Posted on 19 January 2010

So, I recently have had a small idolization affair with General Sherman.  Not that I am by any means actually endorsing the actions the man took or the political theory he exhorted of Hard War, no.  But, there is something almost romantic about him.  He is legend, if a dark one.  Almost a hundred and fifty years after the fact, he is still reviled on a level reserved for despots and madmen such as Hitler and Pol Pot, even though he did far less damage and was far less influential.  Heck, he wasn’t even as nearly evil as the aforementioned, even if only arguably.  So what is it about William Tecumseh Sherman that makes him who he is in our minds today?

I think a large part of it is truly antagonism.  The man had a special hatred in his heart of the secessionist states, not that he really liked much of anyone.  On the same note, he did not really or honestly hold a grudge, even against South Carolina, which he did the most harm to during his campaigns.  In his writing, he even would say that he would gladly fight and die for the South, so long as it was in the name of the unified United States.  This was a man who saw no incongruence with yesterday’s vile enemy being tomorrow’s dear ally.

Not that a generational resident of Atlanta would say that, let alone Georgia or South Carolina.  While honestly, a good part of Northerner’s would be hit or miss on who Sherman was (and perhaps even lucky to recognize Grant), these names are immortalized in the South.  The antagonism of Sherman has survived generations, and in honest truth, his actions probably helped to ferment the Southern-Northern hatred (even though the carpetbagging and other “reconstructionist” doctrines decidedly helped as well.)  Never mind that Sherman actually did what he did to try and end the war quickly, much like when Truman dropped the bombs in Japan.  Never mind that he then offered very generous conditions of surrender to enemy forces that were only later refuted by Andrew Johnson (perhaps for good reason, perhaps not).  Never mind that the most gregarious of his “war crimes”, namely the burning of Atlanta and Columbia, were likely accidents or caused by the general confusion of war.  Some primary sources even note that Sherman himself was helping to fight the fires that burned in Columbia (although in another source one of Sherman’s officers more or less admitted that Union forces started the fires).

So, what the heck am I getting at?  Honestly, it isn’t a defense of Sherman, although I think he gets a wee bit of a bad wrap (not that he doesn’t deserve some of it).  No, it is writing, always.  Antagonism.  It is an awesome motivator.  I used to think that the hatred caused by a societal memory could not actually be good motivator, but since moving to the South, I can see how it could be.  Maybe not in a “level-headed” person, but added to some other traits such as upbringing and a strong sense of society, well, yeah.  A general hatred of a person just because of where they are from and what that represents is indeed a very strong motivation.  But, my former ignorance is also an enlightenment.

Many people don’t actually suffer this preconception, or if they do, it isn’t in a fashion that they can understand and relate to the page.  If you wish to use this as a motivator for a main character, you had best be sure to explain it in understandable terms.  Although, can I truly feel and understand the ire the South has for Sherman, even with it being a real thing that I can live in?  No, not really.  I have a historical bias that I am from the Midwest, and we don’t really have any inbred animosity like that.  What will tomorrow’s animosity be, though?  I am worried that my children will grow up to despise all Arabs simply because what one radical sect of Jihadists did, but I do have hope for them on the racism and sexism front, at least.  But, I wonder, do a people always have to have an enemy?  Must there always be a them for there to be an us?  Hmm . . . .  I’ll write on that later.

So, short of the skivvy.  Don’t assume your readers can understand a bone-deep non-personal antagonism easily.  Play it up too much, and it honestly comes off as being one-dimensional.  But, small mannerisms, offhand comments, and even straws that break camels’ backs are a perfect use for it.  And as long as there is something else to a character besides that, perhaps a small bit of depth where they can see humanity in their blood-enemy, but are still distrustful, well, it helps.

But . . . the need for enemies.  I think that will be Friday.

1 comment to Antagonism

  • The need for Sherman, now, is more prevalent than it was then. He is a classic anti-hero. Look at his pictures. The man has a deep cold look that is reserved for the psychopathic and the dead. He is the dark knight that brought the hammer down on a rebellion that would have lasted, gladly, three hundred years. A war of attrition. He was the thug, the capo, that America needed to solidify their hold on their own country before securing holds abroad.

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