I recently turned in a column that contained the statement that General Sherman “burned Atlanta, but kept New Jersey.”
Features editor Carole Miller messaged me immediately with the startling statement that Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman didn’t burn Atlanta.
“She’s wrong,” I said to myself. “Everybody, at least every Southerner worth his salt, knows ol’ General Sherman burned Atlanta to the ground, drat his hide! Telling Southerners that he didn’t is like telling them the world is flat or, as the song says, ‘God didn’t make the little green apples, and it don’t rain in Indianapolis in the summer time.’”
Furthermore, didn’t we see the city go up in flames in “Gone With the Wind”?
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Carole is from Oregon. Bless her heart. There’s no telling what kind of Southern history is being taught in Oregon schools and universities. I must look into that.
She referred me to a New York Times article by Phil Leigh, author of two Civil War books. Sure enough, the article states that Sherman never ordered his soldiers to torch the city. The undisciplined troops took it upon themselves to do it while Sherman watched.
The general’s record of having burned other Southern towns, as well as his ruthless and compassionless policies as his army marched across the South, provided ample inspiration for the destructive conduct of his troops.
Also, according to the Times article, Sherman, after arriving in Savannah, sent a congratulatory note to his troops, saying, “We quietly and deliberately destroyed Atlanta.”
The article quoted a Michigan sergeant participating in the holocaust of fire:
“As I was about to fire one place, a little girl about ten years old came to me and said, ‘Mr. Soldier, you would not burn our house, would you? If you did where would we live?’
“She looked at me with such a pleading look that ... I dropped the torch and walked away,” the soldier said.
Our nation’s bloodiest conflict claimed more than 620,000 lives, including that of my grandfather. Several kin have visited his grave site at a Virginia military center. My father was 5 when the war ended.
Orders or no orders, Sherman will always be one of the scoundrels of history to most Southerners. Not many name their boy babies Tecumseh.
While remembering the devastating and deadly war, we should not forget that it led to the emancipation of 4 million slaves.
Sometimes, through the heavy mists of time, I imagine I hear Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the marching song she wrote for Union troops at the request of a friend.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
Howe was staying at Washington’s Willard Hotel in 1861 when, during the pre-dawn hours, she got out of bed and wrote down the song’s words as they flowed into her mind.
Years after Howe wrote her famous poem, Sherman uttered the words that have been boiled down to his own famous “war is hell” quote. (He actually said: “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys, it is all hell.”) Sherman would have known; he was an expert on war.
War has always been hell; it always will be. And there will always be terrified, innocent children pleading, “Mr. Soldier, you would not burn our house, would you?”
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