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11 September, 2010

Sherman Pass

Memory outlasts individuals. Sometimes it becomes history, even myth. Depending on where you grew up, the mythistory of General Sherman is one of crusader or terrorist. This has to do with the American Civil War, but his shadow darkens other places as well--commemoratively on a Californian tree and a NW mountain pass, and bloodily on Indian Country.

My grandmother lived in Cheraw, SC, the last town burned and looted on Sherman's march. Some histories say he'd not intended this to happen, but nobody stopped it and he didn't apologize, pay off the victims, or help them rebuild. Many histories take pains to point out that his famed pillagatory sweep was basically just property damage, that he didn't slaughter civilians, and that destroying infrastructure, fields, livestock, and food stores was just a military action. Or a just military action, or some such bullshit. But the fact is that when you make the food disappear, people starve. Some survive, but it takes years to rebuild, decades to recover, and generations to forget (or not, as this entry suggests).

This uncivil campaign was not an isolated event, either in the history of the civil war, or US Army annals, or even Sherman's career. General Sheridan, like many Union generals a noted wimp, laid waste to the Shenandoah Valley in between carefully chosen mismatches and retreats; like the Nazis, he kept meticulous records of his destruction, even used them to brag. Oh, sick irony. Both of these guys proved that you can win, and win big, with the following assholish strategy: avoid engaging the enemy army, vandalize property, and waste food.

Both of them took their Sher-fire methods on the road after the war, too. [The most famous of their minions to get his due, George Custer, had also honed his warcraft in the Shenandoah burning out civilians.] Sherman commanded forces whose goal was to rid Indian Country of Indians. As before, he favored chickenshit tactics like attacking weakened winter encampments, or killing buffalo to starve out the enemy. Unlike before, when the southerners they were fighting at least bore them some resemblance, both men approved of slaughtering civilians once they got into the territories. So this boy named Tecumseh by a father who had admired that native leader grew into a man who ordered other natives killed off like so many southern livestock. Sicker irony.

By the time Sherman was rewarded with command of the entire US Army, the killing was mostly done in the south and west. I think was during this time that things began to be named for him, including that giant sequioa in California and the pass in Washington.

I drove through that pass last week, and the landscape echoed Sherman's experience. Heading east from Tonasket, Route 20 is dotted with abandoned cabins in a lands wrested from the tribal reservations after, yep, gold was discovered in them thar hills. (Prior to the Civil War, Sherman's claim to fame had been providing military order over the northern California gold rush.) Climbing closer to the pass, sick trees become more and more common. Blame it on introduced pests or on the global warming wrought by an American that industrialized evermore since the 1860s military requirements, but the sick forest is at least partly a legacy of manifestly stupid destiny. Then, reaching the highlands, a final poignant reminder for those not willing to stretch the links so far as I do: burnt forest. No, Sherman didn't light the match, but the fact that the road leading to the pass named for  a famed pyromaniac leads through skeletons burnt black or bleached white after the "White Mountain Fire" was sick irony aplenty.

Ahhh...heroes, they make me throw up in my mouth a little.

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