General Sherman's Christmas

Savannah, 1864

by Stanley Weintraub

Smithsonian/HarperCollins, 256 pp., $24.99

In Saint Luke's rendition of the Christmas story, "a multitude of the heavenly host" appears to shepherds tending their flocks, and proclaims, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

Some interpret the multitude as a heavenly army, proclaiming peace instead of war. Peace (and thus war) has always been woven into the Christmas message. That's something Stanley Weintraub certainly understands. He has explored the juxtaposition of war and Christmas--and the holiday's particular poignancy for soldiers far from home, suffering from loneliness, cold, and fear--in a series of captivating books, rich in anecdotes and strong personalities, including Silent Night (2001), General Washington's Christmas Farewell (2003) and Eleven Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge, 1944 (2006). This season, he offers a brisk account of William Tecumseh Sherman's relentless march across Georgia in November and December 1864, as the Union general drove his army of 62,000 to take the state's biggest port before Christmas Day.

Cut off from communication with the North, Sherman's multitudes became the "Lost Army," prompting Southern supporters to predict it would suffer obliteration as Napoleon's forces had in Russia. ("Who is to furnish the snow for this Moscow retreat?" scoffed Ulysses S. Grant.) Abraham Lincoln, fending off inquisitive reporters, characteristically compared Sherman to a mole: "We all know where he went in at," said Lincoln, "but I can't tell where he will come out at." When his head finally popped up, Sherman famously telegraphed the president: "I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah."

This is hardly an edifying story. Its lank, red-haired, weather-beaten main character himself had few illusions about the experience of war, with its insane destruction and horrifying twists of fate. "Glory," Sherman noted, "was all moonshine; even success [at] the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentation of distant families." His march was a cruel one, meant to demonstrate to the South its inability to defend itself against the Union war machine, and the futility of going on. "If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty," he wrote, "I will answer that war is war, and not popularity-seeking. If they want peace, they and their relatives must stop the war."

Brushing aside the small forces sent against them, some of them pathetic collections of old men and teenagers, Sherman's army laid waste to the heart of Georgia, burning farms, stripping away crops and animals, prompting thousands of slaves to declare themselves free men and women, and unleashing a plague of "bummers"--soldiers not strictly following orders--who brutalized the populace and robbed it of anything of value.

Whether this did anything but stiffen the resolve of Southerners to fight on, and plant seeds of bitterness that bore poisonous fruit for generations to come, remains a matter of debate. It is a debate on which Weintraub does not dwell. His interest is not in developing empyreal visions of policy and strategy, but in putting the reader right on the muddy ground, slogging along with the troops in a cold rain; or waiting, terrified, with women in a plantation house as the dark cloud on the horizon becomes hundreds of men, bent on destroying all that a family had painstakingly built up, leaving acute want and fear of starvation in their wake.

Vivid scenes crowd the book. The brigade band from the 33rd Massachusetts plays the "Miserere" from Verdi's Il Trovatore as the troops leave behind the black columns of smoking Atlanta. At a crossroads village named Shady Dale, slave girls emerge to perform, repeatedly, a solemn "plantation dance" for the troops, delivering a "weird plaintive wail." Men tear up railroad tracks, then heat the rails over a blistering fire of felled telegraph poles and Southern pines, and bend them around trees to form "Sherman's bow ties." In one home, General Oliver O. Howard sits at a table as an invited guest, asking God's blessing under skies reddened by burning houses nearby. In the capitol at Milledgeville, Union soldiers gather in the vandalized House of Representatives and constituted themselves the legislature of Georgia. Listening to the fading notes of a military band by the glow of his campfire one night, Sherman turns to an officer and says: "Send an orderly to ask that band to play that tune again."

And of course, there is Christmas in surrendered Savannah. From the day of Sherman's arrival, a constant stream of former slaves--"old and young, men, women and children, black, yellow and cream-colored, uncouth and well-bred, bashful and talkative," according to one witness--passes by his headquarters, hoping to meet the man they see as their deliverer. Some manage to shake his hand. On a cold and windy Christmas Eve, presaging a rainy Christmas Day, the 33rd Massachusetts band serenades Sherman with sentimental tunes. When a clergyman asks Sherman if he may pray on Christmas Day for "certain persons," as instructed by the diocese, Sherman reportedly answers: "Yes, certainly, pray for Jeff Davis. Certainly pray for the devil, too. I don't know any two that require prayers more than they do." The general's sentimentality had its limits.

Christmas 1864 in America, the last such holiday during our nation's bloodiest war, was not particularly happy in many homes, North and South, that had suffered the loss of sons and sustenance. But General Sherman's Christmas makes it a memorable one.

Edward Achorn, deputy editorial page editor of the Providence Journal, is the author of the forthcoming Fifty-nine in '84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had (Smithsonian/HarperCollins).

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