“March to the Sea” markers: A story that couldn’t be told? Or a story that couldn’t be sold?

A new marker discussing the start of the March to the Sea:

March to the Sea Marker

Kevin Levin mentioned this in a post today. He added, “It may be the first marker that explicitly attempts to challenge “popular myth” about the march, which may explain why it is being placed at such a prominent site.”

I’m familiar with the myths associated with Sherman’s March.  And certainly familiar with those who offer somewhat “choice” interpretations of the march.  Now I’m all for breaking those down where encountered to offer a full, fact-based interpretation of the events.  But is that all we see in the case of this new marker?  Consider this marker:

The March to the Sea Marker

The older marker pictured above, placed in 1957, stands about three miles southwest from the newer marker (near the Jimmy Carter Library).  As Georgia will often keep old and new markers on display, the verb “replace” may not be 100% accurate.  But in terms of interpretation, the newer marker is there to supplant the old one.  The text on the old marker reads:

On Nov. 15, 1864 after destroying Atlanta and cutting his communications with the north, Maj. Gen. W. T. Sherman, USA, began his destructive campaign for Savannah — the March to the Sea. He divided his Army [US] (60,000 infantry and artillery and 5,500 cavalry) into two wings, one to move via McDonough and Monticello to Gordon, feinting at Macon, the other via Covington and Madison, feinting at Augusta.

The right wing (15th and 17th Corps), Maj. Gen. O. O. Howard, USA, marched from bivouac areas in the vicinity of White Hall (West End) early that morning, the 15th Corps toward Jonesboro, the 17th Corps toward McDonough. The 3rd Cavalry Division, Brig. Gen. J. L. Kilpatrick, USA, covered the right wing.

The left wing (14th and 20th Corps), Maj. Gen. H. W. Slocum, USA, marched from bivouac areas in and around Atlanta, the 20th Corps to Stone Mountain on the 15th and the 14th Corps, accompanied by General Sherman and his staff, to Lithonia the next day. The Provost Guard (2nd and 33rd Massachusetts and 111th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry) was the last unit to leave Atlanta, marching behind the 14th Corps on Nov. 16th.

During the four days preceding the departure, the work of destruction had been so thorough that, when General Sherman mounted his horse, here at the John Neal house, early on Nov. 16th, his Chief Engineer, Capt. Orlando M. Poe, CE, stated that “for military purposes the city of Atlanta has ceased to exist.”

Good grief, that is a lot to read!  But there are all those details that military historians love to have – names, units, activities.  Almost as if transcribed directly from Sherman’s orders of the day.  But that last line is of importance – Atlanta was destroyed for military purposes.

But what is not there?  Why was Sherman marching?  Just a brief reference to Sherman’s “destructive march” in the preface.  No discussion of larger war aims or the impact on the population.  Especially no mention of emancipation.  But that’s where the new marker picks up:

On November 15, 1864, during the Civil War, U.S. forces under Gen. William T. Sherman set out from Atlanta on the March to the Sea, a military campaign designed to destroy the Confederacy’s ability to wage war and break the will of its people to resist. After destroying Atlanta’s industrial and business (but not residential) districts, Sherman 62,500 men marched over 250 miles, reaching Savannah in mid-December. Contrary to popular myth, Sherman’s troops primarily destroyed only property used for waging war – railroads, train depots, factories, cotton gins, and warehouses. Abandoning their supply base, they lived off the land, destroying food they could not consume. They also liberated thousands of enslaved African Americans in their path. Sherman’s “hard hand of war” demoralized Confederates, hastening the end of slavery and the reunification of the nation.

Just one paragraph.  But notice the shift.  The new marker gives the reader those “high level” details lacking in the older version.  But scant little on the military details.  No names, other than Sherman’s.  No units.  No mention of the line of march or organization.  Just 250 miles to Savannah.

Is the interpretation presented on these two markers in opposition?  I don’t think so.  And one could argue that the older marker also took up the task of beating one of the myths about the Federal destruction, referencing destruction focused on Atlanta’s ability to support the Confederate military.  But the old marker worked that subtly, not with the blunt force of the new marker (!). Just markers reflecting different purposes.  This is “form follows function” stuff in a way.

Consider the “body of work” in regard to historical markers related to the March to the Sea.  I’m not sure this is an all inclusive list, but HMDB has just over 100 to consider.  And in that list you’ll see lots of the “old” sort, along with a handful of new markers from the 21st century.  The old markers carry that same form – military details, but nothing outside of that.  These were written with a straight forward tone, almost devoid of any adjectives or adverbs.  A very strict accounting of military action.  And not a single word of the political, social, or economic aspects of the war.  Oh, and for good measure, those old markers do not mention damage outside that done to railroads, bridges, and other targets of military value… so let’s not lump the markers in with the myth.

This also gives a chance to compare the old marker near Ebenezer Creek:

Sherman's Left Wing Marker

To one placed in 2010:

March to the Sea: Ebenezer Creek Marker

Where as in 1958, it was just “The 14th Corps (Davis) was encamped at Ebenezer Church,” in 2010 we have a paragraph discussing the incident… and repercussions.  There’s the 40-acres.  A much wider divergence between old and new.

Clearly the older markers left out some important parts of the story.  Was that due to the subjective nature of the writers, bowing to the “Lost Cause”?  Maybe some desire to avoid discussing the causes of the war?

You might advance a case. But I think “form follows function” is more the culprit.  The old markers were written in the same style as the many War Department tablets seen on the early battlefield parks.  When placed, those markers were written to support a “staff ride” style of touring.   The general public, at that time, would simply not waste their time chasing Sherman’s path around Georgia.  If anyone would take in Sherman’s March by those markers, it would be a well-read, studied audience looking to actually trace the military campaign.  And it could be assumed that particular audience would be well versed in the causes of the war (well… maybe what they thought those causes to be) and the larger objectives of the campaign.

Further, it was assumed that anyone studying those lofty strategic, political, and social aspects of the war would not do so out in the field.  Touring a Civil War site to discuss emancipation?  That didn’t sell down on the banks of Ebenezer Creek. Yes, because the story was not one appreciated by some of the “locals”… but also because those who wanted to touch that story did so only in the class room.  For better or worse.  (I will admit to spending a full day on Ebenezer Creek under the cover of “fishing” because I didn’t want people to think me silly for wasting such a beautiful Saturday searching for a Civil War pontoon crossing site in a bass boat.)

But something remarkable has happened in the fifty-plus years since those old markers went into place.  The audience changed.  And in a good way.  Civil War touring – Battlefield stomping – is no longer exclusively for those die-hard military historian types only concerned with names, dates, and military movements.  Now visitors to these sites are also considering things like “40-acres.”  They want to view the campaign in all those dusty troop movements while at the same time considering the political and social ramifications.

Was it that the story couldn’t be told?  Or was it the story couldn’t be sold?

Maybe a little of both.

Photos curtsey of the Historical Marker Database,  Christian Belena, David Seibert, and Mike Stroud (one and two) respectively.



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