Through the Heart of Dixie: Sherman’s March and American Memory

Anne Sarah Rubin. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014)


In Through the Heart of Dixie, Anne Sarah Rubin grapples with Sherman’s March through Georgia and the Carolinas. Rubin primarily focuses on the march, which began in November 1864 and continued until Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered in April 1865, via the accounts of participants and local residents. She specifically analyzes how these stories of Sherman’s trek have been remembered and changed to either praise or demonize Sherman and the Union. Rubin organizes her book in thematic chapters that detail the ways women, African Americans, Union soldiers, also known as “bummers,” Sherman himself, and American culture, through movies and books, remembered the march. She draws her arguments from letters, diaries, military records, and Works Progress Administration (WPA) slave narratives. Rubin argues that the ways Americans have retold and reimagined Sherman’s March make it the most symbolically powerful aspect of the Civil War and that the actual strategic importance of the march takes a backseat to its lasting cultural impact. She also seeks to analyze and unpack many of the myths surrounding the march and use these myths and legends to show how Americans’ thoughts about the Civil War have changed over time.1

Rubin first analyzes how women and men remembered Sherman’s March in different ways. Many contemporaries and later writers portrayed Southern women as physically helpless Southern belles who had to rely on cunning and subterfuge to protect their virtue and property. Rubin’s account of Zora Fair demonstrates how writers blurred the myth and reality of the march. Could an upper-class Southern woman really travel disguised as an “old negress” to spy on Sherman in Atlanta? The truth may never be completely known, but Rubin expands the role of gender in the Civil War and the march, and she ties her narrative into recent scholarship about the roles women played in the Civil War. She also reveals that many Southern men belonging to the Freemasons believed that Sherman spared their homes because he also belonged to the Masons. Sherman did not belong to the Masons, but this reinforces Rubin’s argument that various storytellers created and changed the memory of the march over time.2 

Rubin offers an especially intriguing analysis of how African Americans viewed and remembered the march. She intertwines African Americans’ accounts with white memories of the “faithful slave.” African American stories reflect the contradictory recollections of the march. For African Americans, the march represented a double-edged sword where liberation by Sherman’s troops accompanied hunger, destruction, and mistreatment. Using WPA slave narratives, Rubin cites stories from many former slaves who gained their freedom during the march and held differing opinions of Sherman and his men. Some thought Sherman to be a godsend, an unwilling Pied Piper that they followed to freedom. Others criticized the march, centering their anger on a lack of food and sense of depression. The most poignant remembrances Rubin relates depict the events of Ebenezer Creek. Fearing nearby Confederate troops, Sherman’s men ordered hundreds of former slaves to wait before crossing the creek. Once safely across, the Union soldiers abandoned the former slaves, leaving them to the frigid water and Confederate bullets. From this tragedy came Special Field Order No. 15, which granted 400,000 acres of land in South Carolina and Georgia to newly freed blacks, more commonly known as “40 acres and a mule”.3 

Rubin also offers a strong analysis in her account of the “bummers” in Sherman’s army. Popular culture remembers Union soldiers in Sherman’s March as thieves and pillagers, lacking morals or military discipline. Rubin analyzes soldiers’ accounts of the march, in which some viewed it as a party, a festive trek across the South that featured comedy interlaced with brutality. Sherman’s “total war” and “war is hell” philosophy played into his troops’ psyche, and some did revel in the atrocities that occurred during the march. Others, however, remained staunch humanitarians and practitioners of military decorum, belying the popular myth of Sherman’s soldiers as a marauding gang bent on wanton destruction.4

Memory often gets clouded and adjusted to suit the storyteller’s goal. Sherman’s March is one of American history’s defining moments, literally scorched into Americans’ memories, especially for those from the South. Storytellers emphasize victimization, justice, or defiance, depending on who recounts the event. Rubin’s book should not be used to examine the military significance of Sherman’s March. Rather, it should be used to demonstrate how a single event can shape cultural narratives and reflect the past through varying lenses of memory. 

Shane Hamby
Western Carolina University

1 Anne Sarah Rubin, Through the Heart of Dixie: Sherman’s March and American Memory (Chapel Hill: University 2 Johnson, This is Our Message, 121-145. of North Carolina Press, 2014), 1-7. 
2 Rubin, Through the Heart of Dixie, 8-68.
3 Rubin, Through the Heart of Dixie 69-93.
4 Ibid., 94-151. .