". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Saturday, November 15, 2014

General W.T. Sherman - Front Page News Again

150 years after Sherman began his infamous-in-some -quarters, March to the Sea -- out of Atlanta to Savannah -- Atlanta has put up an historical marker commemorating his conquest of the city with additional facts about what his army did and did not burn.

A journalist from Atlanta reports on the reaction in Atlanta to the placing of this Historical Marker and the information it provides in the New York Times:  "150 Years Later, Wresting With the Revised View of Sherman's March."

 One of the marker’s sentences specifically targets some of the harsher imagery about him as “popular myth.”
“ ‘Gone with the Wind’ has certainly been a part of it,” W. Todd Groce, the president of the Georgia Historical Society, which sponsored the marker, said of regional perceptions of Sherman and the Union Army. “In general, we just have this image that comes from a movie.” [The burning in the novel and film of Gone With the Wind was the first burning of Atlanta, set by General Hood's and General McPherson's troops as they retreated from Atlanta.*]
While many of Atlanta's residents -- perhaps most, as Atlanta's population is 50.1 percent African American --  have no problems with this Marker, as one would most certainly expect, those, like the leadership of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, O! so most certainly do!
The marker near the picnic tables at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum is the fruit of a reassessment of Sherman and his tactics that has been decades in the making. Historians have increasingly written that Sherman’s plan for the systematic obliteration in late 1864 of the South’s war machine, including its transportation network and factories, was destructive but not gratuitously destructive. Instead, those experts contend, the strategy was an effective and legal application of the general’s authority and the hard-edged masterstroke necessary to break the Confederacy.
They have described plenty of family accounts of cruelty as nothing more than fables that unfairly mar Sherman’s reputation.
“What is really happening is that over time, the views that are out there are being challenged by historical research,” said John F. Marszalek, a Sherman biographer and the executive director of the Mississippi-based Ulysses S. Grant Association. “The facts are coming out.”
To that end, the marker in Atlanta mentions that more than 62,000 soldiers under Sherman’s command devastated “Atlanta’s industrial and business (but not residential) districts” and talks of how, “contrary to popular myth, Sherman’s troops primarily destroyed only property used for waging war — railroads, train depots, factories, cotton gins and warehouses.”
Sherman’s aggressiveness, the marker concludes, “demoralized Confederates, hastening the end of slavery and the reunification of the nation.”
The marker, placed in Atlanta at a time when more and more of its residents are not natives of the area, drew relatively little criticism ahead of its dedication on Wednesday morning, Dr. Groce said. But some say its text is an inaccurate portrayal of history that amounts to an academic pardon for a general some believe committed acts that would now be deemed war crimes.
That these were Sherman's objective and strategy were on his March to the sea are not news to anybody who has read any honest account of the campaign -- or, even read about his Meridian, Mississippi campaign.

In Georgia he did specifically target certain plantations such as Howell Cobb's -- he who was one of the fire eaters who structured secession, while holding federal office, was briefly VP of the CSA, and who had stolen the federal government's gold before leaving D.C., and his post as Secretary of Treasury under the slave power's stooge president, James Buchanan.  Cobb only lived after that long to see the defeat of his darling CSA, dying in 1868. His son got it up and productive again -- with African American labor -- within a year or two of the end, with the help of northern investment. That's how much these ilks actually suffered.

I am breathless at the speed with which Sherman accomplished his objective. He would make Julius Caesar, Henry II and Richard I proud.

His army started out 150 years ago today, November 15, and he presented President Lincoln with Savannah as a Christmas gift, the city having surrendered to him on December 21 -- however he arrived there on the 10th.  That's less than a month of marching -- what one can do without the cumbering supply line, living off plundering the land -- and most of all, having an ever-growing auxiliary of eager, enthusiastic free people, who know the land and have the skills to create roads through swamps in rain and snow.

Sherman's army did not burn Savannah.  However, unlike Savannah, but like Atlanta, in the final act of the Western Campaign, Columbia did not get off so easily when the Union arrived there in January. The capital of the heart and south of secession, South Carolina, as in Atlanta (and again, soon with Richmond) was set on fire by the retreating CSA forces under the command of the oft-removed by Davis, General Johnston.  As with the state as a whole, with Columbia, Sherman did not restrain his troops from their own revels of destruction amid the fires already set.

This is when South Carolina suffered for her secessionist sins, as earlier, did Mississippi.  Though, as with Mississippi, the balance sheet of destruction is more than evenly divided between the destruction caused by CSA loyalists and foragers and the Union forces.  At least the Union forces fed the starving women and children -- the CSA forces were the ones plundering everything they could from the families of the poor men fighting at the orders of the rich men who made the war.

Sherman would continue his successful military career, doing his best to remove the Native Americans from the way of the transcontinental railroads, by assisting with the slaughter of the great buffalo herds.

*  See more about this in this week's NY Times Disunion column, "Who Burned Atlanta?" by Phil Leigh.

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