All History Is Local
New Yorkers admire General William Tecumseh Sherman in part because he lived here and because his bluntness suited the local temperament. When giving a Commencement address to military college graduates, he punched a great big apple hole in the idea of combat glory when he told them, “War is hell.”
Historian B. H. Liddell Hart famously declared that Sherman was “the first modern general,” an assessment that might be attributed to this famous Sherman quote: “General Grant is a great general. I know him well. He stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk.”
The backstory behind the quote is fascinating. Grant was under criticism for heavy drinking. Even the president had to come to his defense. When Sherman was offered a promotion as a prelude to making him Grant’s replacement, he refused it.
Why Is There a Sherman Monument in Central Park?
The combination of outspokenness and courage inspired Beaux-Arts sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ majestic, gilded-bronze statue of Sherman in Central Park. It rests right across from the Plaza Hotel on 59th Street.
The statue is both a memorial to Sherman and an artistic dig at the slaveholding South: Sherman’s horse is trampling on pine needles, representing his march through Georgia. Saint-Gaudens’ used an African American model, Hettie Eugenia Anderson, for the woman leading Sherman.
There is another reason Sherman’s statue is safe from Civil War site vandals who like to tear things down — he never burned his way through New York as he did Atlanta. The reason he took such extreme measures are worth every American’s attention, as they changed the country in a remarkable way.
Lincoln Fought Two Wars
The hell of war was something Sherman understood. And he knew very well how to make others understand it.
But the hell he most wanted to avoid was a different kind.
When Sherman burned Atlanta to the ground during the Civil War, he left behind an inventory of atrocity and it didn’t matter to him if you were a slaveholder or a Confederate foot soldier. Victory in the most efficient manner possible was the goal of a general, and if ruthlessness helped, that’s what Sherman did. It wasn’t for glory nor was it for fame. He was thinking of a much larger narrative.
The country had lost faith in its Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, and particularly his slow prosecution of the war. In 1864, Democrats ran an opponent, George B. McClellan, who campaigned on a pro slavery for peace platform. Ironically, Lincoln had fired McClellan for lacking audacity when he was General of the Grand Army of the Potomac (the Central Park plaza is named after it). The election was predicted strongly in McClellan’s favor.
If the Democrats won, they were prepared to end the war with slavery maintaining a permanent place in our affairs. Therefore, Sherman’s victory was essential to securing the President’s future and consequently, the end of slavery. He had to win — even if it was at great cost — and he did.
Sherman’s battlefield victories gave the American people confidence, and that secured a Lincoln victory in the election of 1864. Now, newly named African Americans, former slaves, were emancipated throughout the land. But for Sherman*, a Lincoln loss might have permanently legitimized slavery in our young country, and over one million Civil War dead perished for nothing.
It makes one wonder why there is no Sherman statue in Atlanta.
Atlanta is no longer a city in the antebellum Confederate flag South. It is a multi-racial melting pot that represents the best of what America can be when our mix of people put their heads together instead of banging them.
The city is considered, according to the New York Times, “one of the most thriving and affluent African-American communities in the nation.” It was also the birthplace of such prominent African Americans and civil rights activists, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ambassador Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis, and Juanita Abernathy.
Therefore, one might easily think that a Sherman statue is just what Atlanta needs to address the clamor over slavery and civil rights? It seems to me the city looks at history with a long lens. It has a way of achieving consensus that takes into account multi factors when making consequential decisions. History is never about one thing but many things. I’m not an Atlantan, but I suspect Sherman’s time in Atlanta will come when it’s time.
The same thought applies to our recent spate of Robert E. Lee statue destruction due to changes in historical views. For many, the time has come to make sure the truth of history is represented in our public parks and spaces. There are many fine ways to do this. Allow community groups to debate the matter, place more full on honesty in the plaques relating the story of the Civil War and Lee’s role. Or, a community can elect to remove the statue and assign it to a museum where history and introspection can come together.
But when hooligans destroy public property without the consent of the larger community, that is vandalism fuled by ego. If you have faith in your convictions, then take the argument into the arena where the solution will be equitable and proportionate.
Sherman’s statue was completed by Saint-Gaudens in 1903, the artist’s last major work. It was said by the Saturday Evening Post after the 11-year effort, “Saint-Gaudens is one of those artists for whom it is worthwhile to wait.”
When we think of Americans history, while there is much to correct, the details need to be better understood, for that to happen it may be worthwhile to take some time, too.
Sherman issued a plan for Reconstruction that was both brilliant and innovative. Had it been adopted, an entrepreneurial resurgence likely to change the course history would crown his legacy.
After the Civil War, Sherman issued Special Field Orders, №15, providing for the return and settlement of 40,000 freed slaves. They were to receive parcels of land taken from white slaveholding landowners.
Sherman appointed an abolitionist from Massachusetts to oversee the implementation. It became commonly known as the “40 acres and a mule” plan. But after Lincoln’s assassination, it was later revoked by his successor, Andrew Johnson (the only president to be impeached prior to William Jefferson Clinton).