A study in unintended consequences as a reactionary Civil War commander unleashed a series of progressive forces.
William Tecumseh Sherman was a man who, in the field, spared his enemies no violence and showed little mercy. He leaned toward the despotic and was a law unto himself, and his troops were similarly situated on the edge of lawlessness. As Washington-based historian Dickey (Empire of Mud: The Secret History of Washington, DC, 2014) writes at the beginning of his book, when Union forces staged a victory parade after the Confederate surrender, Sherman’s Army of the West “sported the same uniforms they had fought in—worn and tattered, ripped and frayed, riddled with bullet holes, speckled with mud, and stained with blood.” The piratical look emphasized the fact that Sherman had fought a relentless, punitive war, cutting a swath across the Deep South on his famous March to the Sea. But, pointedly, parallel to Sherman’s army was a force of African-American men and women who had served as road builders, nurses, ambulance drivers, telegraph lineman and in other support roles. Dickey ably captures the shape and feel of the desperate battles Sherman’s forces waged, “scorching the Southern earth and issuing no quarter to those who stood in his way.” That black forces marched in support of Sherman’s victorious army emphasizes numerous points: that African-Americans were essential to the Union’s military success even if their contributions were long devalued; and that Sherman himself, though full of racist sentiments, contributed to the postwar push for civil rights through orders for the redistribution of seized plantation lands with self-determination for communities of newly freed slaves—a program later known as “40 acres and a mule” and promulgated by a commander who at the time was not “known for his sympathies for black people.”
A readable blend of military and political history; though not in the first rank of recent Civil War studies, a valuable addition to the literature.