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.
In addition to poring over memoirs and newspaper accounts, Trudeau dips into the diaries of participants. Amazingly, he finds each day of the five-week march recounted in at least 50 journals.
Some of the most memorable scenes in the book highlight the experiences of ordinary soldiers and civilians, including a surprising number of children. “They came burning Atlanta to day,” writes 10-year-old Carrie Berry. “We all dread it ... we will dread it.”
Another girl pleaded for her home: “Mr. Soldier, you would not burn our house down would you, if you do where are we going to live?” The Michigan soldier was so touched that he refrained from torching her house. (Union troops, in fact, were often respectful and even polite to Southerners, and spent much time admiring local women.)
Sherman looms largest of all in “Southern Storm,” although he’s a hard man to figure out – “a person of profound ethical and spiritual contradictions, and possessed of many faces.”
Sherman is a deeply sensitive man; the early death of his son leaves him in a fragile emotional state. But he has little interest in rights for black people and is constantly annoyed by the countless slaves that follow his soldiers.
On one hand, he appears to be an avenging angel – a “stone-faced devastator” who wrote of wanting to kill 300,000 leading Southerners.
But a “moral drift,” as Trudeau describes it, prevents him from doing more to devastate the people and property he came across. Sherman, of all people, has a heart.
Sherman, the No. 1 villain in the history of the South, never seems to wrestle hard with the choices he makes, however. Driven by his commitment to “patriotism and national destiny,” he has no time to agonize or reconsider, unlike President Abraham Lincoln.
With the help of savvy strategic decisions and modern-sounding pontoon bridges, Sherman reaches the coast and telegraphs Lincoln that he has a Christmas gift for him: the crucial city of Savannah.
The march did not, Trudeau argues, ever reach the level of “total war.” In the larger picture, however, it “dramatically fractured the social fabric” of the South. And it made Southerners lose faith in the ability of their leaders to protect them, hastening the end of the Civil War.
Sherman would live for another quarter century, burnishing the stories of his brilliance to a high gloss and making the truth ever murkier. Georgia would recover – and remember. And the targeting of civilians would become ever more critical to the dark art of warfare.
Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.