This month marks the 150th anniversary of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s first foray into Georgia.
This week GPB, in partnership with the Atlanta History Center, is premiering the first of a weekly series that will bring to life Sherman’s devastating march.
"37 Weeks, Sherman on the March” producer Bruce Burkhardt says each segment will focus on what was happening that week in 1864.
"37 weeks, that’s how long it took, to quote General Sherman, 'to make Georgia howl'" said Burkhardt. Looking at the Civil War now, he said it almost seems like the outcome was predetermined. “But the outcome of the war in April of 1864 was very much in doubt. Sherman was a man on a mission.”
At that point in the war, more than a half million soldiers were dead, and a million more wounded.
In the north, President Lincoln was facing re-election. His political opponents were calling for a negotiated peace with the Confederacy. The first segment of the series puts it in context. “If Lincoln loses, it’s the end of the United States and the end to the dream of freedom for four million slaves.“
Burkhardt says Sherman was facing about 70,000 to 80,000 Confederate troops, and Georgia held a strategic position. “This was the first war that was really fought around a railroad. In this case the Western and Atlantic railroad. And both sides knew that and guarded that railroad.”
The goal of the series is to talk about the human dimension of the war. Burkhardt says the Atlanta History Museum has a wonderful collection of newspaper articles, photographs, letters and diaries from soldiers on both sides of the conflict. He calls the personal missives “very revealing about what was going through their heads at the time, particularly the people inside Atlanta.”
Burkhardt learned what the bombardment of Atlanta was like.
“It was brutal. It was like the blitzkrieg of London," he said.
He says there are a lot of compelling stories, in particular an exchange between a Union soldier and his wife in Illinois. Burkhardt was surprised at how eloquent people were.
“Soldiers on both sides were very literate and wrote lots of letters. The emotion and the fear that was conveyed through these things is very touching,” said Burkhardt.
One of the first victims of the bombing of Atlanta was a free slave. Burkhardt says he had a shop in downtown Atlanta and was hit by a shell and killed.
Burkhardt was struck by the number of lives that were lost during the campaign. He paraphrases a quote from General Sherman, saying Sherman wrote home to his wife “I’ve come to regard the death of two to three thousand men as a small affair.”
The series will take Sherman’s campaign a week at a time. Burkhardt points out that Sherman was relentless.
”He came in in April, got to Atlanta around July," said Burkhardt. "The fall of Atlanta was in August. He stayed in Atlanta ’til November and then headed to Savannah. And Savannah was down by December.”
The 90 second segments of “37 Weeks, Sherman on the March” will air on both GPB Radio and GPB-TV through December.