My sizeable collection of Civil War books expands regularly without me making much of a contribution to the “read” shelf, so I’m making an effort to read more this year.
First up was Burke Davis’ Sherman’s March. It may seem contradictory to start a reading campaign with a title I’ve already read, but in my defense, I was on a Sherman kick and this was the book that introduced me to my favourite manic-depressive, redheaded demolition expert. (Also, in a nice little coincidence, my inscription on the inside cover indicates that it’s exactly 20 years since I bought and read it.)
Davis’ style is easy, and his presentation is heavily reliant on first-person accounts – letters and diaries of soldiers and Southerners. As such, he had a wealth of terrific anecdotes to draw from, and these are presented in short blocks of text that make for a breezy read. He imparts a great image of exactly how big a “pleasure excursion” this was for the troops, how devastating it was for the natives, and how Sherman truly earned his outsized reputation from both camps. The army exhibits its own personality, too:
It was an absurb caricature of an army, with hardly a complete uniform in its ranks. Half the men were barefoot or wore wrappings of old blankets or quilts. Socks had disappeared months before. There was a sprinkling of rebel uniforms, and thousands were in civilian clothes – battered silk top hats, cutaway coats and tight-legged breeches of the Revolutionary era. Some wore women’s bonnets. Trousers were tattered; many wore ony breechclouts. Sleeves had been torn from coats to make patches for trousers, crudely stitched with white cotton twine. Faces were still smudged from pine smoke and gunpowder. Lank hair protruded from ruined hats; many of the hatless wore handkerchiefs around their heads. Hundreds were without shirts, bare to the waist. The 81st Ohio came by with all its shoeless and hatless men merged into one company, men who seemed to march more proudly than all the rest.
I was worried, from the opening few chapters, that Davis – a Southerner himself – harboured a pro-Confederate/anti-Sherman leaning, but he quickly settled into a very pragmatic and even-handed narrative. Sherman’s and his army’s good deeds are chronicled alongside the misdeeds, and he points out that the Confederate forces have never gotten their fair share of blame in the depredations.
As often happened in such moments, Confederates committed outrages as readily as the most undisciplined of Sherman’s troops. This disposition to looting, though rarely recorded in early American history, was to become a familiar phenomenon in many large cities in 20th century America. The young men of the 1860’s, who had grown up in an era when strict morality was the rule, had been guided by standards of social acceptance and decorum – but now, freed of restraint and invited to do their worst, many soldiers defied all authority
My fond memories of the book were justified; this is easily one of my favourites in my collection. Well worth picking up for your own library, too.