Invoking the Name of Uncle Billy

Posted on April 16, 2010 by


I should have predicted this last week. As the debate over Governor McDonnell’s statement continues, someone would cite General Sherman’s March to the Sea or through the Carolinas out of context. And we have at least one from Mike Church:

Yes, only “Confederates-took up arms against their fellow Americans.” Gee, what does that make the men of “heroic” General William Sherman’s Union Army who beat a murderous and destructive path across South Carolina, then into Georgia and on to Atlanta and then half way back for good measure? Were the non-enlisted, non slave owners who defended their property and their families from Sherman “terrorists to Sherman’s ‘troops’?”

When I heard this line on the radio during my commute, I had to pull off the road and start taking notes.  This is really good stuff!

Now those that know me will quickly tell you I lean conservative. Many who have known me since undergraduate days would tell you that’s a change made as I got older.  (Yes, I was a left-leaning Democrat for many years.) And I’ve always felt the need to hear out all sides of an issue. That said, I must with full disclosure say I’ve listed to Mr. Church on occasion, and take his comments at face value. He’s responding to what he perceives as an attack from someone on the other side of the political spectrum.

Aside from getting Sherman’s route completely wrong, Mr. Church repeats the standard myths about the March to the Sea/Carolinas Campaign. You know, the one depicted by Alexander Hay Richie:

Yes, “Yankee demons” doing their worst!

Not a single mention of Special Field Order 120 from Sherman. Instead we have “a murderous and destructive path.”

And Mr. Church goes on to discuss the burning of the Shenandoah.  Robert may have some specific points to make there.  But I never thought to equate the burning of grain mills to water-boarding.

Clearly Mr. Church did not do his research before hand. Otherwise, he would have discovered an article written by one of our esteemed blogosphere acquaintances, Mark Grimsley – “Thieves, Murderers, Trespassers” : The Mythology of Sherman’s March.

I’ve studied the March to the Sea quite a bit. Spent a lot of time on the back-roads of Georgia tracing the march routes and plotting sites related to the event. Did a lot of homework, you might say. I don’t recall many accounts of “non-enlisted, non slave owner who defended their property.”  (And let me pause to remind the reader the meanings of the word “property” in context of the 1860s, which under some contexts might preclude the second conditional offered in Mr. Church’s description.)

I do recall many accounts where Union officers gave orders to prevent soldiers from going into homes, in some cases posting guards. Considering the battlegrounds of the 20th Century, Sherman’s scorching of Georgia was almost surgical in approach. Case in point, there are a lot of antebellum homes along the march route which show little to no structural damage which might be attributed to Uncle Billy’s passing. Say what you will for the man’s handling of railroad tracks, apparently W.T. Sherman appreciated Greek Revival architecture.

Yes, I’m just having fun at Mr. Church’s expense. He was only trying to make a point, and attempting to cite some historical facts to strengthen his position. Problem is the same bloody shirt technique is used by BOTH sides of the political spectrum with the recent dialog. Confederates are terrorists or freedom fighters? Should your answer depend on the bumper sticker on your car? Or your appreciation for and understanding of  history?

Presenting dogma and myth – particularly invoking a scene designed to elicit an emotional reaction – then wrapping it in the cloth of history is not faithful to our common heritage. Mr. Church has only further layered more bad interpretation on top of Mr. Martin’s equally poorly researched interpretation. Looking at the main media outlets, we are sorely lacking reasonable, research-backed dialog on this issue. The original statement from Governor McDonnell was a clarion call to historians, professional and otherwise. During the sesquicentennial, we must be sensitive to those who, knowingly or not, misappropriate history.  Further, we must guard against those who would hijack history for partisan agendas.

Should we call upon Ed Bearss for a round of appearances on the talking head shows?