If William Tecumseh Sherman is known for one thing, it is the scorching of Atlanta in November 1864 as he and his army set off on their March to the Sea. Like so much else that is associated with Sherman, the popular image of ruined Atlanta is an exaggeration. (About 70 percent of the city’s housing stock remained standing, which is not what the famous sequence in Gone With the Wind suggests.) But Sherman saw the spectacle as an apocalypse and wrote in his memoirs of turning as his soldiers marched away to see “Atlanta, smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in the air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.” No wonder Southerners would reserve in their hearts a special place of hatred for Sherman. Even as he marched, Confederate president Jefferson Davis accused Sherman not only of an “infamous disregard of the established rules of war, but of the common dictates of humanity.” Seventy years later, Sherman’s march across Georgia was compared by the Southern Agrarians to “the inroads of a Genghis Khan or an Attila.”
The thought of Sherman smirking while Atlanta burned made it easy for the partisans of the Lost Cause to paint him as a monster. But it also allowed the first wave of twentieth-century Sherman biographers, burdened with the memory of World War I, to assume that Sherman was a dark genius who had foreseen the hellish inferno of “total war.” Basil Liddell Hart in Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American (1929) and Chicago newspaperman Lloyd Lewis in Sherman: Fighting Prophet (1932) believed that, as the Civil War was the first “modern war,” so was “Sherman the first modern general” and “the prototype of the most modern age.” In subsequent decades, Sherman could be described, in the words of T. Harry Williams, as “the prophet of total war . . . whose operations foreshadowed the panzer dashes and the strategic bombing” of World War II.