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Sherman’s Flame and Blame Campaign

Posted on Sunday, November 1, 2015 at 8:19 am

Ms. McNeely’s book with the catchy title and lurid red cover featuring an image of Columbia burning from Harper’s Weekly of April 8, 1865, is a fascinating account of events preceding, during, and following that awful night of destruction. The author was a professor of Journalism at the University of South Carolina for 33 years and a newspaper reporter in the Palmetto State before that. She clearly takes the Southern side in the still-ongoing debate over fault for Columbia’s destruction 150 years ago, and it must be admitted that this reviewer is a big fan of South Carolina’s capital city and tends toward those views as well. But this book is not about taking sides. Ms. McNeely takes a look at primary sources, many of whom are soldiers in Sherman’s army. The general is quoted numerous times as Sherman always had a lot to say about everything.

The author’s premise does make sense. Her view is that, while Sherman did not order the burning or any of the other activity during the long march through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, he left enough leeway for his officers and men to carry out acts of major destruction and then “looked the other way” while these things happened. After Columbia was a smoldering ruin, he finally gave an order to stop the actions of his soldiers, and the destruction ceased. The advocate of total war was way ahead of his contemporaries on how to fight a war. William Tecumseh Sherman was one of the brightest of Civil War leaders. While the physical destruction of much of the South is his claim to fame (or infamy in the South), there was more to the total war approach than that. As part of his total package, he practiced psychological warfare far before that became a military art. Sherman did not hate Southerners in general. In fact, he had made friends with numerous people in the South in earlier years when stationed in the army in Southern towns. He also was not a flaming abolitionist, and his treatment of black people who thronged to follow his army met with some anger and reaction by the powers in Washington. But he was dedicated to the Union and to doing anything, no matter how unchivalrous it might seem to Southerners, to end the war. He sought to absolve his army of wrongdoing, but not so much to avoid criticism for the destruction (he didn’t really care about that–an “end justifies the means approach”) as to cause Northerners and Southerners to question if the fault for some of the burning and pillaging might lie with various Confederate units who came into contact with Sherman’s forces along the way. As Union officers and soldiers who had been on the march testified in official proceedings (often for war claims) in later years or wrote in their memoirs, it was clear that Northern troops played a definitive role in the destruction.But, in official pronouncements, Sherman repeatedly blamed the Southern forces for various acts of destruction and violence. Confederate troops evacuating the city are not completely free of blame, as they failed to confiscate or destroy a tremendous amount of liquor left in and around the city. Union troops were the beneficiaries. The spirits plus a view by Northerners who had already honed skills in property destruction that no punishment was too much for the state that seceded first and started the war fueled doom for Columbia.

From Sherman’s perspective, the psychological battle he waged was certainly no worse than the physical destruction practiced by his army, and, in today’s world, it seems a perfectly logical military tool to employ as part of the effort to end a war. We don’t like him down South, but you have to give the guy credit for pulling out all the stops, and his actions were the major factor in shutting down the Confederacy and bringing the conflict to a close.

Title: Sherman’s Flame & Blame Campaign
Author: Patricia G. McNeely;
Pages: 234 pp., photos, maps, index, endnotes
Price: $25

-Courier book review by Edith Elizabeth Pollitz

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