Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History

By Hume, Janice | South Carolina Historical Magazine, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History


Hume, Janice, South Carolina Historical Magazine


Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History. By Wesley Moody. Shades of Blue and Gray. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011. Pp. 190; $30, cloth.)

This is a fascinating book about a war that has endured for nearly 150 years, generations after General William Tecumseh Sherman roared through Georgia during his infamous 1864 "March to the Sea." It is a war over memory and reputation. Was Sherman a demon, or a great Civil War strategist? Wesley Moody traces Sherman's changing public image through newspaper and magazine articles, memoirs, biographies, obituaries, controversial statuary, textbooks, movies, and finally modern accounts from professional historians, particularly those in Great Britain. As he ably demonstrates, Sherman's memory is shrouded in mythology that is as layered and complex as the Great Rebellion itself.

Moody, a professor of history at Florida State College, makes an intriguing point - that Sherman had a reasonably good reputation in the South until after his death, when the Lost Cause mythmakers, angry at his criticisms of southern war heroes, cast him as a brute. The picture of Sherman as villain dovetailed with one of the major tenets of the Lost Cause, the Smith's cultural superiority to the North. Moody remarks, "In the decades that followed Sherman's death, Southerners would rewrite the history of the Civil War. . . . His March to the Sea and the events surrounding the Union occupation of Columbia, South Carolina, would give them plenty of material to use in portraying Sherman and the Union army as monsters" (p. 99).

Demon of the Lost Cause sets the stage in the prewar years, when "Sherman was just another West Point graduate trying to earn a living," with a biographical synthesis of his career and family relationships, including those with his wife, Ellen E wing Sherman, and his then more famous brother John Sherman, a congressman from Ohio (p. 6). According to Moody, Sherman's motivation for rejoining the army (he had left it once before) was simply to support Ellen and their children. Moody writes, "Sherman, time and again, would prove during the war that he feared losing his position much more than he feared death at the hands of the enemy" (p. 10). Chapter 2 describes his most famous achievements, the Atlanta campaign and the March to the Sea, and considers the general's troubled relationship with the press.

The real substance of Moody's book begins in chapter 3, after the Civil War fighting had ended but at the beginning of the public battles over the reputations of war leaders. Who deserved credit for the northern victory? Who was responsible for conceiving the March to the Sea? Histories appeared almost immediately in both the North and the South, and Moody notes that most "were based on newspaper accounts published during the war and were thus thoroughly inaccurate" (p. 36). Many memoirs followed, written by men who had experienced the conflict. George Ward Nichols, an aid-de-camp of the general's, authored one of these recollections based on his diary. A former journalist, Nichols knew how to write a compelling story. Moody observes that Nichols's The Story of the Great March (1865) was pro-southern and so quotable that it has likely been referenced more than Sherman's own memoir, which was published a decade later to great controversy as it claimed credit for many victories and criticized other military men, among them U.S. secretary of war Edwin M. Stanton.

In chapter 4, Moody traces the "War of the Memoirs," which involved not only the clashing published accounts but also Sherman's numerous tours through the South as an army general. …

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