Debating William Tecumseh Sherman with Dr. John Marszalek

Image courtesy of Mississippi State University.

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2017 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Dr. John Marszalek.  Dr. Marszalek is the Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Mississippi State University, where he has taught courses in the Civil War, Jacksonian America, and race relations.  He also serves as the Director and Mentor of Distinguished Scholars at Mississippi State and as the Executive Director and Managing Editor of the Ulysses S. Grant Association.  He is the author or editor of 13 books and over 250 articles and book reviews. In addition to being named a distinguished alumnus by Canisius College, Dr. Marszalek received the Richard Wright Literary Award for lifetime achievement by a Mississippi author and the B.L.C. Wailes Award for national distinction in history from Mississippi Historical Society—the society’s highest award. He is presently researching a book on the development of the mythology surrounding Robert E. Lee and William T. Sherman.

CWI:  What aspects of William Tecumseh Sherman’s Civil War career do you plan on discussing as part of your four-person panel on “Debating Sherman”?  What, historically, have been the most popular topics of debate surrounding Sherman?  What aspects have been overlooked or under-debated?  In what direction is the current scholarship on Sherman headed?

MARSZALEK:  The major discussion concerning Sherman’s Civil War career deals with his development of “Destructive and Psychological Warfare.” He believed that the best way to win the war, without having to kill or maim southerners, many of whom were his long-time friends, was to destroy Confederate property rather than kill people.  Sherman’s reasoning and his implementation of war remains the most popular aspect of his military career.  Modern scholarship has moved away from seeing Sherman as a vandal to trying to understand his warfare.  Significantly, too, many historians are now writing books and articles about “gender” aspects of his destructive psychological warfare.

General William T. Sherman on horseback on the Union line near Atlanta, 1864. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

CWI:  How might further debates about Sherman better inform our broader understanding of the military, political, social, and/or cultural history of the Civil War as a whole?  How might such discussions be applied more broadly, not only in the classroom and in academic scholarship but also “in the field” at Civil War public history sites?

MARSZALEK:  The study of the Civil War is increasingly moving away from considering only its military and political aspects to viewing its social, cultural, and gender issues.  Sherman and his Civil War career are an excellent focus for such studies.  Sherman’s psychological makeup, his experiences, and his perception of the enemy and the war provide insight not previously available.  Professional historians are already viewing Sherman in a new way, but for Sherman to be viewed accurately in the public mind will require a continued movement away from the Lost Cause view of the conflict which mindlessly sees him as the great villain of the war and Confederates like Robert E. Lee as the heroes.

CWI:  Sherman is often considered one of the more polarizing figures in Civil War history.  How and why has the historical memory of Sherman evolved so dramatically since the war itself through today?  What do these debates about Sherman’s place in American memory reveal more broadly about the creation, shaping, and perpetuation of historical memory as a whole?

MARSZALEK:  To understand Sherman, we must understand the Lost Cause.  It is this view of the Civil War and its proponents which has long dominated understanding of the conflict. Former Confederates like Jubal Early created the Southern Historical Society, while southern women established monument societies and other such groups to try to find victory within defeat. The United States might have won the war, but it personified evil, while the Confederate States could claim the victory of virtue. This battle continues to rage even to this day:  What is the meaning of the War, the Confederate flag, even slavery’s central role in bringing it on. And, Sherman is in the middle of it all.

W. T. Sherman with fellow Union generals in Washington, D.C., 1865. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

CWI:  Have you personally encountered much in the way of any concrete changes in how Sherman is or might be interpreted at museums, National Parks, or historic sites as a result of the new scholarship emerging on him?

MARSZALEK: One of the most striking comments on Sherman I noted was in the history exhibit located in the walkway between Concourse C and D at the Atlanta Airport. There when discussing Sherman’s time in Atlanta, the exhibit states:

“The shells of General Sherman were the strokes of the hammer of liberty, unfastening the fetters of the accursed and inhumane institution of slavery.”–Reverend Dr. Edward Randolph Carter, Writer and Social Activist, 1894

If you are interested in hearing more from John Marszalek and other distinguished historians, consider registering for our 2017 summer conference

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