'Sherman's March': How the 'Re-Writing History Channel' Deceived the Public and Whitewashed a War Criminal

by Lewis Regenstein by Lewis Regenstein


It was just over 142 years ago that General William Tecumseh Sherman burned Columbia, South Carolina and sent a battle-hardened military unit towards nearby Sumter, presumably to do the same. My then 16 year old great grandfather, Andrew Jackson Moses, rode out to defend his hometown, along with some other teenagers, invalids, old men, and the disabled and wounded from the local hospital.

Jack kept running away from school to join the Confederate army, so they finally let him join up and act as a courier on horseback. His final mission was as hopeless as it was valiant, but the rag-tag group of volunteers did manage to hold off the tough and experienced "Potter's Raiders" for over an hour before being overwhelmed by this vastly superior force, outnumbering theirs by seventeen to one.

The date of this skirmish at Dingle's Mill was 9 April, 1865 – the same day that General Robert E. Lee surrendered, and that Jack's eldest brother, Joshua Lazarus Moses, was killed in the War's last big engagement.

Josh died at Fort Blakeley, Alabama, commanding the artillery firing the last guns in defense of Mobile. He was shot down a few hours after Lee surrendered, his unit outnumbered 12 to one, in this battle in which one brother was wounded and another captured.

Until the History Channel's 22 April, two hour, repeatedly-run documentary, "Sherman's March," I never realized that my ancestors were fighting, not to protect their families, homes and cities, but to acquire slaves and land.

And I did not fully appreciate what a decent and wise man, deep down, was General Sherman, nor did I know that the Ohio-born pillager of the South spoke with a gentle Southern accent.

Sherman: Decent and Wise

"Uncle Billy," as he is called in the program and was affectionately known to his devoted men, waged war against innocent, helpless civilians, burning homes and cities, but it was all in a good cause, the program assures us.

And yes, he had a few minor flaws – such a dislike for "inferior" blacks, and such a disregard for the fate of the freed slaves following his legions that he repeatedly tried to turn them back lest they interfere with his progress.

But all in all, one gets the impression that Sherman did what he had to do to win this war of good verses evil, and he should be respected for this. His statement that "War is cruelty…The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over," is cited seemingly with approval. Such a rationale, of course, could be used to excuse virtually any historic massacres of civilians, including Hitler in Poland and Russia, the SS at Malmedy and Oradour-sur-Glane, the Japanese in Nanking and Manila, and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (though no comparison of any of these events to Sherman's actions is here intended).

While one becomes accustomed to seeing The War Between the States constantly misrepresented in the media and Southern soldiers slandered as racists and traitors, one is nevertheless astonished by the sheer audacity of THC in presenting such a blatantly biased and demonstrably untrue version of the War.

For example, the documentary takes the constantly reiterated canard that the War was fought over slavery, and inflates it into a smear against the average Confederate draftee, who fought on despite being hungry, exhausted, sick, shoeless, and short on most everything but courage. As recorded by Major Henry Hitchcock, when Uncle Billy asked an old slave, "Why do these poor white people that don't own slaves fight us ?", the man responded, "because the rich white people have promised them land and slaves if they whip the Yankees."

The slave's statement is uncontradicted and stands as the only reason cited by the program for why the Confederates, whose homes and cities were being burned, kept fighting till the bitter end.

Brutality Downplayed

"Sherman's March" begin and ends with the basic facts of the campaign: After burning Atlanta (but just a mere 30 percent of it, we are reassured), Sherman and his men set out on 15 November, 1864 headed east towards Savannah. It was captured it on 21 December, and Sherman turned north into South Carolina, "marching 650 miles through the heart of enemy territory in less than 100 marching days… losing just 600 men out of 60,000."

I initially had some hope that the program might manifest some shred of objectivity, since it noted accurately and early on that Sherman had been "a failed businessman…considered crazy" by some, and that Union commander Ulysses S. Grant was u2018a drunk."

The program does note that Sherman "plundered a year's harvest," and shows some scenes of theft and terrorizing of civilians and stealing and shooting of livestock (such as happened to Dolly Burge, a widow running a plantation); the use of Confederate prisoners to clear land mines ("torpedoes"); and the execution of an innocent POW. All these would be considered, then and today, to be war crimes.

Sherman is also shown ordering that freed slaves following his army be turned back. In one scene, many ex-slaves drowned after one of Sherman's men (ironically named Jefferson C. Davis!) had the pontoon bridge over Ebenezer Creek pulled up, stranding some 600 of them between the "deep waters" and the evil Confederates.

But the program hardly touches the surface in conveying the extent of suffering caused to Southern civilians, the starving, homeless families left in Sherman's wake, and the cruelty of the invading army towards unresisting civilians, black and white alike.

As summarized by Brian Cisco, author of the new book "War Crimes against Southern Civilians":

Women and children, black and white, were robbed, brutalized, and left homeless in Sherman’s infamous raid through Georgia. Torture and rape were not uncommon. In South Carolina, homes, farms, churches, and whole towns disappeared in flames. Civilians received no mercy at the hands of the Union invaders. Earrings were ripped from bleeding ears, graves were robbed, and towns were pillaged. Wherever Federal troops encountered Southern Blacks, whether free or slave, they were robbed, brutalized, belittled, kidnapped, threatened, tortured, and sometimes raped or killed by their blue-clad “liberators."

Occupation of Sumter

Some of this I know for sure from the memoirs of my great great grandmother Octavia Moses, who had five sons fighting with the Confederate forces. My family's home in Sumter was taken over by Sherman's troops, and here is Octavia's account of that terrible time:

On Sunday, April 9, 1865, Potter’s Raiders occupied Sumter…

They entered many houses and took what they wanted…They looted the stores and burned the jail and Court house. After my husband was nearly killed by negro soldiers who demanded liquor…we asked for protection and took some officers in our house in order to insure it. We were afraid to undress our children at night, as we did not know when the torch might be applied; we had them dressed in several suits of clothing and had provisions and weapons hidden away…

The Moses family survived the Yankee occupation of Sumter, but some of their most valuable possessions did not:

On Tuesday, April 11, Potter’s raiders departed, but not before burning many buildings and 196 bales of our cotton… As soon as the Northerners had left, all the people of the town went around to each other to find out who were suffering and how to relieve their needs.

But other families fared much worse, as Octavia notes:

We found poor old Mr. Bee (a refugee from Charleston) had been murdered by drunken soldiers. Mr. Harmon DeLeon, of Charleston, and my husband saw to his burial. My husband also went out to the battle field where, assisted by Augustus Solomons, they together cared for the dead.

Joe Wilder and others tell of the Yankees' zealous plundering in search of alcohol, and he says that "The black troops murdered old Mr. Bee while they were here on account of some wine, and if it had not been for a guard coming in, white troops would have killed Jackson Moses, thinking he had liquor concealed."

The murder of Robert Bee is considered one of the real tragedies of the occupation. According to Anne King Gregorie's "History of Sumter County," he "was found hanging from the rafters of his attic, tortured and murdered by drunken soldiers, who were said to have raped his daughter" named Julia. In Julia's "Account" of the incident, she tells how on "Sunday afternoon, the troops came in the village destroying everything on the way":

…The homes were ransacked – every vestige of food was taken – in the home was my father, sister, and four little children…the home was filled with Yankee hordes – My father was forced to leave the room – and not until several days afterwards did we know where he had been taken – our faithful servant who was looked upon as one of our household – dear faithful Hannah found in looking in the upper rooms, exclaimed as she entered the room – "My God, here is my dear Master" murdered by the Yankees. Everything had been ransacked…

[One wonders, was the War shortened by one day, or even one minute by the murder of Mr. Bee and the apparent rape of his daughter, which seems to have occurred after the surrender of Lee..]

Cleansing the Atrocities

But no such horrors appear in "Sherman's March."

We must also learn a new vocabulary, as Sherman's vandalism, arson, theft of food vitally needed by women and children, and his other atrocities are blandly called "foraging operations." Sherman brags that he is proud of the "skill and success of his men….I was amused at their tactics," and he fondly, and fairly, calls his teen age soldiers "my little devils."

Nor is there any mention, not a word, about some of the worst atrocities: the well-documented rapes and murders, of blacks and whites, painstakingly described

in numerous contemporaneous accounts of the March. The closest we come to that is the observation that South Carolina took the brunt of the destruction, since it was the object of vengeance by the Union soldiers, who considered it "the cradle of the rebellion," the place "where the treason began, and … where it will end".

The viewer waits in vain for any discussion of the mass murder in the West of the Native Americans, that historians euphemistically call "the Indian Wars," going on while the March was taking place, and carried out later under Sherman and other Union generals. One hears nothing of Sherman's genocidal views of the Indians, such as writing in 1866, "We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to the extermination, men, women, and children."

Nor is there a single word about the virulent hatred of Jews unashamedly demonstrated by Sherman and other Union officers, well known at the time, and culminating in America's worst official act of anti-Semitism in the nation's history. On 17 December, 1862, Union general Ulysses S. Grant issued his infamous "General Order # 11," expelling all Jews "as a class" from his conquered territories within 24 hours.

A few months earlier, on 11 August, Sherman had warned in a letter to the Adjutant General of the Union Army that "the country will swarm with dishonest Jews" if continued trade in cotton is encouraged. [ (Sherman, in a letter written in 1858, had described Jews as "…without pity, soul, heart, or bowels of compassion…")..]

While these instances of Nazi-like behavior might not bear directly on Sherman's March, they certainly reveal much about the character and mentality of the man, a central issue of the program, and are essential to gaining any real understanding of Sherman.

Confederate Gallantry

But the valor of the hopelessly outnumbered Confederates does come through at times. One of the most poignant moments of the show is the Battle of Griswoldville, ten miles east of Macon, Georgia, a day after the Federals had burned Griswoldville on 21 November, 1864. A local militia was formed, from what little manpower remained in the area, largely old men and boys, to try to slow the Union advance. It was the only significant attack on Sherman during his March to the Sea.

In this skirmish, the Union troops, occupying the high ground, and firing repeating rifles and cannon, suffered just 62 to 92 casualties, to the militia's 473 to over 600, according to varying accounts. The program quotes a Union soldier as writing home about finding a 14 year old boy, with a broken arm and leg. Next to him, "cold in death, lay his father, two brothers, and an uncle."

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that almost three dozen members of my Mother's extended family, the Moses' of South Carolina and Georgia, fought for the Confederacy, something that has given me some direct insight into how and why the war was waged by the South.

So while I am far from an expert on the War, I do authoritatively know from their letters, memoirs, and diaries that they and their comrades in arms were not fighting for slavery, as is so often alleged. They were trying to defend themselves and their comrades, their families, homes, and country from an often cruel invading army that was trying, with great success, to kill them, burn their homes and cities, and destroy everything they had.

Literally millions of descendants of Confederate veterans could recount similar stories, but such incidents are largely dismissed in "Sherman's March" as myths or exaggerations.

The Confederates' Honorable Behavior

The Confederates were operating under somewhat different orders, honorable and compassionate rules of engagement that, compared to the brutal policies of the North, now seem almost quaint.

My ancestor Major Raphael Moses is a good example of how the Confederates fought the War and obtained food and other supplies they desperately needed.

As General James Longstreet’s chief commissary officer, Moses participated in many of the major battles in the East, and was responsible for supplying and feeding up to 54,000 troops, porters, and other non-combatants. General Robert E. Lee had strictly forbidden him from entering private homes in search of supplies in raids into Union territory (such as the incursions into Pennsylvania), even when food and other provisions were in painfully short supply.

Moses always paid for what he took from farms and businesses, albeit in Confederate tender. Often while seizing supplies, Moses encountered considerable hostility and abuse from the local women, which he always endured in good humor, and it became a source of much teasing from his fellow officers.

Moses always acted as a gentleman. Once, when a distraught woman approached Moses and pleaded for the return of her pet heifer that had been caught up in a cattle seizure, he graciously acceded.

[For his part, Moses noted that while the women initially spurned his efforts to pay for the goods, and "refused his Confederate u2018trash' with great scorn," they eventually were careful to demand the precise amount owed to them, "…being very particular about the odd cents." ]

Lincoln’s Reaction to the Atrocities

In President Lincoln's brief appearance in the documentary, he is predictably portrayed, as always, as wise, decent, kindly and compassionate. But Lincoln's approving and even amused reaction to Sherman's atrocities is not revealed.

In his “Memoirs of General William T. Sherman”, the general tells of visiting Lincoln with General Grant (whose family still owned slaves at the time) near War's end aboard the president’s ship docked in City Point, Virginia.

"Sherman's March" quotes part of the general's assessment of Lincoln,

…..Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.”

But the program does not mention Lincoln's little known reaction to Sherman's depredations, as recounted by Sherman:

We walked down the wharf, went on board, and found Mr. Lincoln alone in the after-cabin. He remembered me perfectly and at once engaged in a most interesting conversation. He was full of curiosity about the many incidents of our great march, which had reached him officially and through the newspapers, and seems to enjoy very much the more ludocrous [sic] parts – about the ‘bummers’ and their devices to collect food and forage when the outside world supposed us to be starving…

This report is confirmed by “Admiral Porter’s Account of the Interview with Mr. Lincoln”, written in 1866 at the US Naval Academy, mailed to Gen Sherman, and included in his book:

The day of General Sherman’s arrival at City Point (I think the 27th of March, 1865), I accompanied him and General Grant on board the president’s flag ship, the Queen, where the president received us in the upper saloon …

The conversation soon turned on the events of Sherman’s campaign through the South, with every

movement of which the president seemed familiar.

He laughed over some of the stories Sherman told of his ‘bummers’ and told others in return,

[The interview between the two generals and the president lasted about an hour and a half, and, as it was a remarkable one, I jotted down what I remembered of the conversation…]

In the unlikely case that after almost two hours (minus ads for Ford) the viewer has not gotten the point, Sherman is shown in retirement being visited by those of his former troops who are in need, "the bummers," receiving monetary gifts from their kindly commander: "the poor old soldiers who show up regularly at his door…They are his family. He will always be their u2018Uncle Billy'."

Correcting the "Myths" about Sherman

"Sherman's March" was written and directed by Rick King for documentary maker JWM productions in Washington, D.C. It was well reviewed by the mainstream media and will doubtlessly win some journalism awards, because it follows the Party Line, if not to the letter, closely enough.

In the very city burned by Sherman, here is what Jim Auchmutey wrote in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the various "myths" corrected by the program:

Sherman raises a tumbler of whiskey with his lieutenants and offers a toast as they watch Atlanta burn. The light from the flames plays off his red hair and strawberry complexion, making him look like a 19th-century Satan.

Despite the imagery, the man behind the show says he believes Sherman was no devil, even if he did pioneer the concept of “total war.”

“Sherman’s March is one of the great myths of American history,” says Rick King, a native of the Washington suburbs who wrote and directed the program. “The myth is that he was a brute, that he raped and pillaged his way across Georgia and the Carolinas, that he hated the South and was merciless and cruel.”

King points out that Sherman had lived in the South before the war and loved it. Furthermore, he argues, the burning of Atlanta and the March to the Sea have been exaggerated in popular memory and were undertaken for a humanitarian reason: to shorten the war by destroying the South’s will to fight.

Interestingly, the actor who plays Sherman, Bill Oberst, Jr., is a 42-year-old South Carolinian from Pawley's Island who grew up hearing stories about the War. His great-grandfather came from Scotland and became known as "shorty" after losing a leg while while serving in the Confederate Army . "I'm just dripping with this stuff, like most Southern guys of my generation," Oberst told Auchmutey. “From a military perspective, I can understand what Sherman did. Those are the stories that have been handed down. So, yeah, I hated him.”

Oberst has played not only Jesus, Mark Twain and John F. Kennedy, but even starred in his own one-man show depicting, of all people, the late humor writer Lewis Grizzard, who truly loved the South. “I thought if someone was going to play Sherman, it ought to be one of us,” Auchmutey says of Oberst, "He chomps his cigar and confers with Ulysses S. Grant. He pauses in the piney woods to talk with a group of emancipated slaves. He rides among his troops, who affectionately call him u2018Uncle Billy'.”

Unfortunately, the AJC does not ask Oberst if he thinks his great granddad "Shorty" is spinning in his grave after his descendant's performance.

Producer-director Rick King was kind enough to allow me to interview him at length, and he seemed like a pretty nice guy. He knows how to make a documentary film, and I think he sincerely believes what he produced was truthful. But – with all due respect – I cannot help but be appalled by what comes across to me as ignorance and bias concerning our nation's transforming event.

I asked him why the program did not show or mention a single rape or murder of civilians, despite numerous eyewitness accounts of such by families and neighbors. He said that he could not find any historians, or documentation in the dozens of books he consulted, to confirm these atrocity stories that have been handed down for generations.

He said that while there was lots of plunder and destruction, he believed that the number of murders was u2018very minimal", and that only a total of "two or three rapes" occurred. (Not believing what I heard, I asked him to repeat that.) And outside of South Carolina, King says, he could find very little wanton destruction of homes, mainly of those with owners who were involved in the war effort.

I asked him if he truly believed that the Southern conscriptees were fighting to get land and slaves, as the ex-slave stated; "That was his opinion," he replied, but would not say why no other "opinions" were offered.

[But King did make one point that makes some sense out of Sherman's tactics. By waging war against civilians instead of attacking the Confederate Army, he argues, Sherman saved many lives on both sides, and his destruction of much of the South's economy shortened the war.]

King says he blames the wealthy slave and plantation owners for the war, not the common soldier. "It was a rich man's war, and a poor man's fight." Not the first time we have heard the Marxist version of the War.

A Revisionist History

[They say history is written by the victors. In the case of the War Between the States, what is taking place is more of a re-writing, a cleansing of the harsh, indisputed facts about the Union victory, substituting a more acceptable Revisionist version for the real thing. The Revisionist account, indeed, has become mainstream: the War was all about slavery, Sherman's brutality is largely a myth, Lincoln was kind and compassionate and our greatest president ever. To take issue with any of this dogma invites being considered a racist and/or a nut.]

Although the producers of the program claim to have consulted 30 to 40 books, it hardly seems possible that they could have done any real research at all, and failed to find overwhelming evidence and numerous credible accounts of senseless atrocities by Sherman's army against civilians.

The program may not have the facts on its side, but it does have its academics. Sherman biographer and retired Mississippi State University professor John Marszalek dismisses such accounts of depradations in a way that has the subtle effect of suggesting that many or all such victims of Sherman are lying or mistaken in telling about their experiences:

People will come up to me and will say, "oh, you wrote that book on Sherman. Well, you know, that's nice but he was a terrible guy. Why, he burned my great, great, great, great grandfather’s barn.” And I’ll say, “well where was your great, great, great, grandfather's barn?” And they'll tell me and Sherman was not within a hundred miles of that area.

The shame is not that the documentary is so blatantly pro-Union and anti-Southern. We are used to that, and do not expect fair treatment. The problem is that the program goes a bridge too far, adding insult to injury, in its gratuitous abjuring of Sherman's brutal violence towards civilians.

The fearless chronicler and defender of the South, history professor Clyde Wilson, was not amused. Here is what he said in his review of "Sherman's March" for

A whole team of third-string, half-baked carpetbagger "historians" of the type that now staff all Southern universities are presented to make the best possible case for the glory…But…it is a bad cause that has to be defended by lies. And it can only be defended by lies, then and now.

Simply and bluntly put, perhaps a little harsh. But in the end, there is no question that "Sherman's March" makes a hero of a war criminal, and rewrites history under the guise of shattering myths.

But like the teenagers and old men at Griswoldville, there will always be a few loyal Southerners honest and brave and dedicated enough to keep fighting, against hopeless odds, to honor their ancestors, remember their valor, recognize their sacrifices, defend their heritage, and insist that The Truth be known. But you won't be seeing them on The History Channel's version of Sherman's March.

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