Sherman’s March (and the Women Who Won’t Let Him Forget It)
Years ago I gave a scholarly paper in Rome, Georgia, about the plantation mistresses who kept diaries and journals during Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea. It wasn’t a bad paper, though I knew I wouldn’t turn it into an article. It was well-received, especially since it dealt with some of the source material that Margaret Mitchell used for her Civil War epic, Gone With the Wind. I did not know that this paper would become a passport into what would eventually be my own Civil War odyssey, This Side of the River.
Whenever I teach Southern literature, I do my best to have a cross-section of perspectives so that it is not a single dominant view of “the South.” And while there are plenty of amazing Civil War materials written by men, I found that teaching one of these journals, such as Eliza Andrews’s War-Time Journal of a Georgia Girl, was very instructive. I suppose what has always struck me is how the myth of the Southern Rebel girl is so much a part of our Civil War literature, Scarlett O’Hara merely being the most famous. Oftentimes, when my students read such journals, they are amazed at the willful blindness these women (many of whom were quite intelligent and capable) would exhibit. They might recognize that Union prisoners at Andersonville were treated in ways that would foreshadow the Holocaust in the next century, yet they would still cling to the “Lost Cause” and deflect blame on the Union itself.
This seems to be at the heart of the matter to me with my novel. I have always been fascinated and horrified whenever many of my friends, who have been brilliant, capable and successful women, nevertheless attached themselves all too often with weak and even awful (or brutal) men as their lovers, husbands and fathers of their sad children. Moreover, Southern women are unfortunately actively acting against their own political interests—all in the name of the patriarchy that will promise protection but usually deliver second-class status. So it is my hope that these fictional war widows in my novel are all too human because of this. I’ve grown tired in both fiction and film reading and viewing super heroines who might be able to highkick villains in heels, but then are little better than another Charlie’s “angel” when all is said and done. The clarion call is always for more “strong female characters,” but we continue to define strength in terms that favor men. Which is why I was more interested following the journey of these specific women, warts and all, rather than create two-dimensional warrior women that resemble video game characters instead of flesh and bone humans. I did not seek out to write “herstory” anymore than history; I was more interested in story. That is where the life of your characters resides.
Also be sure to check out my review of Jeffrey Statyon's novel:
This Side of The River.