The black-and-white photograph of Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's glaring countenance appeared on the large projector screen, and some in the audience chuckled, while others talked quietly.
"Everybody's favorite anti-Christ," remarked Dr. Alan C. Downs, an associate professor of history at Georgia Southern University, drawing more laughs from the Bulloch County Historical Society meeting he was addressing Monday at the Nessmith-Lane Conference Center.
Then red horns appeared on either side of Sherman's head, eliciting heartier laughs.
"He's really the epitome of the ‘damn Yankee,' the blue-coated, heartless, ruthless brute," Downs said. "The story goes, he's unsympathetic to the plight of Georgia's innocent civilians. He mercilessly burns a path from Atlanta to Savannah, destroying everything in sight. We know all this because our family histories have told us so. And, besides, the man simply looks evil."
But a true, complete look at Sherman is much more complex than that, Downs said, and the rest of his talk presented the much-maligned Civil War figure in a more balanced light than people in these parts generally are accustomed to hearing. By no means did Downs absolve Sherman of destroying property and inciting fear in any towns in his path during his March to the Sea, but the historian said his research shows that painting Sherman as an anti-Christ is far from an accurate picture.
Downs, it should be noted, is a native of Raleigh, North Carolina, and has several Confederate ancestors. He said his research convinced him that his early belief in that caricature of Sherman being evil incarnate was "not a man, but a myth."
Sherman counted Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, who defeated him at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, as a close personal friend after the war, Downs said. Johnston even served as an honorary pallbearer at Sherman's funeral.
When Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood ran into financial trouble in the years after the war, Sherman tried to help by selling Hood's personal papers for him, Downs said.
"When common Confederate soldiers came to Sherman for help in the postwar years, and more than a few did, he responded as he did for the destitute former boys from his old army," Downs said. "He made them sandwiches in his kitchen, loaned them money and even publicly recommended that they be allowed in the soldiers' home established for Union veterans."
Sherman received warm receptions when he visited the South after the war, Downs said.
"In 1879, he was wined and dined as he retraced the path of his wartime exploits through the Confederacy," Downs said of Sherman. "In Atlanta, leading citizens asked his advice on the city's economic future. And during the New Orleans Mardi Gras that year, he was the honored guest of Rex."
But despite all that postwar charm in Dixie, Downs said, Sherman was, above all else, "a soldier."
"He was a successful military leader who took war to a new level of violence — an attack on the hearts, and minds, and property of civilians," Downs said. "But he did not destroy to inflict unnecessary cruel pain. He did it to try to end the war as quickly as possible with the least loss of life."
Sherman had a sympathetic view of the South. He was an officer in Florida and Alabama, superintendent of the Louisiana Military Seminary (today, it's called Louisiana State University) and had many Southern friends.
"This attitude caused him to try to avoid bloodletting as much as he could, substituting property damage for death," Downs said. "He wanted Southerners to quit, short of losing their lives. Difficult as it may seem to believe, Sherman's March to the Sea was more a mark of his humanity than of any planned brutality. The march actually caused fewer casualties than most individual Civil War battles."
The six-week March to the Sea yielded about 4,100 casualties on both sides, compared to 24,000 casualties in two days at Shiloh and 51,000 in three days at Gettysburg, Downs said.
Sherman tried to be deliberate, and limited, in targeting the property to be burned, Downs said. Before setting off from Atlanta on the march in November 1864, Sherman ordered depots, foundries, shops and other such operations — "anything of war-making potential," Downs said — to be destroyed, mostly by fire.
A Union account held that about a quarter of Atlanta was destroyed by Sherman's men, mostly the business district. A Confederate account written in 1866 gave a much different view, saying that "on the night of the 15th, the torch was applied to Atlanta, and where the merciless commander had already created a solitude, he determined to make a conflagration, by the light of which his marching columns might commence their journey to the sea."
"The story that Sherman callously burned Atlanta to the ground grew in later years, fanned by the fiery scenes of ‘Gone With the Wind,'" Downs said. "There will perhaps always be controversy as to the exact extent of the damage to Atlanta, but the historical facts are clear that the entire city was not destroyed and that Sherman was not solely responsible for the part that was."
Hood had destroyed "numerous houses during his defense of the city" and during his evacuation of Confederate troops in September 1864, Downs said.
Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431.