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sherman's march in myth and memory

10 november 2008

Edward Caudill and Paul Ashdown, in Sherman’s March in Myth and Memory, have compiled an exhaustively researched archive of popular-culture images of William Tecumseh Sherman. The book is more an annotated Shermanography than a focused argument about what kinds of cultural work the myths of Sherman have done in American life. But I find it particularly vital and useful. It’s the kind of synthetic recovery work in archival sources that any scholar might envy.

No firm conclusions are reached in Sherman’s March in Myth and Memory because the general is such a Protean figure. During the Civil War, in the press, he was madman or genius, avenging angel or monster. Afterwards, he was the type of the industrial organization man, obliterating a more chivalric, humanized South – or possibly, a mere beast. Caudill and Ashdown note that even in the postwar South there was quite a bit of ambivalence about Sherman. Not all Southerners hated him. The general, several years before marching through Georgia, had lived and worked in the South quite amicably. He helped found a Louisiana military academy that would become a forbear of LSU. But he resisted attempts to draw him into Confederate service. Secession was treason, and Sherman was committed to the unbroken Union.

The famous March to the Sea, objectively, was much less destructive than Grant’s Virginia campaigns of the same year (1864). Sherman’s dispersed foragers killed very few people, soldiers or civilians, as compared to Grant’s massed armies. But as popular memory sifted and re-sifted events of the war in later decades, the image of the “bummer” stealing the wherewithal of the Georgian domestic populace came to be much more reviled than that of the trench soldier actually killing Southern manhood at Petersburg.

Caudill and Ashdown do invaluable work in tracking down constructions of Sherman. They provide chapters on Sherman in contemporary journalism, in academic and popular histories, in prose fiction, in drama and film and song (and even in poetry, notably in that of Herman Melville). They include a chapter on pilgrimages made in Sherman’s tracks, including a bizarre proposal by the general’s son “Father Tom” Sherman, a polemical Jesuit priest, to take a cavalry guard and retrace his father’s conquests. Tom Sherman must rank among the least probable of American characters, even in our vastly improbable history. Finally, the authors include a substantial section of captioned illustrations that serves almost as an extra chapter, showing how visual rhetoric captured and continues to capture opinions about Sherman.

We have not finished with Sherman yet. Events like the Iraq War and the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina continue to evoke Sherman, as Caudill and Ashdown show with reference to E.L. Doctorow's novel The March. He continues to be retold and reinterpreted; next on my reading list is historian Noah Trudeau’s Southern Storm, an attempt to document the narrative of the March for 21st-century readers. How good to be able to turn back and forth between these new histories and fictions to a book like Sherman’s March in Myth and Memory, which shows us where we, and Sherman, have been.

Caudill, Edward, and Paul Ashdown. Sherman’s March in Myth and Memory. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.