Sherman’s March In Myth And Memory, by Edward Caudill and Paul Ashdown
As I have noted before , I have a certain degree of fondness for William Tecumseh Sherman. He was a redheaded, highly nervous and energetic person who had a particularly fierce form or rhetoric that often belied far more gracious conduct. He was a man of tensions and contradictions, and had a strong degree of knowledge and interest in logistical and psychological aspects of war. He has never been forgiven for showing the much-vaunted sense of honor of the Confederacy to be a hollow shell and for ripping the guts out of the Confederacy through his marches in late 1864 and early 1865 through Georgia and the Carolinas. This particular book is less a history than it is an examination of literary criticism in viewing how Sherman has been portrayed and remembered in history, journalism, and literature, and the result is quite a fascinating one, as it demonstrates the way that Sherman has been a source of debate and disagreement over the last 150 years and how he has taken on a symbolic role that far outweighed his own actions and his own behavior during the Civil War. The book itself is the third of a trilogy of works dealing with John Mosby and Nathan Bedford Forrest, but I have not read those books and do not tend to feel it necessary to promote the memory of such traitors, so it is unlikely that I will read them myself.
The contents of this book are thematically organized and the authors take a great deal of attention in viewing Sherman through the various ways that others have seen him, which leads to a lot of interesting conclusions. The book opens with a discussion of how Sherman’s march through Georgia burned a picture into history, both in the way it was seen as an epic march by Northern journalists and as a swatch of rapine and destruction by Southern journalists, who largely created in Sherman a villain that did not really exist in real life. The authors then turn, sensibly, to Sherman himself as a complicated and articulate person who teetered on the edge between lunacy and mere eccentricity in how he was perceived by others. The next three chapters look at Sherman in how he is remembered and portrayed by historians, novelists, and playwrights and screenwriters and poets. The authors then turn to how people have sought to remember the March itself and travel alongside, which prompts a look into the tragic life of Tom Sherman, the Jesuit priest who was the general’s son, as well as a look at automobile culture and the tension between the South and modernity. The end of the book summarizes the book’s main threads and leaves it to the reader to examine how they think about and remember Sherman and how important the man is to an understanding of the tensions and contradictions within American culture.
There is a lot to think about in this book in terms of its implications. Sherman was known to be a bit of a rhetorical loose cannon (as was his son), and the gulf between his rhetoric and his conduct has led to a wide variety of post hoc myths developing to explain the lack of total destruction of antebellum architecture in the affected areas of Georgia. Likewise, even among those who concede that Sherman was not a villainous barbarian hell-bent on destruction, many blame his rhetoric for encouraging and legitimizing the sort of supposed total war that would be practiced in WWII and Vietnam. The authors seem to view Sherman as the sort of talisman that reveals much about ourselves and how we view technology, culture, and rhetoric. The authors show more than a little bit of frustration at the tropes of romance and the way that Sherman is often viewed in literature as a sort of inexorable force. Ultimately, though, this is a worthwhile book that is full of serious matter to reflect on and more than a little bit of humor in its skillful textual criticism.
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