Judge Jim Thomas' march to the sea wasn't nearly as imposing as Sherman's, thanks to those damned flippers.
Atlanta was just the beginning.
Sherman's March to the Sea has become a mythic symbol of epic destruction. To this day, people in the South view Sherman as Satan incarnate. The History Channel uses dramatic re-enactment as the foundation for a new documentary, The History Channel Presents Sherman's March. The opening sequence poses the question that lies at the heart of the matter—"Sherman: Terrorist or Savior?"
Facts of the Case
In September 1864, after a five-month campaign, Union forces under the command of Major General William Tecumseh Sherman captured Atlanta. The importance of this victory cannot be understated; the siege took place in the shadow of a hotly contested presidential campaign. Three years of combat—with over 350,000 casualties—had proved inconclusive, and in the wake of the Union's inability to defeat the Confederacy, it was largely expected that President Lincoln would be defeated by Democrat George B. McClellan. The Democratic Party ran on the "Peace Platform," calling for negotiations with the Confederacy predicated on the acknowledgement of the Confederacy's independence.
All that changed when Atlanta fell. The tide of the war turned, the tide of the election turned, and with them turned the tide of U.S. history.
But Sherman was not done. On the outskirts of Atlanta, he devised a plan to break the Confederacy once and for all. Sherman proposed heading east to Savannah, the major Georgia seaport. But Sherman proposed what he termed "hard war," and what historians have termed "total war." Anything that could support the Confederate war effort—stores, industrial capability, etc.—was destroyed. Moreover, Sherman's troops would live off the land, taking food stores as they were encountered. At heart, Sherman's goal was similar to Truman's in using the atomic bomb against Japan—strike terror into the heart of the enemy, breaking their will to fight and thus bringing a swift end to the war. Sherman argued that his strategy would ultimately prevent greater loss of life.
Reluctantly, Sherman's longtime friend Ulysses S. Grant and President Lincoln approved the plan. The first step was to burn everything in Atlanta with military applications. Union soldiers got out of control, though, and almost one third of the city went up in flames. With Atlanta smoldering behind them, Sherman's army struck out for Savannah. As towns or homes were encountered, stores and livestock were taken or destroyed.
Southern outrage grew as Sherman progressed through Georgia; foragers sent ahead to find stores were captured or killed. Sherman responded brutally.
Sherman entered Savannah on December 20, 1864. His men set fire to warehouse and stores, as they had done throughout the march. But many homes went up in flames as well (accounts differ as to who bears responsibility for the blaze getting out of control).
After Christmas, Sherman's troops headed north, this time on a more traditional mission—to support Grant's army by moving through the Carolinas into Virginia, cutting off Robert E. Lee's army from reinforcements. Sherman carried destruction through the Carolinas, sending Columbia up in flames. Finally, Lee found himself surrounded and surrendered at Appomattox. Sherman was hailed as a hero, equal with Grant.
"Complete and utter piece of crap, but extremely good at the job he was
assigned to do."
Above are responses from some friends of mine on a message board. I simply asked them to respond to the name, "William Tecumseh Sherman." (The thread eventually shifted to why, if Sherman's tactics were deemed effective, similar tactics shouldn't be used in Iraq—an interesting discussion, but this isn't the place.)
As the varied reactions indicate, controversy concerning Sherman's actions rages on today. That being the case, any documentary concerning Sherman or his most famous campaign should address the matter directly, to discern the degree to which any infamy is deserved. That's where this documentary fails, and fails big—it never asks the tough questions. It's one thing to present all the information and then conclude that Sherman's actions were justified; that, basically, is what historical analysis is all about. But it's another thing altogether to take for granted that Sherman's actions were necessary, and not question the matter further. And that, all too often, is what this documentary does.
There are a few snippets from various historians, but overwhelmingly, the bulk of the documentary is dramatic re-enactment, which raises some problems of its own. The disclaimer at the beginning says that all dialogue and actions were "derived" from the historical record. That word "derived" allows a lot of wiggle room; Pamela Anderson's Barb Wire, for example, was derived from Casablanca (a fact which makes me throw up in my mouth a little).
Evidence suggests that the producers wiggled like contestants at a dance competition. As the march begins, the documentary notes how foragers went ahead of the main force, scouting out food stores. They even quote from Sherman's general orders: "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." A re-enactment of a typical foraging mission is also shown: Soldiers enter the house and ransack the kitchen, sweeping dishes to the floor. That same footage is repeated a number of times later in the film, suggesting that such behavior was the norm.
But the filmmakers apparently didn't bother to continue reading the general orders. The text immediately after the section they quote is as follows: "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." So, the first clip of Union soldiers on a foraging mission shows them doing something they were expressly forbidden to do. Mistakes like this indicate sloppy editing, sloppy research, or both, and seriously undermine the credibility of the documentary.
But even a factually accurate re-enactment has its problems. Ultimately, a dramatic re-enactment removes us from the all-important step of analysis. The point of historical analysis and, by extension, of documentaries, is to present and analyze the facts. Dramatic re-enactments, however, require that all the analysis and conclusions take place ahead of time. What finally appears on the screen represents one person's view of events, just as a production of Hamlet reflects that director's vision of the play. Re-enactments can be useful when used sparingly, but building the bulk of the documentary from such stuff results in a house of cards.
I'm not going to spend a lot of time breaking down all of the claims in the documentary. I'm sure it can be done, but I'm not the guy to do it. Instead, I'll just point out a few places where they missed clear opportunities to address the ethics of Sherman's actions.
1. Right at the beginning, we are told that both Grant and Lincoln had serious reservations about Sherman's plan—but we never hear those reservations. In retrospect, it's pretty obvious what those reservations were, but how did Grant and Lincoln come to their final decision? How did a sitting president and a future president rationalize loosing such terror on civilians?
2. It's a sad fact of war that in actions such as this, soldiers get out of control. Innocent civilians get killed, women get raped. Such incidents were more common during Sherman's march because the march was targeted at civilians. Yet those depravities are never discussed. Ever. Attention is given to "unworthy" Confederate tactics, such as planting land mines on roads, or cutting the throats of foragers. And Sherman reacts swiftly and brutally to such incidents. He has Confederate prisoners walk ahead of his troops to find mines; when foragers are killed, prisoners are chosen by lot to be executed (it's telling that one of Sherman's officers had to be threatened with court martial before he would carry out the execution). In fact, all of Sherman's actions, including the burning of Columbia, are presented as measured responses to Southern insurrection. We never see how Sherman reacted when his troops got out of control. A few quotes suggest that he doesn't really care, but those quotes are presented as afterthoughts—the emphasis is always on Sherman's military success.
3. The documentary covers Sherman's later years in gauzy soft focus—both literally and figuratively—again missing opportunities to let us understand the man better. For instance, he used his "hard war" approach later against Indians in the Midwest; afterwards, though, he was bitterly disappointed when the government broke its treaties with those same Indians. That's the sort of detail that suggests that Sherman's tactics were borne of ruthless pragmatism, not insane depravity.
While the documentary gives you a good overview, it's hard to shake the feeling that you've just watched the sort of documentary that a Ministry of Truth would produce. Sherman comes across as a skilled, fierce warrior, dedicated to protecting his troops to the best of his ability—so much so, in fact, that his troops call him "Uncle Billy." All of the harsh acts attributed to Sherman are presented as merely responses to increasingly desperate Confederate tactics, implying that they were justified. All of his good qualities are punched up, while the warts are quickly glossed over. The result is myth-making at its finest, a documentary sanitized, suitable for a junior-high history class.
More troubling is that because so much is made of Sherman's success and how his march brought a swift end to the war, the only conclusion that one can make about the film's attitude towards the ethics questions is that the filmmakers believe that the end justifies the means—and that's a cheap, easy way of resolving the issues.
The DVD is far from a total loss, however. The jewel of the extras is a second full-length documentary from The History Channel's "Save Our History" series, "Sherman's Total War Tactics" (2007). Hosted by Steve Thomas (This Old House), the documentary demonstrates key tactics as well as archeological expeditions of various sites. One segment illustrates how Sherman's troops destroyed railroads: The rails and ties were taken up, the ties were set on fire and the rails set in the fire. After an hour or so, the rails heated up sufficiently that a group of men could pick up a rail and wrap it around a tree (yeah, it's just as cool as it sounds). Such rails were called "Sherman's Neckties." An amusing footnote to the sequence—as the camera lingers on the tree, smoldering from the still-hot rail, Thomas assures us that the tree was already dead.
The extra feature also shows how modern technology favored the Union. They stage a competition to see how many shots a trained Civil War re-enactor could fire from a confederate muzzle loader versus the number of shots Thomas could get off from a Springfield repeating rifle—rifles just coming into widespread use among Union forces at the time. The trained rifleman managed four shots in two minutes, while Thomas got off fifteen shots.
Interestingly enough, because it eschews dramatic re-enactments and flashy camerawork, this feature comes across as more "real" than the feature. Because this documentary is only concerned with the tactics themselves, it never puts itself in a position where it has to judge Sherman one way or another.
The other extra is a quickly forgotten "making of" featurette.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The re-enactment footage was shot on high-def, and is quite crisp. Colors are vivid; in a nice touch, there is a fair amount of color variation in the dark blues of individual Union uniforms. The footage is also supplemented by some CGI graphics that are exceptionally well-done. While the documentary shies away from the unsavory details, it does provide a clear picture of the scope of the devastation.
Edward Herrmann (Gilmore Girls) narrates the documentary, and his warm voice is a wonderful choice. He narrates without excessive drama, allowing the visuals to unfold on their own.
The only real acting is done by Bill Oberst Jr., as Sherman. He does a good job—particularly when you see him in the making-of featurette, out of costume and makeup, talking with his regular voice. Most of the other characters don't have enough screen time to allow comment. (Note: Because this is a documentary, I'm giving an Acting score of N/A.).
Audio is a crisp but basic Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix, which seems a shame. The reenactment footage would have benefited from some sort of surround mix.
Full disclosure: I'm a Southerner, born and bred, as they say. But my complaint with the documentary is not that it fails to vilify Sherman as the Scourge of the South, but that it fails to give us a full picture. As with most such issues, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. The documentary steadfastly avoids the ethical questions that might allow us to make that determination for ourselves. It's one thing to present the facts and allow the audience to come to a conclusion; it's another thing altogether to take a fairly one-sided approach, wrap it up in a pretty sugar-coating of "dramatic reenactment," and ram it down an unsuspecting public's throat.
Given the different controversies over our troops' actions in Iraq, this subject would have been a perfect opportunity to discuss similar tactics in a different context, but when all is said and done, The History Channel just didn't have the guts to make the tough call.
Guilty of willful whitewashing and reckless re-enacting.
The History Channel's documentary division will henceforth be run by Sgt. Joe Friday, in the hopes that in the future, they will stick to just the facts, ma'am.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• Behind the Scenes Featurette
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