Sunday, January 15, 2012

Moody: "DEMON OF THE LOST CAUSE: Sherman and Civil War History"

[ Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History by Wesley Moody (University of Missouri Press, 2011). Cloth, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:151/190. ISBN:978-0-8262-1945-9 $30]

Although one can construct a strong argument for Nathan Bedford Forrest being the most controversial figure to emerge from the American Civil War, Wesley Moody's Demon of the Lost Cause offers up a worthy candidate in William Tecumseh Sherman. In it, Moody traces the Union general's reputation from the end of the Civil War to today along two main lines of inquiry, Sherman's alleged place as a prophet of modern warfare (ex. his employment of the indirect approach) and his wholesale targeting of civilians via "total war." Though these ideas are accepted history among the general populace, most readers of serious scholarship have probably discarded both notions by now. One need only take a short look in the rear view mirror of Sherman's campaigns at U.S. Grant's Vicksburg and Winfield Scott's Mexico City campaigns to see that Sherman was no great operational innovator. On the second point, it is clear from the evidence that the level of destructiveness inflicted by Sherman's armies in Georgia and the Carolinas has been greatly exaggerated in the popular imagination, although we must be careful not to go too far in the other direction. Moody himself is guilty of this at times.

Moody begins Demon of the Lost Cause with the interesting argument that Sherman was actually a popular figure in the South during the first two decades post-Civil War. Sherman shared many of their views on race and politics, and clashed with the federal government over some Reconstruction policies. The demonization of the general really began with the ensuing generation and the creation of the Lost Cause mythology. Added to this were criticisms published by fellow Union generals with axes to grind like Henry Boynton and John Schofield. A later chapter summarizes the Lost Cause influenced depiction of Sherman in film. In the final section of the book, modern historians fall under Moody's critical pen.  Michael Fellman is taken to task by Moody for not being sufficiently critical of the Lost Cause interpretation of Sherman's destructiveness.  British army veterans B.H. Liddell Hart and J.F.C. Fuller (especially the former) are criticized for inflating Sherman's reputation as a modern military theorist, but also for viewing his brand of warfare as a harbinger of the death and absolute ruin that twentieth century war would inflict.

The problems of Demon of the Lost Cause are twofold. While his defense of Sherman is accurate in general terms, the brevity and lack of depth associated with Moody's arguments will make it very difficult to convince detractors. A great deal of ground is covered in 150 pages of narrative, and too many assessments are rendered in sound bite fashion. The notes, simple source recitations lacking explanatory features, do not help either. The other weakness is in the research. The bibliography is limited to a run down of basic Sherman historiography (mostly books authored by historians and contemporary generals and politicians), supplemented by newspapers. While it very well may be true that Sherman was popular in the South in the two decades after Appomattox, the evidence provided is sparse and very selective. The voices of what we might call 'typical' southerners are essentially absent from consideration for this period. That said, the above comprise rather typical features of brief works of synthesis. While Demon of the Lost Cause is not a great work of breakthrough argumentation, it does provide readers with a solid representation of the creative background of the Sherman mythologies. It also effectively frames and highlights important points of contention that require reevaluation in order to foster a better understanding of William T. Sherman and Civil War history.

Other CWBA reviews of UM Press titles:
* Yankee Warhorse: A Biography of Major General Peter J. Osterhaus
* General Sterling Price and the Confederacy (for Missouri History Museum)
* Thomas Ewing Jr.: Frontier Lawyer and Civil War General
* Man of Douglas, Man of Lincoln: The Political Odyssey of James Henry Lane
* Confederate Colonels: A Biographical Register
* Peacekeeping on the Plains: Army Operations in Bleeding Kansas
* Missouri's Confederate: Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Creation of Southern Identity in the Border West
* The Civil War's First Blood: Missouri, 1854-1861 (for Missouri Life)
* Key Command: Ulysses S. Grant's District of Cairo

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