How Sherman's March Has Been Used by Southerners to Explain Events

Roundup: Talking About History

From the Chronicle of Higher Education (Jan. 5, 2004):

The destructiveness of the Civil War is the subject of many local legends among the narratives of white Southerners collected by Elissa R. Henken, a professor of English at the University of Georgia. Many of the stories involve Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's 30-day March to the Sea, in 1864, and "narratives about hardship and suffering -- and just plain meanness -- on the part of Sherman's troops certainly occur,"
she writes.

More frequently, however, she encounters a different theme:
"stories about the places Sherman did not destroy." In these local legends, "towns each have a story about why that town, and that town alone," escaped burning and pillaging by "that Devil Sherman."

While emphasizing that the march was destructive, she also finds antecedents for the ruthlessness attributed to Sherman in tales of military leaders throughout history. She cites, for example, Welsh legends that credit any ruins to burning by the early-15th-century rebel Owen Glendower, even when the buildings were erected long after his death. "Sherman similarly provides explanation, or at least historical context, for otherwise unexplained events," she writes.

Against such a ruthless -- hence, worthy -- foe, she says, "there must be an explanation for why any individual town survived." The reasons given in local legends vary, but they "often fit a few categories involving friendship, women, exchange, or beauty," she writes.

Many of the stories involve female intercessors, for whom Ms.
Henken notes biblical parallels in Judith and Esther. Such fiercely determined women not only provide models for their narrators, she says, but also are expressions of pride. "The South may have lost the war," she concludes, "but it was never
defeated: The town and its womenfolk conquered the conqueror."

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