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Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History by Wesley Moody (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 59, Number 1, March 2013
pp. 110-112 | 10.1353/cwh.2013.0018

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If Wesley Moody had stuck to the subtitle of his 2009 doctoral dissertation, from which this excellent book emerged, his intention would have been a little clearer than it is with the subtitle his publishers have given us. The former title is “Demon of the Lost Cause: General William Tecumseh Sherman and the Writing of Civil War History.” The truncated title fits better on the book jacket but gives us history without the historians, just about all of whom apparently got the story wrong, or perhaps only partially right. What is it, then, that makes writing Civil War history so precarious? Bad faith and bad data account for a lot of it, and Moody shows just how an impaired interpretation can get lodged in the historical bloodstream to poison future writers.

As historiography, Demon of the Lost Cause, with or without the subtitles, considerably advances our knowledge of Sherman, memory, and mythmaking and sheds light on just what can happen when history is constructed to fit an agenda or a theory. In Moody’s careful weighing of the newspaper stories, letters, reports, memoirs, biographies, speeches, memorials, and assorted cultural artifacts associated with Sherman, a soldier emerges who looks much like a cautious careerist swept up in complex and contradictory events that thrust him into controversies subject to multiple interpretations.

Sherman didn’t especially want to be controversial but had a fondness for bold assertion and action that put him in the middle of grand strategies and, after the war, clashing concepts of modernity. He had a fine intellect and flair with the pen as well as a penchant for palaver, so when he got around to writing his memoirs, his defense against wartime and early postwar criticism of his leadership sometimes quickly expanded into chest-thumping grandiosity masked as forthrightness.

Given the tone and the popularity of his writing, Sherman “may have succeeded in alienating more people with his memoirs than he did with his campaigns,” according to Moody (44). The counterattacks came from fellow generals, like John Schofield, and politicians with scores to settle. The claims that Sherman was a barbarian largely began in the North among disgruntled fellow warriors like Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker.

Southerners, in turn, initially viewed Sherman favorably, attending more to his congenial postwar political stands against Reconstruction and his generous boosterism than to his bludgeoning wartime advances through wide swaths of their territory. But Sherman pushed his luck by taking on Jefferson Davis and then ranking Robert E. Lee as inferior as a general not only to U. S. Grant but also to that other Virginian, the Union general George Thomas.

The Lost Cause writers needed to find their demon to contrast with the sainted Lee and the rest of the Confederate pantheon, and Sherman was the best available target. The Nashville-based Confederate Veteran magazine, broadening the attack by asserting the primacy of the western theater, accorded Sherman more coverage than any other Union general. Sherman’s alleged depredations in Georgia and South Carolina came to matter less than the insult to southern dignity, especially its unprotected womanhood.

As Moody points out, however, Sherman actually benefited from the Lost Cause, which exaggerated his importance and deflected the more substantive criticism raised by Schofield and others that relegated Sherman to a lesser role in crafting the eventual Union victory. The very idea of the March as the war’s defining event then took root in the popular imagination, aided and abetted by Hollywood, especially The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. Moody might have added selections from the growing roster of Sherman-based novels, especially Cynthia Bass’s magnificent 1994 work Sherman’s March or E. L. Doctorow’s widely reviewed 2005 epic The March.

Moody saves his major umbrage for British military historians Field Marshal Viscount Garnet Wolseley, Maj. Gen. John F. C. Fuller, and especially Capt. Basil H. Liddell Hart, who, he says “has affected Sherman’s reputation more than any other historian” and has “confused the issue of Sherman ever since” (139–40). By connecting Sherman with their ideas about modern warfare, the British writers, and again particularly Liddell Hart, muddy the waters and open Sherman to misinterpretation...



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