Bloody Destructive Terminology

By The History Detectives Team
19 October 2009
Category: Viewer Mailbag

Can the mass deaths of Native Americans at the hands of Europeans be considered genocide? Was John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry an act of terrorism? The language used to qualify historical conflicts invariably shapes our perceptions of them. A couple of lines from our Civil War pontoon bridge story caught the ear of University of Mississippi History Professor John F. Marszalek who writes:

I believe you are correct in your determination of the bridge’s location. However, as a historian with a long interest in Sherman, I disagree with a number of your comments, notably: “final stages of General Sherman’s bloody march through the South.” In fact, Sherman’s march was destructive, it was not bloody. He used destructive war to avoid bloodshed. “Although Sherman argued that Columbia’s destruction speeded the war’s end, the taking of Atlanta five months earlier had all but sealed the north’s victory.” No historian I know holds that position.

Our Civil War historical consultant Alan M. Kraut of American University, responds:

Sherman’s march was both bloody and destructive. Because the march further broke the South’s civilian population’s will to continue the war and militarily damaged the South’s war effort, the war’s conclusion was hastened. The South, already suffering from supply shortages and unable to win decisive military victories, would surrender in the spring of 1865. Hastening a war’s conclusion always saves lives that would be needlessly sacrificed on the battlefield. While the word “sealed” may be a bit of an overstatement. The taking of Atlanta was a highly significant nail in the coffin of the South’s defeat. I have been teaching the Civil War at the university level for 35 years and co-direct my university’s Civil War Institute and that is my view.

In retrospect, the Producers regret using the term “bloody.” As Professor Kraut suggests, there is a profoundly interesting discussion to be had on Sherman’s strategy in his march through the South, after the taking of Atlanta. A full discussion of that strategy was beyond the scope of our story, which focused of course on the mystery of the where Sherman had crossed the Broad River. However, using the word bloody, we are persuaded, connotes a strategic intent and actual conduct which was largely different from what that shorthand might imply. We also concede that “sealed” was likely the wrong verb, and that the caveat “all but” was also inadequate.

Do you consider Sherman’s march a bloody one? And how significant was the taking of Atlanta in bringing an end to the war? Let us know what you think about our choice of words.

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