Last month I set out driving through Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas, roughly retracing the deepest scar in the country—the blazing track of total war left by Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in 1864 and 1865. After many years away I was exploring my own blood ties (which include an ancestor named after Sherman by his slave-owning-yet-Unionist parents), but also gauging the tenor of a region that has been critical to every U.S. presidential election since 1932, and may be again...
General Sherman did not "wreck" the South, nor did his march across the South have any lasting impact on the region. This is one of the most fundamental (and ludicrous) assertions that those who have a romanticized view of the Civil War maintain.
As historians have since pointed out, the destruction of Southern crops, livestock, factories, and railroads, and other infrastructure was anything but complete; much of the damage was repaired within a few years. The really serious economic losses can be traced to two things: the emancipation of slaves, which wiped out billions of dollars in Southern wealth, and the worthlessness of Confederate scrip, bonds, and promissory notes into which many Southerners had sunk most of their savings.
When Sherman's Army left Atlanta and severed the Confederacy, it did so as an untethered Army that traveled light, passing through Georgia and the Carolinas as it moved to link up with the Army of the Potomac. It did not burn or destroy everything in its path--in fact, one standing order was that the army would not leave poor Southerners, black or white, destitute.
General Sherman's orders were rigorously enforced, except in the case of South Carolina, which bore the brunt of the Army's wrath because it was considered to cradle of the Confederacy. I don't accept the revisionist history that says Sherman burned Columbia, South Carolina--there's plenty of evidence to suggest that drunkards were responsible. His Special Field Order 120 is especially handy for refuting the notion that his Army was on a mission of terror:
IV. The army will forage liberally on the country during the march. To this end, each brigade commander will organize a good and sufficient foraging party, under the command of one or more discreet officers, who will gather, near the route traveled, corn or forage of any kind, meat of any kind, vegetables, corn-meal, or whatever is needed by the command, aiming at all times to keep in the wagons at least ten day's provisions for the command and three days' forage. Soldiers must not enter the dwellings of the inhabitants, or commit any trespass, but during a halt or a camp they may be permitted to gather turnips, potatoes, and other vegetables, and to drive in stock of their camp. To regular foraging parties must be instructed the gathering of provisions and forage at any distance from the road traveled.
V. To army corps commanders alone is entrusted the power to destroy mills, houses, cotton-gins, &c., and for them this general principle is laid down: In districts and neighborhoods where the army is unmolested no destruction of such property should be permitted; but should guerrillas or bushwhackers molest our march, or should the inhabitants burn bridges, obstruct roads, or otherwise manifest local hostility, then army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless according to the measure of such hostility.
VI. As for horses, mules, wagons, &c., belonging to the inhabitants, the cavalry and artillery may appropriate freely and without limit, discriminating, however, between the rich, who are usually hostile, and the poor or industrious, usually neutral or friendly. Foraging parties may also take mules or horses to replace the jaded animals of their trains, or to serve as pack-mules for the regiments or brigades. In all foraging, of whatever kind, the parties engaged will refrain from abusive or threatening language, and may, where the officer in command thinks proper, give written certificates of the facts, but no receipts, and they will endeavor to leave with each family a reasonable portion for their maintenance.
VII. Negroes who are able-bodied and can be of service to the several columns may be taken along, but each army commander will bear in mind that the question of supplies is a very important one and that his first duty is to see to them who bear arms. ...
– William T. Sherman, Military Division of the Mississippi Special Field Order 120, November 9, 1864.
The fact of the matter is, if you were a white Southerner of modest means, you had a much better time of it than any Native American. Here's a very detailed look at why this misconception lingers:
Let me give you an example of this private myth-making at work. It comes from the unpublished reminiscences of a woman, Grace Pierson Beard, who lived about eight miles from Winnsboro, South Carolina. Her postwar account, now preserved in the Southern Historical Collection at UNC, consumes fifteen typescript, single-spaced pages. In it she describes how, returning to her home in February 1865, she encountered soldiers in her house, seated on benches taken from her piazza. They were roasting potatoes taken from her potato bank in a fire they had built in her fireplace. "I shall never forget that sight!" she writes dramatically--but then goes on to say that these men turned out to be members of Wheeler's Confederate cavalry, and nothing in her narrative suggests that she was in the least disturbed by their trespassing into her home.
Instead, the purpose of the men in her narrative is to convey a message about the danger she is in. Sherman's men were coming, they told her, and when she informed them of her plan to leave before their arrival, they responded that leaving would only guarantee the destruction of her house. "Sherman's orders are to burn all vacant houses and all provisions." Thus Grace decided to remain.
Next day, a group of Union soldiers arrived, killed a dog, and ate everything at her table, but left without assailing anyone. The day after a major force passed through--they ransacked her house for provisions and allegedly told her slaves not only that they were free, but also entitled to their mistress's possessions. (No one acted on this, however.) Her barn and outbuildings were burned. Some soldiers said threatening things, but another soldier deterred them with, "The first man who attempts to enter that house will have his brains blown out." Subsequently a second, self-appointed guard appeared, followed by a soldier who looked so much like her husband that her toddler son ran up to him, leaped into his arms, and called him Pa. The soldier "seemed to be much affected" by this. So was she: "I felt as if my baby was everlastingly polluted."
That was the extent of Mrs. Beard's experience with the coming of Lucifer's legions: vigorous foraging, the destruction of outbuildings, the liberation of slaves, and repeated efforts to extort possessions from her--which were never pursued to the point of assault and were, in any case, countered by soldiers who actively protected her family and herself. All this information is in her reminiscences, but the tone is one of fear and outrage, and the tone governs what an uncritical reader takes away from her reminiscences. In effect, Mrs. Beard--like thousands of other white Southerners--has constructed a mythical reading of her experience that emphasizes the harshness and injustice of that experience.
The influence of this myth can hardly be exaggerated. Even educated Southerners, far removed in time from the conflict, accepted it uncritically, indeed passionately. Eventually the murderous severity of the Union armies' attacks on civilian property became an article of faith. By the 1940s, one Southern historian could write, in a scholarly monograph, that "the invader did not limit himself to the property of people," but evidenced "considerable interest also in their persons, particularly the females, some of whom did not escape the fate worse than death"--without feeling the slightest need to document his lurid (and largely inaccurate) claim.
As for Sherman's status as a "war criminal, there's no shortage of stories like this:
Many myths surround the destruction of the plantations along the Ashley River Road. One is that Sherman burned them; however, General Sherman never brought his army to Charleston, rather he diverted towards Columbia from Savannah and never came through Charleston.
The left wing of Sherman’s Army moved through Madison [Georgia] on November 17, 1864, burning the railroad depot and slave pens. The primary reason that many of the antebellum homes remain standing today is that, like few other towns in his path, Sherman was convinced to save the town by an old family friend Joshua Hill, a native son that became a U.S. Senator. Hill had befriended Sherman’s brother when they were cadets at West Point, and Sherman felt obligated to honor his request.
But why let the truth get in the way when it's easier to simply keep repeating a myth, right?