Evilizing General Sherman
Many people have made the point that, for all their alleged disdain for “revisionist” history, those who hold to a “Southern” view of the war are themselves embracing an explicitly revisionist historical narrative. It’s a narrative that was carefully crafted in the decades following the Civil War to exonerate the Confederate cause, depict Southern leaders in the most flattering and noble way possible, and to undermine or denigrate the Union effort to highlight the contrast. This effort, which lies at the core of the Lost Cause, probably reached its zenith in the second decade of the 20th century. But with a few concessions to modern sensibilities — e.g., “faithful slaves” have now become “black Confederate soldiers” — the narrative remains largely as it was a century ago, and is held dear by many. But great longevity doesn’t make a revisionist narrative any less revisionist.
Now comes the Spring 2012 issue of the Civil War Monitor, and Thom Bassett’s cover story, “Birth of a Demon.” Bassett explains how, through several postwar tours of the South, Sherman was received and honored by both public officials and the citizenry of cities who, present-day conventional wisdom holds, should have held a burning hatred for the man. In New Orleans he was an honored guest at Mardi Gras festivities in 1879, where he was named to the royal court as “Duke of Louisiana.” He was accompanied to the theater there by his old opponent, John Bell Hood, who gave a long speech praising the former Union general. On that same trip Sherman spent three days in Atlanta, where he reported receiving “everywhere nothing but kind and courteous treatment from the highest to the lowest.” Here is what the Atlanta Weekly Constitution said of his visit, on February 4, 1879:
Yesterday General Sherman returned to the scene of this destruction and disaster, and looked upon the answer that our people have made to his torch. A proud city, prosperous almost beyond compare, throbbing with vigor and strength, and rapturous with the thrill of growth and expansion, stands before him. A people brave enough to bury their hatreds in the ruins his hands have made, and wise enough to turn their passion towards recuperation rather than revenge. . . .
It would be a stretch to say that Sherman was popular across the South, but it was clear that he was not considered the reviled monster he later was to become in some quarters.
So what changed? In 1881 Jefferson Davis published his defense of secession, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, and used it to excoriate Sherman to a degree that no other senior Confederate had, including men who’d actually faced him across the lines, like Hood. Bassett:
[Davis] called Sherman’s decision to remove Atlanta’s civilian population after the city’s surrender unparalleled in modern warfare. “Since Alva’s atrocious cruelties to the noncombatant populations of the Low Countries in the Sixteenth Century, the history of war records no instance of such barbarous cruelty as that which this order was designed to perpetrate.” . . . Davis made perfectly clear whom he considered responsible for these depredations, thundering that Sherman had issued an “inhuman order” and that the “cowardly dishonesty of its executioners was in perfect harmony with the temper and spirit of the order.”
Davis’ accusations struck a chord with Southerners, who by this time had come to see the former Confederate president as the living embodiment of the Confederate cause. Sherman provided a useful focus for the lingering resentments of former Confederates, and Davis’ book proved to be the essential catalyst. Sherman came to be reviled not so much because Southerners viewed him that way of their own experience, but because Jeff Davis told them they should.
Sherman and Davis would continue to spar over Davis’ accusations for the rest of their lives — Davis died in 1889, Sherman in 1891 — but the preferred Confederate narrative was set. Despite fifteen postwar years of enjoying relatively good relations with Southerners and an ongoing affinity for the South, Sherman was successfully cast as something inhuman, a monster, responsible for depredations nearly unmatched in human history to that point. Many today still believe that; more, in fact, than seem to have believed it in the years immediately following the war itself.
Whatever one happens to think of Uncle Billy, Bassett’s article really is a must-read as a practical example of the way historical narratives are shaped, refined, and sometimes abused. Civil War Monitor Editor-in-Chief Terry Johnston and his team have been working hard to challenge conventional ways of looking at the conflict, and Thom Bassett’s piece is an excellent example of how they’re doing just that.
It really is not your father’s Civil War magazine.