to his official orders issued at the time.

In his memoirs, Sherman writes that the area of downtown near the depot, where the Confederates had stored supplies, "was in flames all night, but the fire did not reach the parts of Atlanta where the courthouse was, or the great mass of dwelling houses."

According to Sherman biographers, the general personally ordered many of his troops to fight to contain the fires, though other soldiers set fires that he had not authorized.

Sherman's efforts, such as they were, appeared to have little effect in saving Atlanta. The next day, Sherman rode out of town toward Savannah. He wrote in his memoirs: "Behind us lay Atlanta, smouldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city."

His march through the rest of Georgia did not involve many major fires. Macon, Milledgeville, Madison and other cities were not burned, though select military targets, including a pistol factory in the now-extinct town of Griswoldville, were destroyed.

Sherman captured Savannah shortly before Christmas. After making arrangements with local authorities, he occupied the city without burning it. From Savannah, Sherman marched into South Carolina, where his troops were much more destructive than they ever were in Georgia.

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

"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."

McMurry, author of "Atlanta 1864," and one of the nation's leading Civil War historians, said the lore of Sherman the destroyer was bolstered, in part, by Sherman himself. He used Southern fears to help cow them into submission.

"It's partly his doing," McMurry said. "If he conveys that myth to the Confederate soldiers, he really undermines their will to fight."

Confederate soldiers in Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia deserted in larger numbers upon hearing of Sherman's march. Confederate diarist Mary Chesnut wrote that she heard all Sherman's army left in its wake were charred chimneys.

Not a one-man gang

Lee Kennett, retired University of Georgia professor and author of "Marching Through Georgia: The Story of Soldiers and Civilians During Sherman's Campaign," said a myth has developed in the minds of many Southerners that "every shell [fired in the campaign] was personally aimed by Sherman."

"It was a nostalgic myth that was added to by succeeded generations," he said.

Elissa R. Henken, a UGA folklorist, has been collecting local tales about Sherman from small towns in Georgia for more than 10 years. She finds Sherman stories are widespread and even crop up in areas the Union army never reached.

In these tales, Sherman appears to serve as a personification of the carnage and cruelty of war. "He still figures so prominently in people's imaginations. He is that devil Sherman," Henken said. "He is this humongous representation of evil."

Against that backdrop, a lot of towns had to invent stories to explain why they had not been ransacked or burned.

"Each town treats itself as the one and only one that was saved," she said. "But they all have similar stories. . . . Why would such evil leave you alone? They come up with all kinds of reasons."

Most "saved from Sherman" stories involve Southern belles charming the general or Masons giving him special handshakes or great cooks serving him special local food. These stories enforce the Southern view of itself as genteel and the North as apish.

"The South has a view of itself, a stereotype of itself, of being civilized, of having good manners," she said. "They may have lost the war, but they have still conquered their enemy."

Lore of Madison

Madison, a hamlet of well-preserved antebellum homes in east Georgia, has at least six legends about how the town was spared Sherman's wrath. The most popular is that Sherman found the town "too beautiful to burn." In truth, the town's military stores and railroad were burned, and the rest of the town was spared by Sherman's soldiers. No one is exactly sure why, but it likely had little to do with the general himself. He never came within miles of the place.

Tina Lilly, director of the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, said Madison residents have a running joke: If they see a pothole in the asphalt street, they say, "The Yankees did it." Visitors come to the center's museum, she said, often arrive looking for evidence of "Yankee destruction."

"They want to see the horrible things the Yankees did," she said, "as if there is still going to be a fiery path all the way from here to Savannah."

Bailey, who lectures on Sherman's march to groups across Georgia and the South, said the myth of Sherman is much more powerful with many Southerners than the historical reality. She said she encounters "real hostility" when she suggests his march was not as devastating as many Southerners have been taught.

"When you talk about Sherman in the Deep South, there isn't really anything you can do to resurrect his reputation with some people," she said.


[Michele added this postscript:]

Just the first link, Emory University link refutes your statements.

Sherman War Crimes
<>  - Emory University
Sherman's March to the Sea
<>  - University of Georgia
How About Yankee War Crimes Trials?
<>  - Patriotist
Why American Lost the Civil War
<>  - DixieInternet
Should Old Glory Wave over the Capitol?
Sherman in Georgia <>  - - Confederate version
Sherman in Georgia <>  - - Yankee version <>


By now of course, I smelled a blog entry on the cheap, just as I did when I wrote my brother about the recent forum on Iraq (see Entry 39).  So I wrote her more fully than I might otherwise have done, and promised more to come:


Many thanks for sending me a copy of the article.  I've read it and at least on first glance, it accurately reflects my views.  Just curious:  did you write all the historians quoted in the article?  Have any responded?

Let me have a few days to look through all the web sites you provide, and I'll write you back.  I did skim the law review article on the Emory site, and at first glance I see a couple of problems:  first, the author compares Sherman's operations by present-day standards of international law, which are largely post-1899 developments; second (and more importantly), the author relies quite a bit on the secondary literature to establish his facts, whereas the best thing would be to use primary sources.

Incidentally, I never approached my research on Sherman's marches with a view toward debunking or slighting what occurred.  My first swipe at the subject, an extended essay I wrote for my master's degree in War Studies at Kings College London back in 1985, was entitled "The Erosion of Noncombatant Immunity During the American Civil War."  I got my degree but one critic accurately noted that it was "thesis-driven," meaning that I foregrounded only the evidence that supported my case and failed to give due consideration to contrary evidence or absence of evidence.

Years later, when I began my PhD in the States, I decided to see if anyone else had come up with a better interpretation of the shift from the sort of a conciliatory policy that characterized the war's first year (think McClellan) toward the destructive war of 1864-1865 characterized by Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan.  I didn't find one that satisfied me.  Indeed, my search alerted me to the contradictions and unresolved issues within the existing interpretations, and above all to the fact that the interpretations of other historians were usually confined to a few paragraphs.  That led me to tackle the dissertation that became my first book, The Hard Hand of War.

When I began my research, I expected to find during Sherman's march evidence of murders, rapes, and widespread burning of private homes and towns.  I was surprised to find little such evidence, and I was even a little disappointed:  the more mayhem in the war's concluding years, the stronger the contrast between conciliation and hard war and thus, the stronger my interpretation could be.  What I found instead was a mixture of severity 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 was particularly surprised to find so little evidence of rape--at least of white women.  As you mention in your email and as I mentioned to the reporter, I think the incidence of rape and sexual abuse committed against African American women was greater.  Certainly the famous decision by Union corps commander Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the CSA president) to strand hundreds of black refugees on the far side of Ebenezer Creek, where they fell prey to Joe Wheeler's Confederate cavalry, suggests a good deal of callousness toward blacks.

You are also correct about the appalling way that some Union foragers cut the hams from living pigs and left the poor creatures to die.  A number of the former slaves interviewed in the 1930 Works Progress Administration Slave Narratives mention this behavior, though I must say it did not occur to me to consult this source when writing The Hard Hand of War.  I only came across these accounts years later, while researching my current book on racism and war in 19th century America.

It may surprise you, but I would like very much to see some young historian go after the interpretation offered in The Hard Hand of War.  That is how the historical dialogue proceeds.  In fact, it wouldn't bother me a bit to revise my own interpretation in light of new evidence--or even to give greater consideration to the psychological trauma of the Southern civilians, white and black, caught in the path of war.

Thanks again for writing and for sending me a copy of the AC&J article.



PS - I keep a blog--a "web log"--on topics of interest to me as a military historian.  I will take the liberty of posting your emails there.  The blog can be found at:

Continue to next entry.

Return to main page.