American Memories

general-sherman-newWhen I was growing up in the south the mere mention of William Tecumseh Sherman’s name ruffled feathers. The stories I heard described him as a despicable general with a drinking problem who swept across the southern landscape burning and pillaging and destroying everything within his line of sight. Because I knew little about my own ancestry I assumed that at least half of my family connections were steadfastly rooted in the old Confederacy because my paternal grandparents had lived in Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Texas and Arkansas for decades. Thus I blindly derided General Sherman for being so cruel to those I believed may have been some of my innocent relatives.

When I finally took a history course in college I came to realize that the reasons for General Sherman’s dramatic sweep were far more complex than I might have imagined. Both the Union and Confederate armies were exhausted and decimated from years of skirmishes that had destroyed the lifeblood of both sides. The country could ill afford to continue the war for much longer. President Lincoln had been searching for a military man willing to make difficult decisions and take risks that would end the conflict once and for all. General Sherman understood the need to break the resolve of the rebels. While his methods were harsh they were no more so than the steadily rising death count that ultimately took more American lives than any other war in its history. The ethics of his tactics have been the stuff of controversy ever since he burned Atlanta and cut his destructive swath across the Confederacy but others applauded his willingness to do what needed to be done.

I would later learn that from a familial stand point I was more closely connected to the Union and William Tecumseh Sherman that I might have believed. My great grandfather was an officer in the Union Army who fought at Corinth and Shilo among other battles. His predecessors had served in the American Revolution. When I finally discovered my family history I realized that I should have been singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic all along when I was foolishly whistling Dixie.

Imagine my even bigger surprise when I learned that my paternal grandfather’s legal guardian and uncle, John Little, was a graduate of West Point who had married General Sherman’s niece. While my official relationship to Sherman is tenuous at best it is still there because if John Little was an uncle to Grandpa then his wife would have been an aunt. The web of family relationships certainly brings surprises and I have had to rethink my own background.

Ironically I have a friend who now lives in a small town in Georgia that once served as the capital of that state. She is descended from German parents so there is little chance that she might have a link to either the north or the south during the Civil War. She is able to view the events of that sad time with more dispassion than most of us who have kin who were alive back then. She is attempting to learn as much about her new home as possible and in that spirit she came across a book about Sherman’s controversial tactics, Through the Heart of Dixie: Sherman’s March and American Memory by Anne Sarah Rubin. The story of his exploits is written from multiple points of view and it demonstrates in striking contrasts how differently we humans may see the exact same incident.

Sadly the majority of the history that we study tends to be taken mostly from the standpoint of the victors. We all too easily forget that without conflicting opinions wars would be unlikely. It is in our differences that our disagreements arise. It is rare that one side is all good and the other is all bad. Generally there are shades of innocence and guilt for everyone involved. When humans lose the ability to empathize and compromise situations usually end badly. So too when we meet with evil that refuses to budge we must at times flex our muscles. Knowing when to hold and when to fold often determines our strategies. Navigating through a dangerous and political world can become a high stakes game that requires hard choices that we would rather not have to make.

I once led my students through a discussion of the beginning of the American Revolution by reading different accounts of that fateful day on the village green when somebody fired the shot heard round the world. We looked at a letter from a British soldier and an affidavit from one of the colonists. There were eyewitness renderings from people who just happened to be present but who had little desire to become part of a rebellious movement. The incident was described by both men and women, political prisoners and historians. It is stunning how different the accounts are. The crux of each description is totally dependent on the beliefs and allegiances of each individual. All of this of course points to the reality that we have unique world views powered by the totality of our experiences. The way we react to or participate in events is rarely as straight forward and simplistic as it may initially appear.

To this very day the majority of Americans herald the Revolution as one of the most amazing moments in history, a glorious cause, but I often wonder how it might have been viewed if the British had ultimately been the victors. Would we hear of patriots or rabble rousers? Would the efforts have been seen as being heroic or foolhardy? Would the Tories now be considered the wise men who understood the folly of fighting the best equipped army in the world? How different would our history be?

I suppose I am reflecting on such ideas because I have lately been watching biographies of many of our twentieth century American presidents. A common theme for each of them is the interplay of the human strengths and weaknesses that drove them. Not one of them was either all good or all bad. Each had fatal flaws as well as remarkable characteristics. Sometimes they were blamed for events over which they truly had no control or heralded for triumphs that they had not actually achieved. The accidents of timing often made them appear strong or weak. Those of us who lived through their tenures regard them based on what did or didn’t happen while they were in office. Our individual circumstances color our thoughts.

The lens of history often attempts to create winners and losers. The truth usually lies somewhere in between. Knowing my family connections with the Union cause has filtered my thinking in new ways and has taught me the valuable lesson of suspending judgements and attempting to instead seek truths. The only way to do that is to be open and honest, something that seems increasingly difficult but not impossible to do in today’s partisan supercharged political atmosphere. I have learned to truly listen to alternative points of view, something that I wish more of the electorate were willing to practice. Once I accepted that each of us is sometimes right and sometimes wrong I have been able to see through the deceits designed to attract blind loyalty. I now rarely agree with anyone on everything. I have learned to consider each proposal and observation separately. It is a truly freeing experience albeit messier than accepting a single point of view. It is the kind of critical thinking that we must teach our children to do. Only then will we as a nation make choices that favor the good of our country rather than victory for our own personal needs.