A balanced account of the famous—or infamous, depending on your sympathies—campaign that effectively ended the Civil War in the Deep South.
As former NPR executive producer Trudeau (Gettysburg, 2002, etc.) notes, William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea was not without its uneventful stretches; the diary entries of many of the soldiers, he grumbles, can be summarized with the phrase, “Nothing of interest to report.” Sadly, that applies to stretches of this book, which reports nearly every datum about the 1864 campaign, interesting or not, while skimping a touch on big-picture interpretations of what the campaign meant in the larger context of the Civil War. Early on, Trudeau promises psychodrama by observing that Sherman was grieving the loss of a son who died the year before. Of course, in that time of carnage, death was everywhere, and Trudeau does not pursue the question of how Sherman handled his sorrow. What he does do—and what will make this book controversial, at least among certain circles—is to hazard that the March to the Sea has been compressed in the popular memory as a frenzy of raiding and burning, whereas in reality the campaign was both longer and less brutal than that. Trudeau reckons, drawing on contemporary statisticians, that Sherman, “at his thoughtful, self-confident best” at the start of the march, was more restrained than he might have been, “blaming southerners for their complicity and deeming himself powerless in the random chance destructiveness of the storm he had unleashed.” Just so, rebel military resistance was somewhat tougher than the standard texts suggest, while the vaunted guerrilla resistance to Sherman’s foraging troops was less stiff and surely less organized. Sherman’s successful raid across southeastern Georgia served him well personally, however. Grant may have had doubts about the wisdom of sending an army so far from its base, but he esteemed Sherman highly thereafter.
Civil War enthusiasts will appreciate Trudeau’s careful attention to detail, while general readers may wish for a more vivid, cut-to-the-chase version of events.