Sherman's March from The History Channel covers the five week run in which General William Tecumseh Sherman and his troops captured Atlanta, GA then they marched to Savannah and captured that city, and from there they marched to Columbia, capturing that capital of South Carolina. In waging what was known as "total war," Sherman and the Union soldiers basically ended the Civil War, defeating the Confederacy. Generally, this seems be thought of as a good thing as it brought all the states back into the Union and it helped outlaw slavery in this country. However, Sherman himself was a very controversial figure, all of which is looked at in this enlightening documentary.
We open with the political reasons for why Sherman was allowed to do what he did. President Abraham Lincoln needed to show that the North was beating the South in the Civil War. After capturing Atlanta, Lincoln got the good news that he needed (and ultimately helped him win reelection) and Sherman was allowed to carry out the rest of his plan. It was bold and brash and it offered the Union almost no way to retreat. The troops had to keep moving because they were living off the land. There were 60,000 soldiers so if they stopped for any length of time, they would deplete most the resources in the areas they were marching through. This "total war" had to be bold, it had to be swift and it was.
However, there many who dissent with just how good this was. There's obviously going to be some discontent from the Southerners who lost inordinate amounts of money and family. They had their homes and everything they worked for taken away from them. While it can certainly be argued that if that was the cost of ending slavery than it was a valid price (an argument I agree with), it should also be noted that General Sherman was a complex man. He fought for the Union so that was where his allegiances were. At the same time, it wasn't like he particularly felt for the plight of the Blacks in this country. He seemed to be a great military strategist that wanted to impress his bosses. There was even rumblings throughout this film that he didn't like Blacks. Also, when it came down to "total war" vs. the need to preserve the new freedom of the Black Man, Sherman didn't bat an eye in seeing their demise if he felt that Blacks following the march could slow down or otherwise compromise what he was trying to do.
Sherman also loved his soldiers. It is hard to argue with the fact that of the 60,000 people he led during this incursion only 600 died. When one realizes that they traveled 650 miles in less than 100 days that makes his prowess seem all the movie startling. He was called "Uncle Billy" by his men and he made it clear that he would only engage them in war when it was necessary. As such, the men fought harder when they did fight believing more in the validity of what they were fighting for. So it is in these complexities that we come to understand more about the man in this documentary. In fact, we see some Blacks who rejoice at the sight of Sherman and his soldiers, while others seem cautious that this war is really going to help them. It was also interesting seeing Sherman violate the laws of war, by having captured Confederate soldiers walk in front of the Union troops and look for bombs in the ground. When the soldiers protested, Sherman explained that by simply putting the bombs in the ground the Confederate army had already broken all the laws of war anyway. (One can only wonder how he might feel about the current insurgent war in Iraq?)
At it's core what Sherman's March does is look at the complexity of war through the people who wage it. The Civil War was something that sadly had to happen. But, did it happen because of political reasons or because our country at the time was truly trying to stamp out the disease of slavery? There are some that argue that for all the Civil War did for Blacks, in many ways it really didn't help them as much as it should have. To think that it wasn't until the 1960s that we have things like the Civil Rights movement and riots in the street over obvious racial injustices in this Country, does make one wonder just how politically motivated people were to perhaps put a band-aid over one of America's ugliest wounds.
Done via recreations, talking heads and written accounts Sherman's March does it's best to show the madness of war and how, when contained and controlled, sometimes it can even be put to positive uses.
Sherman's March premieres Sunday, April 22 at 9pm ET/PT on The History Channel.