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[Detail] Lincoln Centennial Association

Historical Comprehension: Using Correspondence to Develop Historical Perspective

General William Tecumseh Sherman’s 1864 “March to the Sea” through Georgia devastated the Confederacy, inflicting physical, financial, and psychological damage. Many history books have described this military campaign in detail; check your history text’s coverage of this campaign to find out what historians generally say about it. What insights does the text’s coverage give you into General Sherman’s thinking and that of other military leaders?

A document in the Lincolniana collection sheds a different light on the “March to the Sea.” A letter from General Sherman to R.U. Johnson, an editor at Century Magazine, shows the campaign from the perspective of its leader. In the letter, Sherman quotes at length a letter he received from President Lincoln and reflects on the significance of the letter to him:

So highly do I prize this testimonial that I preserve Mr. Lincoln’s letter, every word in his own hand writing, unto this day; and if I know myself I believe on receiving it I experienced more satisfaction in giving to his over burdened and weary soul one gleam of satisfaction and happiness, than one selfish pride in an achievement which has given me among men a larger measure of favor than any single act of war.

From “Letter to R. U. Johnson from William Tecumseh Sherman, December 22, 1886,” images 4 and 5

Read the entire Sherman letter, trying to see the events discussed from Sherman’s point of view.

  • Why was General Sherman writing to R.U. Johnson? What reason did he give for declining the invitation extended by Johnson? In his position, what decision would you have made?
  • What were President Lincoln’s concerns as the “March to the Sea” began? How did he feel about the outcome of the campaign?
  • Why do you think Sherman prized Lincoln’s letter so highly? What, if anything, does it tell you about his character?
  • General Sherman wrote that “every honest man sees things from a different point of view, and can only write earnestly what he personally believes.” According to this comment, what was his view of historical perspective? How does your view of historical perspective compare to his?