In an artifact of the Civil War, a reminder of the chaos of conflict
Judith Giesberg is a professor of history at Villanova University Villanova University's Falvey Library owns a military frock coat that once belonged to William Tecumseh Sherman. The coat is currently on loan to Philadelphia's Union League as part of its "Philadelphia 1864, The Year of Decision" exhibit.
is a professor of history at Villanova University
Villanova University's Falvey Library owns a military frock coat that once belonged to William Tecumseh Sherman. The coat is currently on loan to Philadelphia's Union League as part of its "Philadelphia 1864, The Year of Decision" exhibit.
The coat came to Villanova through a grandson and namesake of the general's, William Tecumseh Sherman Thackara, who lived in the Rosemont area and attended the Chapel of St. Thomas.
Like the man who wore it, the coat is a reminder in this Civil War sesquicentennial year that we need to have a meaningful conversation about war's brutality, the disappearing line between combatants and noncombatants, and the expansive use of technology in modern warfare. As people visit the exhibit, I hope they will think about wars not just in Sherman's time, but in our own.
Often credited with inventing the concept of "total war," Sherman was loved and hated, worshiped and reviled. The general did nothing halfway - he and his armies fought with intensity, destroyed with awful precision, and aimed for nothing short of complete victory over the American South.
After three long years, the two sides in the Civil War had had enough of playing by the rules. During that time, two armies would meet, usually at designated times and places, and fight until one side gave up and retreated, living to fight another day. Sherman proved war could be won with a new playbook. It was a strategy war-weary Northerners eagerly embraced.
In May 1864, Sherman started to move his army south, beginning the campaign that brought him to Atlanta by September. Newspapers north of the Mason-Dixon Line celebrated every move Sherman made. When he ordered all civilians to evacuate Atlanta, he defended such unprecedented military action by declaring, "War is war and not popularity seeking."
When Atlanta's mayor protested, Sherman replied, "[Y]ou cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty and you cannot refine it."
With such frank, angry statements, Sherman defended waging war on civilians and presented Americans with a matter-of-fact picture of war's brutality.
Americans cheered the general's words and actions as his army marched through Georgia and then turned north into the Carolinas. In early 1865, headlines in The Inquirer proclaimed, "Another Splendid Victory!" "Glorious News!" "The Chivalry Seized With Terror."
In a favorite Civil War photo of Sherman, the close-fitting coat appears to barely contain him. Like his steely stare, the coat says something about the power that Sherman wielded and that we associate with military leaders. The general remains a symbol of American military power, and because of that, we return to his philosophy in fighting our wars today.
But should we commemorate the man who has been blamed for inventing total war - or at least the American version of it? And if we do, which Sherman do we remember? The one who led massive armies through the South, freeing slaves as they went? Or the man who abandoned those same freed men and women when they threatened to slow him? The Sherman who used his armies to save Lincoln's presidency - seizing and burning Atlanta just weeks before the election of 1864? Or the one who later used those armies against Indians? Perhaps there is room to remember the man who wore the blue coat in all his complexities.
Sherman's life offers an appealing narrative - personal triumph over adversity. Orphaned at a young age, he struggled to find a place in an adopted family. He wrestled with feelings of abandonment, turning much of his anger inward - until, in the midst of the war, he focused his energy and creativity on vanquishing external enemies, meaning all those who helped to sustain the war against the Union.
Sherman found personal redemption in a war that allowed him to resolve his own self-doubts. Evidence of this other Sherman surfaces in correspondence with his daughters and in the affairs he carried on with a number of women. Unlike his commander, Ulysses S. Grant, he wisely avoided politics, becoming his generation's rock star. Many jockeyed for position to be near him, shaking his hand or requesting locks of his hair.
Sherman lived long enough to see the gains of the war reversed, as Southern white resistance emerged, phoenix-like, from the landscape he had helped to raze. White resentment at the war's devastation focused on enemies close to home - the freedmen. As we commemorate the sesquicentennial of Sherman's march, we should talk not only about war's brutalities, but also about the difficulties of turning victory into a sustainable peace.