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Understanding Sherman’s March

March 2023
1min read

The Story of Soldiers & Civilians
During Sherman’s Campaign

by Lee Kennett , HarperCollins, 418 pages .

Two years into the bloodiest war in American history, a Georgia girl could still tell her diary, “So far Georgia has been free from the polluting tread of the Vandals.” William Tecumseh Sherman, eyeing the southern Appalachians from Lookout Mountain on April 30, would soon change all that, first with a fierce campaign to take Atlanta and then with a drive, as he told a friend, to “strike out for the sea.” The military historian Lee Kennett takes stock of just who and what was in Sherman’s path that spring and summer, especially of who he himself was. Kennett confidently lays out the dispositions of mountain terrain, precious rail lines, and native crops, filling in the picture sketched by the 1860 census, in which slaves represented almost half the state’s wealth.

Kennett’s Sherman is not the unhinged drunk of some accounts. He is hard-drinking and melancholic but tightly focused on his mission to take apart the Western & Atlantic Railroad. “If the general’s mind was essentially sound…it nevertheless ran in its own fashion.…if it benefited the operations of his army, he might seize railway cars, put journalists in irons, refuse to feed starving civilians, stop the movement of evangelists and the shipment of religious tracts to his army.” Sherman had a grudging respect for the Southerners dug in against him that he did not feel for Northern abolitionists or even Southern Unionists. “The devils seem to have a determination that cannot but be admired,” he wrote to his wife, Ellen. After the war, writes Kennett, the song inspired by Sherman’s march, in which even Georgian turkeys were happy to be seized by the bluecoats, sold five hundred thousand copies. “So constantly was it played that the general, whose very appearance was an invitation to the band, developed an almost physical loathing for it.” Kennett’s history gives a terrific sense of Sherman’s total campaign and its legacy.

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