Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History

Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History

Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History

Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History


At the end of the Civil War, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman was surprisingly more popular in the newly defeated South than he was in the North. Yet, only thirty years later, his name was synonymous with evil and destruction in the South, particularly as the creator and enactor of the "total war" policy. In Demon of the Lost Cause, Wesley Moody examines these perplexing contradictions and how they and others function in past and present myths about Sherman.

Throughout this fascinating study of Sherman's reputation, from his first public servant role as the major general for the state of California until his death in 1891, Moody explores why Sherman remains one of the most controversial figures in American history. Using contemporary newspaper accounts, Sherman's letters and memoirs, as well as biographies of Sherman and histories of his times, Moody reveals that Sherman's shifting reputation was formed by whoever controlled the message, whether it was the Lost Cause historians of the South, Sherman's enemies in the North, or Sherman himself.

With his famous "March to the Sea" in Georgia, the general became known for inventing a brutal warfare where the conflict is brought to the civilian population. In fact, many of Sherman's actions were official tactics to be employed when dealing with guerrilla forces, yet Sherman never put an end to the talk of his innovative tactics and even added to the stories himself. Sherman knew he had enemies in the Union army and within the Republican elite who could and would jeopardize his position for their own gain. In fact, these were the same people who spread the word that Sherman was a Southern sympathizer following the war, helping to place the general in the South's good graces. That all changed, however, when the Lost Cause historians began formulating revisions to the Civil War, as Sherman's actions were the perfect explanation for why the South had lost.

Demon of the Lost Cause reveals the machinations behind the Sherman myth and the reasons behind the acceptance of such myths, no matter who invented them. In the case of Sherman's own mythmaking, Moody postulates that his motivation was to secure a military position to support his wife and children. For the other Sherman mythmakers, personal or political gain was typically the rationale behind the stories they told and believed. In tracing Sherman's ever-changing reputation, Moody sheds light on current and past understanding of the Civil War through the lens of one of its most controversial figures.


In 2004 the Atlanta Journal Constitution published on the front page of the opinion section an article about William Tecumseh Sherman. More than a quarter of the page was taken up by a photograph of a stern-looking Sherman, with his right hand resting Napoleon-like in his Brooks Brothers uniform, laid over an image of fire. The article is titled “Sherman Still Burns Atlanta,” but it is subtitled “Despised Yankee General Wasn’t as Evil as History Has Painted Him.” The article quoted many historians who have written that a great deal of the history surrounding Sherman is simply myth. To many of the newspaper’s readers this story must have been proof that Atlanta with its numerous northern transplants was no longer a “real” southern city, at least its newspaper did not represent “real” southerners. To native-born southerners, Sherman is the symbol of the brutality of the North and no amount of scholarly work or Sunday newspaper fluff pieces is going to change that. On a recent visit to Eatonton, Georgia, I visited the Uncle Remus Museum and was regaled with stories of how Sherman had destroyed every home in the town. I then took a self-guided tour of Eatonton’s beautiful antebellum homes.

Northerners have their own myths about Sherman. The northern myth is actually very similar to the southern myth. Sherman was brutal, but he was an innovator. He was a man who fought a hard war when others were too timid or too tied to tradition to do what had to be done. Sherman was the first truly total warrior. These views are amazingly close to one another and similarly flawed, for Sherman was as much a traditionalist as any general of the American Civil War. One thing cannot be argued though; William Tecumseh Sherman is by far the most controversial figure of the American Civil War. While debate may surround other men, none other elicits the emotion that Sherman does.

The modern image of Sherman has evolved over the years. In large part, it is the product of southern writers trying to justify the war and explain their loss, but it is also the product of Union generals’ and politicians’ attempting to glorify . . .

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