For anyone whose knowledge of the Civil War ends after "Gone With the Wind," this tightly produced documentary provides a welcome primer on the military genius of William Tecumseh Sherman, whose famous march through the South remains a subject of controversy.
For anyone whose knowledge of the Civil War ends after “Gone With the Wind,” this tightly produced documentary provides a welcome primer on the military genius of William Tecumseh Sherman, whose famous march through the South remains a subject of controversy. Sherman was the mastermind behind the concept of “total war”; his troops burned major cities but also, as one soldier puts it, “hastened what we all fought for — the end of the war.” Drawing liberally from letters to augment its dramatic re-creations, this doc is among the better recent History Channel productions.Sherman’s five-week campaign after capturing Atlanta in November 1864 was shockingly effective and terrifying to the local population, delivering a powerful psychological blow against the Confederacy. Capturing Savannah just before Christmas, he subsequently turned north into South Carolina, razing Columbia as punishment for having been an early hotbed of the secession movement. There are several fascinating aspects to Sherman’s story, from his close relationship with fellow general Ulysses Grant to his simultaneous postwar adulation in the North and abhorrence of him in the South — where, historians note, some Southerners have been pissed off ever since, even though the legend surrounding Sherman’s exploits echoed far wider than his actual trespasses. In addition to conveying the enormous toll of the war through reenactments, the project also does an unusually fine job of detailing the particulars of Sherman’s military strategy, using graphics and animation to illustrate the path his soldiers followed as well as the feints and misdirection employed to foster uncertainty about his war plans. Experts interviewed within the piece characterize Sherman as “a major figure in American military history,” one who survived another quarter-century after the war’s end. All told, it’s a much richer portrait than the lingering image of Sherman as portrayed by John Wayne — who actually played the general twice, in an episode of “Wagon Train” and later the 1962 movie “How the West Was Won.” Then again, the fact that most of my knowledge regarding Sherman stems from the aforementioned movies doubtless says something about the quality of historical instruction in America, which might explain my current ignoble profession. It’s one reason — on those periodic occasions when they get it right — that it’s nice to have a History Channel.