MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. — At the heart of this well-preserved antebellum city, sunbeams stream through the arched windows of a grand public meeting room that mirrors the whole Civil War — including its death throes, unfolding 150 years ago this week when Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman launched his scorching March to the Sea.
The first major objective along Sherman's route, Milledgeville was Georgia's capital at the time, and this room was the legislative chamber. Crossing its gleaming floor, Amy Wright couldn't help recalling family stories of the hated "foragers" who swept through then. "They were just called 'Sherman's men,'" she said in a hushed voice.
Gesturing across the room, she pointed to the spot where Georgia's leaders had voted to secede in 1861. This, too, was where, after three years of brutal fighting, battle-hardened soldiers in Sherman's juggernaut burst in, drunkenly convened a mock assembly and "repealed" secession.
Their raucous laughter soon gave way to rampaging — and then to tears and fury among local people, including Wright's forebears, and countless others along the path of destruction Sherman slashed from smoking Atlanta to trembling Savannah and beyond. For many, even a century and a half later, Sherman's name still evokes epithets — villain, war criminal, devil — for the horrors he countenanced, and even commanded.
Still, if his reputation for mayhem remains firmly intact, the passage of time has allowed for his march and indeed his own complex character to receive a more nuanced reassessment. And it's not just historians who are looking anew.
Consider, Wright says, the next big event planned for Milledgeville's old legislative chamber: Local folks will gather there for a commemorative "Dinner with Uncle Billy," complete with 19th-century fare, finished with buttermilk pie. They'll watch an original drama created from the words of those who were here with Sherman — rank-and-file soldiers, shopkeepers, enslaved people, even the unsmiling, red-headed general himself.
Organizers like Wright wanted all of those "witnesses" in the performance.
"Coming from this area, growing up here, I've heard the stories of Sherman's occupation all my life," said Wright, who brought a doctorate as well as five generations of personal history to her job directing the capital museum.
She was told as a girl that Sherman's men ransacked houses, stole property, set fires. It was an unusually cold winter, harvests were taken or destroyed — "and there was no making up a crop." People were left to starve. She winced relating stories of soldiers wantonly killing animals they couldn't carry away.
Her grandfather loved to take a Sunday drive and would often stop at the family's old property, which again brought out the tales: "The family was unprotected. ... Truly it was the devil incarnate. The focus of all their suffering was directed at Sherman."
The message: "'Never forget.'"
But as she grew older she noticed that, harsh as it was, "the march took on more and more violence in the repetition."
While plenty of stories were verifiable, others were exaggerated, many baseless, historians have found, rejecting a simple story line that's been offered for the march and its leader.
Was Sherman truly a sadistic Satan? Or, after years of carnage without resolution, was he demonically driven to test a hard and fiery new way to bring peace?
At the dinner drama, the witnesses will offer their contradictory testimony.
"And now, 150 years later," Wright says, "you decide."
On Nov. 16, 1864, Sherman watched his army pull out of Atlanta, the Southern commercial hub he'd captured two months earlier, a tremendous morale boost for the North that helped ensure Abraham Lincoln's re-election on Nov. 8.
"Behind us lay Atlanta, smoldering and in ruins," Sherman wrote, recalling the sights and sounds as his great march began: "the gun barrels glistening in the sun, the white-topped wagons stretching away to the south."
The troops sang as a band played. "Never before or since have I heard the chorus of 'Glory, glory, hallelujah!' done with more spirit, or in better harmony of time and place."
With 62,000 veteran troops, Sherman planned to drive to the Atlantic coast at Savannah, conquering territory but also making a point to the enemy, whom he now saw as both the Confederate army and the unyielding, enabling Southern populace.
"If we can march a well-appointed army right through his territory, it is a demonstration to the world, foreign and domestic, that we have a power that (Confederate President Jefferson) Davis cannot resist," Sherman wrote to the Union commander, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who was locked in his own fight in Virginia against Gen. Robert E. Lee.
"I can make this march," Sherman concluded, "and make Georgia howl."
Lincoln worried that "a misstep by General Sherman might be fatal to his army." Davis promised as much, saying Sherman's force, alone in the heart of enemy territory, would be crushed.
But Grant trusted Sherman, who, after ordering men into many deadly assaults during the notoriously bloody war, had made clear that he'd rather accomplish conquest in a different way.
"Shock and awe. That's really what Sherman was talking about," historian John Marszalek, author of "Sherman: A Soldier's Passion for Order," said in an interview.
Going back to "Cump" Sherman's boyhood, when his father died virtually penniless and his mother sent him to be raised by another family, Marszalek said the warrior who's remembered for chaos was really guided by a lifelong quest for order and stability.
Central to this notion was restoration of Union and the rule of law.
Sherman had wept out loud when in 1861 he read a newspaper report of South Carolina's secession, which would ignite the war. He was then superintendent of a military school in Baton Rouge, which would become Louisiana State University, and he resigned, later accepting a commission in the U.S. Army — knowing he would fight cadets he'd trained. Ironically, Sherman always considered himself a friend of the South.
By 1864, he was Grant's trusted deputy, and his troops loved Sherman's quirky, unkempt style, his intelligence that some felt verged on craziness, and his fighting spirit.
"I'd follow Uncle Billy to hell," one soldier said.
From Atlanta, Sherman sent his force, divided into parallel columns, southward through the center of Georgia, keeping on a fairly straight course — feinting east or west toward larger cities, pinning defenders there but not attacking. In fact, with the exception of fights his army quickly won against undermanned forces at Griswoldville and a few other places, Sherman's march was a stroll, militarily. Despite its bloody reputation, "there was little death or injury to anyone, friend or foe," Marszalek wrote.
The very ease of it made a statement: Southerners were undefended — helpless — now.
As Sherman approached, political and military leaders urged bold resistance by civilians. But then those leaders chose "to skedaddle," in words quoted in an Associated Press dispatch from the time. In Milledgeville, the governor packed off rugs, curtains and silverware, leaving his official residence "almost completely stripped" when Sherman arrived and had to use his own cot to sleep there, said Matt Davis, the mansion's director today.
For the unprotected public, the resulting sense of terrifying vulnerability was just what Sherman intended.
In his orders for the march, he noted that without supply lines his army would need to live off the land — and he carried census maps showing county-by-county outputs of crops and livestock to help guide his route.
"Forage liberally," he famously ordered. He qualified that, writing that the poor should be spared, that private homes shouldn't be entered, that stealing was forbidden.
Still, many troops took the orders as license to pillage. One letter home describes the spoils that a team of designated foragers returned to camp with one night: "Pumpkins, chickens, cabbages" for the evening meal, but also "a looking-glass, an Italian harp ..., a peacock, a rocking chair," and more.
Much destruction was formally ordered. Whatever could benefit the enemy — cotton gins, barns, factories, Confederate leaders' homes — could be set ablaze. Teams assigned to wreck rail lines made bonfires of torn-up ties, heated the iron rails red hot, then twisted them around trees: "Sherman's neckties." Resistance could trigger instant punitive wreckage; Sherman torched towns that harbored snipers or guerrillas.
The diary of Adjutant James Royal Ladd of the 113th Ohio Volunteers records that on Nov. 23 his unit camped outside Milledgeville and learned that "the Rebs captured and shot some of our foragers."
The next entry begins: "Nov. 24 — Thanksgiving in Milledgeville. Well, we had the roast turkey." But then he and other troops were detailed to the home where their comrades were taken, and were ordered to "clean the concern out."
Ladd continues: "It looked wicked to see such splendid furniture go to pieces. ... Crash followed crash, and all of the comforts and luxuries of a splendid home were soon in ruins."
Rumors of this onrushing whirlwind spread fearfully among those in Sherman's path. And who knew what that path was?
He had cut his telegraph connections when he set off, and even Lincoln would say when asked in the midst of the march: "We know what hole he went in, but we don't know what hole he'll come out of."
Cloaking its movements so completely only heightened Sherman's reputation as the crazed leader of a ruthless army. They could be anywhere. And the deception echoes today. Marszalek said he's often approached after talks about Sherman and his "war on the Confederate mind."
"He burned my great-grandfather's barn," a listener will say.
"Where was that?" Marszalek will ask — and it will be nowhere near Sherman's path.
"He got into people's psyche. That's exactly what he wanted to do. And it's still very much there," Marszalek said. Along Sherman's route today, you hear about his wide swath of total ruin — but then see signs beckoning tourists to an "antebellum trail" and its many unburned plantation houses.
Sherman claimed to have inflicted $100 million worth of physical damage (worth perhaps $1.3 billion today), though historians call this figure a guess.
The psychic damage was incalculable. He made Southerners, as he put it, "feel that war and individual ruin are synonymous terms."
The March to the Sea took barely a month, ending with typical Sherman flourish.
He telegraphed Lincoln on Dec. 22: "I beg to present to you as a Christmas-gift the City of Savannah."
At a re-enactment earlier this year, blue-uniformed men portraying Sherman's troops rested their rifles and munched fresh-baked cornbread on the porch of a restored farmhouse at the Atlanta History Center. One of them, David French, a college history major from Dahlonega, Georgia, acknowledged that "people have skewed memories" of Sherman.
"They're very upset, of course, about the burning of Atlanta and the March to the Sea. But I feel it was the necessary death knell of the Confederacy. It really was what ended the war, in my opinion," he said.
"He took the chivalry out of war, and frankly it's why he won," French said. "He was really one of the first modern generals."
Many scholars agree. The British military historian B.H. Liddell Hart called Sherman the "most original genius of the Civil War," crediting him with a nimble fighting style that assaulted the enemy's infrastructure and morale. He saw the methods revived in World War II, in the Germans' blitzkrieg and the Allies' targeting of Germany and Japan with bombs. Others have found echoes of Sherman's tactics in the Vietnam war and beyond.
Describing the start of the first Gulf War, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf wrote in his autobiography: "I copied out a quote from 'The Memoirs of General William T. Sherman' and taped it to my desk: 'War is the remedy our enemies have chosen. And I say let us give them all they want.'"
After outlining the bombing campaign against Iraq's army that had invaded Kuwait, Schwarzkopf noted a second, psychological element of the attack — one that recalled Sherman's repeated overtures to Southern officials and citizens to lay down their arms and instantly become friends again.
Schwarzkopf wrote: "We also wanted to erode the enemy's morale. In the lulls between air raids we dropped millions of leaflets" — one side showing a drawing of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein brandishing a knife, the other a scene of coffee by a campfire in the desert. Summarizing the message, Schwarzkopf said: "If you come to us, we will treat you as an Arab brother."
Soon after he received Savannah's surrender, Sherman sent for shiploads of supplies to relieve the residents of the besieged port. And, historian Marszalek notes, he hosted a concert for them by a regimental band.
Then it was back to the march — into South Carolina, where his worst destruction would punish those seen as "the cause of all our troubles." The capital, Columbia, would be left a wasteland.
Unstoppable, he would move on to North Carolina, and there in April 1865, just days after Appomattox and then Lincoln's assassination, Sherman would accept the surrender of the last major Confederate force.
The marching and the war would finally be over.
"The Confederacy was an idea, and Sherman trampled it relentlessly — its symbols, its institutions, its pride — bled the life out of it, and replaced it with hopelessness," wrote the historian Robert O'Connell in "Fierce Patriot," his 2014 biography of the general.
In an interview, O'Connell said he senses the march is now "perceived as a cruel but necessary thing."
Today, bus tours ply the route of Sherman's march, and groups are unveiling fresh historical markers. One is in Milledgeville, where a symposium this month will analyze Sherman's complexities.
He's one figure from the war long ago that Americans can't seem to forget — South and North.
In Atlanta, which adopted the phoenix rising from his flames as its symbol, a steady stream of visitors to the home of Margaret Mitchell files pass the desk where she wrote "Gone With the Wind." It did as much as anything to stoke the image of Sherman as a hated scourge of the Confederate "Lost Cause." "If the novel has a theme," Mitchell said, "it is that of survival."
Meanwhile, hundreds of miles north on New York's Fifth Avenue, workers are completing a $2 million restoration that has brought out the detail of a colossal, century-old statue of a mounted Sherman. In gleaming gold leaf, his horse's hoof crushes a Georgia pine bough as the general's face stares sternly southward.
Christopher Sullivan can be reached at [email protected]