What We Don't Know About Sherman's March Author Noah Andre Trudeau's book, Southern Storm, is about Sherman's March and what actually happened during this famous Civil War event.
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What We Don't Know About Sherman's March

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What We Don't Know About Sherman's March

What We Don't Know About Sherman's March

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

There are points on the timeline of American military history where the tables turned. The 2007 surge in the current war in Iraq is a recent example. William Tecumseh Sherman's march to the sea in 1864 is another. The Union general's campaign, after the capture of Atlanta, Georgia, to the taking of Savannah, has provided an unending source of material for Civil War historians, including Noah Andre Trudeau. Longtime listeners know him as Andy, our Oscar music guy. But Trudeau is an award-winning writer, and "Southern Storm: Sherman's March to the Sea" is his latest tome. He's in the studio. It's really nice to see you again, Andy.

Mr. NOAH ANDRE TRUDEAU (Author, "Southern Storm: Sherman's March to the Sea"): Great to see you, Liane.

HANSEN: Paint that picture for us. Atlanta is burning, Lincoln has been re-elected president, and William Tecumseh Sherman convinces the president and General Grant that he can take a huge contingent of men and arms, cease communication, and march to Savannah. How did he convince them?

Mr. TRUDEAU: He counted a lot on his friendship with Grant. This really was the partnership that I think won the Civil War, these two men - Grant in charge in the East, Sherman in charge in the West - intimately trusting each other. Grant had come in and said, what we've got to do is smash the enemy's armies. Here is Sherman in September of 1864 saying, you know, I think the best thing I can do is turn my back on the biggest enemy army near me and march to the sea. You know, to me, the great success of this campaign was the logistical achievement. He had to move 60,000 men, almost 3,000 wagons, and - what blows my mind - 5,000 cattle across 300 miles, seven major river crossings, with no bridges, and he did it.

HANSEN: He waged total war. Beans and bullets is a phrase that is used. Was total destruction in Georgia the goal or the byproduct?

Mr. TRUDEAU: It was a byproduct. Sherman was really trying to do a number of things. On a tactical level, he was moving 60,000 men from Atlanta to the sea where they would be more useful to Grant. On a practical level, he had to feed these guys. Ultimately, he was really showing to Southern civilians that the Confederacy could not protect them. And he was showing to Southern soldiers that no one was protecting their loved ones and the sooner they ended this war, the better.

HANSEN: In feeding and supplying his men, did that get out of hand?

Mr. TRUDEAU: Yes and no. You know, if you abandoned your house, it would likely get looted. If somebody fired a gun from your house, your house was probably toast. But for a lot of them, especially the ones who wrote a lot of the memoirs, when you really look past the story they're telling, you realize that after Sherman's army left, they still had their home, they still had some foodstuffs. I mean, there was no widespread starvation in Georgia in the winter of 1864-65. So, yes, it had a tremendous impact, but it was not the kind of catastrophic scouring operation that I think people often assume it was.

HANSEN: Another story about this march - the army was followed by legions of slaves who were being freed. Was this a march to free the slaves?

Mr. TRUDEAU: Sherman was adamant that the last thing he wanted was a large procession of African-Americans following after his armies. He was willing to take the young, strong guys. He could use them to build roads and cut down trees and do those sorts of things, but he didn't want the children, the women. But look, this was freedom, it was there for the first time in many of their lives, and a large number of them just dropped everything and followed the armies.

HANSEN: For Sherman's benefit, nobody ever knew where he was even though he had this large army with him. Part of it was there was no press. And so he becomes a mythical figure from the beginning. What was his last word on the march?

Mr. TRUDEAU: Years later, when everyone was really obsessed with the march, he really tried to discourage their interest. He follows the march up with a second campaign where he proceeds through South Carolina, North Carolina and winds up ending the war outside of Raleigh. He said, look, if the march through the Carolinas was a 10, my march to the sea was a one. And he got to hate all the little things that came along with it. I mean, whenever he popped up to speak, there'd be a band somewhere cranking away "Marching Through Georgia."

(Soundbite of song "Marching Through Georgia")

Unidentified Choir: Hurrah! Hurrah! We bring the Jubilee! Hurrah! Hurrah! The flag that makes you free. So we sang the chorus, From Atlanta to the sea, While we were marching through Georgia.

Mr. TRUDEAU: The song really encapsulated a lot of the popular mythology around the march and a sense of good spirit that I don't know necessarily the soldiers felt, but it was certainly then ascribed to them.

HANSEN: After all the time you've spent with him, what's your lasting impression of the man?

Mr. TRUDEAU: He was brilliant in a way. He was twisted in a way. He had a very strange set of values. And he hated the fact that this great equality was sweeping the nation. Not only African-American - he was not a big fan of African-Americans as equal citizens - but in a way he believed in a social hierarchy that there were people meant to rule and there were people meant to be ruled.

And he hated the fact that the common soldier could run for office, could have positions of importance. The great irony was he was an instrument of this change and I think years later probably came to regret all those changes and maybe never quite understood the role he played in making them happen.

HANSEN: Noah Andre Trudeau's newest book on the Civil War is called "Southern Storm: Sherman's March to the Sea." It's published by Harper Collins. Andy, thanks a lot.

Mr. TRUDEAU: My pleasure, Liane.

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