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Archive for Monday, April 9, 2007

Some memories still burn

April 9, 2007

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— The day it opened, the little seminary, as it was called then, had only about five dozen students. The superintendent had traveled all the way to New Orleans to choose the mattresses and books for the students himself. The models for the place were West Point and the Virginia Military Institute, but the tiny school had no uniforms, no muskets.

None of this would matter much to us in 2007 but for the confluence of a number of random facts which, when pieced together just right, make for a remarkable coincidence and, it turns out, an instructive contretemps.

The school was the Louisiana State Military Seminary of Learning and Military Academy, which today we know as Louisiana State University, or LSU. The year was 1860, which we now know was the eve of the Civil War. The superintendent (and professor of engineering) was William Tecumseh Sherman.

It is one of those curious wrinkles of history that the man who, at the beginning of one of the most frightful decades in American history, was a pioneer at one of the signature institutions of the modern South, was also, before the decade had reached its midpoint, the signature villain of the region. Life is not predictable, which is why it is so fascinating.

Many important American campuses have buildings named for their founders and pioneers (the benefactors come next, of course), but there is no building here on this campus named for Sherman, who is remembered less as one of the founding fathers of LSU and more as the man who prosecuted the still-raw march through the South that beat the Confederacy into submission in the last days of 1864, culminating with the capture of Savannah just before Christmas.

Between the creation of LSU and the fall of Savannah was much agony, many tears, untold deaths. Sherman himself suffered mightily in this period, though no one would suggest that his internal suffering was as great, or as searing, as the suffering he imposed. But struggle he did, and some of the struggle was moral and intellectual.

An evocative example comes from his own memoir, one of the greatest pieces of war literature ever produced by an American. The occasion was a dinner in Baton Rouge before the war, where he was asked directly by Gov. Thomas O. Moore to set out his view of slavery. His answer was stark: "(W)ere I a citizen of Louisiana, and a member of the legislature, I would deem it wise to bring the legal condition of the slaves more near the status of human beings under all Christian and civilized governments." Lincoln's position on slavery at the time was not as advanced as this.

Just as the nation could not exist half-slave and half-free (Lincoln's view in 1858, expressed at the Freeport, Ill., Senate debate with Stephen A. Douglas), LSU could not continue to exist with a superintendent holding Sherman's views, for, as he put it in the memoir, "all men in Louisiana were dreadfully excited on questions affecting their slaves, which constituted the bulk of their wealth, and without whom they honestly believed that sugar, cotton and rice could not possibly be cultivated."

By Jan. 18, 1861, Sherman was writing to Gov. Moore: "Recent events foreshadow a great change, and it becomes all men to choose. If Louisiana withdraws from the federal Union, I prefer to maintain my allegiance to the Constitution as long as a fragment of it survives, and my longer stay here would be wrong in every sense of the word."

Sherman was technically in charge of an arsenal at Baton Rouge, which was awkward enough in that atmosphere, and he knew that Washington would not permit a foreign power (which the Confederacy would be) to control a transportation artery like the lower Mississippi River. "He knew going in that he wouldn't violate his oath as an army officer even though he wasn't in the Army then," says Paul Hoffman, an LSU historian who is chairman of the committee responsible for naming buildings at LSU. "He was a Unionist."

The truth is that, to many Southerners, Sherman remains the quintessential Unionist, having wreaked destruction, some of it perhaps gratuitous, through the heart of the South. In that context it can be said without hesitation that while Grant broke the backbone of the South, Sherman broke its heart.

The backbone has recovered quite nicely in a succession of New Souths that have redefined the region and, in turn, helped redefine the country. The heart is another matter. In this context it may not be too much to say that the heart remains another country.

The question of whether LSU should name a building for William Tecumseh Sherman flares from time to time, as it did recently, prompted in part by a 2006 state Senate resolution urging LSU's board of supervisors to consider naming a building after the educator general. It's an intriguing but also an incendiary notion, particularly because Mr. Hoffman notes that most of the dorms on campus are named for people who provide examples of lives well-lived.

For that reason, the issue of whether to name a building for a man who was at once one of the most indispensable figures in LSU history and one of the most reviled figures in Southern history raises important questions about historical remembrance. History doesn't change, but our view of it does. We learn more, we challenge stereotypes, we find new truths and, as a consequence, new lessons.

In January 1861, Sherman wrote S.A. Smith, the president of the board of supervisors of the small college, arguing "it would be highly improper for me longer to remain," adding: "No great inconvenience can result to the seminary. I will be the chief loser. ... These are all small matters in comparison with those involved in the present state of the country, which will cause sacrifices by millions, instead of by hundreds. The more I think of it, the more I think I should be away, the sooner the better."

Eventually he left, and he left behind a difficult issue. Things move notoriously slowly in academic circles. This issue is likely to move slowly, even by academic standards.

- David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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