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Southern Storm

The truth behind the legend of General Sherman’s march to the sea.

By Randy Dotinga / September 4, 2008



Long before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an American Civil War general exposed the horrible power of “total war” as he rampaged across the South. Or did he?

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The ever-quotable Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman certainly promised to “make Georgia howl!” and he was hardly gentle during his famous march to the sea in 1864. But an exhaustive new history tells a story of military prowess and remarkable survival, not lawless and rampant destruction.

Union soldiers did torch homes, confiscate crops, and cripple railroads as they carved a path from Atlanta to Savannah, writes author Noah Andre Trudeau in Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea. But few soldiers were killed on either side, and northeastern Georgia recovered quickly.

Almost 150 years of American mythology suggest a much grimmer story, one that Mr. Trudeau dismisses. The march, he writes, may “forever be best remembered for everything it wasn’t.” Other historians – and plenty of Southerners – are certain to think differently.

But everyone agrees about one thing: The march was a long, tedious, and dangerous slog. Sherman made a risky decision to go off the grid, as we’d put it today, and travel without the benefit of a supply chain or communication with the outside world. He and his troops had to live off the land, no matter who happened to be in their way – city dwellers, farmers, or slaves.

There’s no doubt that Sherman & Co. thought the South deserved to pay for starting the Civil War.

“War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it,” Sherman wrote. One of his aides wrote: “War ... must make the innocent suffer as well as the guilty, it must involve plundering, burning, killing.”

But Trudeau, a former executive producer at National Public Radio and author of a well-received book about the Battle of Gettysburg, finds evidence that Sherman’s words were more scathing than his actions.

Trudeau’s overly detailed, 688-page account is a bit of a slog itself; readers will grow tired of hearing about each day’s food-finding efforts and the availability of sweet potatoes. But amid the minutiae, the author provides sharp analysis and tells a gripping story of men and women at their best and worst.

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