“War is Hell”: Public History?

September 16, 2015 § 2 Comments

Wesleyan-hall-6-07

This is Wesleyan Hall on the campus of the University of North Alabama.  It is the oldest building on campus, dating back to 1855.  Florence, the town in which the university is located, was over-run by both Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War.  Parts of northern Alabama were actually pro-Union during the war and at least one town held a vote on seceding from the Confederate States of America.  This was made all the more complicated by the fact that the CSA was actually created in Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, and the first capital of the CSA, before it moved to Richmond, Virginia.

Wesleyan allegedly is still marked by the war, with burn marks in the basement from when Confederate troops attempted to burn it down in 1864.  A local told me this weekend that there is allegedly a tunnel out of the basement of Wesleyan that used to run down to the Tennessee River some 2 miles away.

The most famous occupant of Wesleyan Hall during the war was William Tecumseh Sherman.  It is in this building that he is alleged to have said that “war is hell” for the first time.  Of course, there are 18 other places where he is alleged to have said this.  And herein lies the position of the public historian.

Personally, I think Sherman said “war is hell” multiple times over the course of the Civil War, and why wouldn’t he?  From what I know of war, from literature, history, and friends who have seen action, war is indeed hell.  But I am less interested in where he coined the phrase than I am in the multiple locales he may or may not have done so.  What matters to me is not the veracity of the claim, but the reasons for the claim.

So why would people in at least 19 different locations claim that Sherman coined the phrase at that location?  This, to me, seems pretty clear. It’s a means of connecting a location to a famous event, to a famous man, to raise a relatively obscure location (like, say, Florence, Alabama) to a larger scale, onto a larger stage.  It ties the University of North Alabama to the Civil War.  But more than that, since we already know the then LaGrange College was affected by the war, but the attempt to claim Sherman’s most famous utterance creates both fame for the university, and makes the claim that something significant connected to the war occurred on the campus.  There are no major battlefields in the immediate vicinity of northern Alabama, so, failing that, we can claim Sherman declared that ‘war is hell’ in Wesleyan Hall.

The Civil War and the Atlanta Flames

February 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

Atlanta Flames goalie, Daniel Bouchard, c. 1977

Atlanta Flames goalie, Daniel Bouchard, c. 1977

Last week, I was watching the Calgary Flames play, I can’t remember who they were playing; I watch a lot of hockey.  I’ve never liked the Flames.  They were arch rivals of the Vancouver Canucks in the 1980s and, as much as I have never cheered for the Canucks (who wore the ugliest uniforms in NHL history in that era), I never cheered for their rivals either (Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Calgary), with the exception of the Los Angeles Kings.  The Flames also committed the venial sin of defeating the Montréal Canadiens for the Stanley Cup in 1989 (to this day, the last time two Canadian teams played for Lord Stanley of Preston’s mug).

Vancouver Canucks road uniforms, 1978-84

Vancouver Canucks road uniforms, 1978-84

The Calgary Flames came into existence in 1980, when the Atlanta Flames packed up shop and moved to the much smaller Canadian city (in a wonderful twist of fate, Atlanta’s next chance at an NHL team, the Thrashers, packed up and moved the much smaller Canadian city of Winnipeg in 2011, where they became the Jets, Version 2.0, the original Jets having moved to Phoenix in 1996, becoming the Coyotes).

When I was a kid, the Atlanta Flames were this team that no one ever thought about.  The only real time they entered my consciousness was in 1977 or 1978, when my parents were considering moving from Montréal to Atlanta.  We moved to Toronto instead.  But, due to the snow storm that hit Atlanta last week and the fact that it was in the news, I was thinking about the old Atlanta Flames whilst watching the Calgary Flames.

I may be slow on the uptake, but the reason why the Atlanta NHL team was called the Flames was a Civil War reference.  After Atlanta fell to the Union Army under General William Tecumseh Sherman in July 1864, Sherman, a vindictive sort, ordered the civilian population out, and then proceeded to sack the city old school, by burning it (though he was persuaded to save the city’s churches by Fr. Thomas O’Reilly of the Church of the Immaculate Conception).  The city was devastated.

The ruins of the Atlanta rail roundhouse, July 1864

The ruins of the Atlanta rail roundhouse, July 1864

Calgary Flames star Kent Nilsson, c. 1984

When Atlanta was awarded an NHL expansion franchise for the 1972-3 season, Tom Cousins, the owner, chose the name to commemorate the burning of Atlanta.  When the Flames relocated to Calgary eight years later, Nelson Skalbania, the new owner, decided to keep the name, thinking it a fitting name for an oil town.  The uniforms remained the same, except that the flaming A was replaced by a flaming C.

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