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Monumental Misunderstanding

August 23, 2017

Tearing down an edifice is retouching; educating yourself about history is transformational.

All History Is Local

New Yorkers admire General William Tecumseh Sherman in part because he lived here and because the local temperament suited his blunt candor. When giving a Commencement address to military college graduates, he punctured a great big apple hole in the theory that battle is glorious when he told them, “War is hell.”

It is why a majestic, gilded-bronze statue of Sherman by Beaux-Arts sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens rests in Central Park today right by President Donald Trump’s former property, the Plaza Hotel.

Two of the more interesting facts are Sherman’s horse is standing on Georgia pine needles, an artistic dig at the slaveholding South. Gaudens also purposely chose an African American model, Hettie Eugenia Anderson, for the image of the woman who leads Sherman.


The hellishness of war was something Sherman understood and knew how to make others understand. But he was trying to avoid a different kind of hell.

When Sherman burned Atlanta to the ground during the Civil War, he left behind an inventory of atrocity. It didn’t matter if you were a slaveholder or a soldier performing your duty. Victory in the most efficient manner possible was the goal of a general, and if ruthlessness helped achieve it, that’s what Sherman did. It wasn’t for glory as I pointed out earlier, nor was it for fame. He was thinking of a larger narrative.


General William Tecumseh Sherman (photo by Civil War photog Matthew Brady)

Lincoln and His General

The country lost faith in its Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, and his slow prosecution of the war. In 1864, Democrats ran an opponent, George B. McClellan, on a pro slavery platform. Ironically, Lincoln had fired McClellan for lacking audacity and slowness— when he was General of the Grand Army of the Potomac (the Central Park plaza is named after it). The election outcome was tilted strongly in McClellan’s favor.

Democrats were prepared to sue for peace with slavery maintaining a permanent place in our affairs. Sherman’s victory was the essential element in bringing popular opinion back to the president. He had to win and at great cost, he did.

After the battlefield victories, Lincoln went on to win and newly named African Americans, former slaves, were emancipated officially throughout the land. Had it not been for Sherman, Lincoln would have lost. It might have permanently legitimized slavery in our young country, and over one million Civil War dead would have perished for nothing.


Sherman’s Atlanta Legacy

It makes one wonder why there is no Sherman statue in Atlanta.

Atlanta is no longer a city in the antebellum Confederate flag South. It is a multi-racial melting pot that represents the best of what America can be when our mix of people put their heads together instead of banging them.

In a recent New York Times article on the Central Park Sherman statue, the Mayor’s office had this to say: “Feelings about the Civil War are mixed even among Atlanta’s increasingly rare natives — after all, the city has been home to one of the most thriving and affluent African-American communities in the nation. The city is the birthplace of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ambassador Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis, Juanita Abernathy, the Rev. C. T. Vivian.”

One might think that a Sherman statue is just what Atlanta needs to address the clamor over slavery and civil rights?

Yet Atlanta demurs. Why?

It seems to me the city judges history with a long lens, making adjustments and changes as the local citizens feel appropriate and right for the time.

Putting up a statue of Sherman to commemorate his impact on African Americans would seem to be a good idea. For those with vengeance in mind, it would also serve as a reminder of the Southern culture that bred slavery, in a very Shermanesque fashion.

But the good people of this most reliably mixed race city have a way of coming together to make decisions that considers sensitivities. History is never about one thing but many things.

This is no different than taking down statues of Robert E. Lee from their resting place due to changes in historical views. It is time for concerned citizens to make sure the truth of history is represented in our public parks and spaces. But there are also sensitivities and we need time and a proper process to consider them.

When hooligans with masks destroy public property because they simply find it too tempting to stick a thumb in the eye of people who require more education, that’s misguided. Take the argument into the arena where we can debate and educate.

Sherman’s statue was finished by Saint-Gaudens in 1903, his last major work. It was said by the Saturday Evening Post after the 11-year effort, “Saint-Gaudens is one of those artists for whom it is worthwhile to wait.”

When we think of how much America still has to learn about its past, and while there is much to correct, the details need to be better understood by all, so it may be worthwhile to take some time, too.

 

Author's Bio

Jeff Cunningham is an advocate for enlightened global leadership, which he calls the most valuable natural resource in the world. 

He is a Professor at ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management and was the former publisher of Forbes Magazine, startup founder, digital content CEO, and ran an internet venture capital fund.

He travels the globe in search of iconic leaders. As an interviewer/host, he created a YouTube interview series, Iconic Voices, now co-produced by @Thunderbird, featuring mega moguls from Warren Buffett to JeffImmelt. His articles on leadership have been featured in the Arizona Republic, LinkedIn and Medium via JeffCunningham.com. 

His career experience includes publisher of Forbes Magazine; founder of Directorship Magazine; CEO of Zip2 (founded by Elon Musk), Myway.com, and CareerTrack.com; venture partner with Schroders. He serves as a trustee of the McCain Institute and previously as a trustee of CSIS and Middle East Institute, and as an advisor to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. 

He has also been a board director of 10 public companies.