Search :
Spring 2000

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Spring 00 > Article

FOLKLORE- Where Fact Meets Fiction
by Steven N. Koppes

He is evil incarnate. A devil, a destroyer, a demon. In the local folklore, generations later, tales of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's deeds still hang over Georgia like smoke from the legendary burning of Atlanta.

So when folklorist Elissa R. Henken moved to Georgia in 1989, she expected to hear stories of Sherman's ruthless conquest. But what she heard instead made her do a double take - and sparked nearly a decade of research into Southern folklore surrounding one of the most mythic figures of the Civil War.

When Henken, a UGA English professor, first assigned her students to report on local legends, the stories she heard weren't just of Sherman's depraved destruction.

"Instead I heard stories about how one particular town was saved, how it was preserved," she said. "And each town seemed to think that it was the only one."

The stories caught her attention, because Henken had seen the pattern before, in stories from another time and place: the legends of Owain Glyndöwr who unsuccessfully fought for Welsh independence from England in the early 15th century.

Like Sherman, Glyndöwr (Glin-door) reportedly led a destructive campaign across the countryside. But while Glyndöwr's legendry has only a few stories of places preserved, which serve to underline his great destructiveness, Sherman's legendry is replete with stories about the places he spared.

Intrigued, Henken began conducting her own fieldwork across Georgia, adding still more stories to those of her students. As she made her way from one community to another, Henken found the story of the town preserved to be a common one - whether or not the town actually stood in the Union army's path. And she also uncovered more personal tales with a common thread: legends about specific houses that were preserved and stories about how individual families had protected their goods from Sherman's scavengers.

"What strikes me most forcefully is this image of Sherman as the ravaging monster, going through Georgia but pausing, being tamed by some civilizing aspect of the South," Henken said.

In these accounts, Sherman spares the town because he spent the night at the home of a West Point classmate (Covington) or because an old girlfriend lived in the city (Augusta, Madison and Savannah) or because the town was simply too beautiful to destroy (Madison, Savannah and Social Circle). One story claims the town (Madison) owed its salvation to the fried chicken dinners its women cooked for a grateful Sherman and his men.

In Jenkinsville, so the story goes, Sherman took the floorboards and pews from the local church because he needed the wood. "He left a note on the door apologizing for it, and that's why he didn't burn Jenkinsville, because he had desecrated their church," Henken said.

Sometimes, though, stories maintain that the locals simply outwitted the Yankee invaders.

"There's a lot of trickery involved, especially by women," Henken said. Ironically, even in deceit, these women often appealed to the soldiers' gentlemanly behavior in order to save their property or their goods. According to one story, a woman stashes the family silver in her featherbed, then climbs under the covers herself and feigns illness. When the soldiers come, she asks, "You wouldn't make a poor, sick woman get out of bed, would you?"

They don't, so she saves the family silver. A variation of this tale substitutes the family's weapons for the silver. Another story describes a woman hiding the family's last chicken (already in the cooking pot) under the full skirts of her dress.

Stories such as these continue to be told and retold, often by succeeding generations for their own changing purposes - and only for as long as they hold meaning, Henken said. It's a natural process, folklore's equivalent to the Darwinian struggle for survival. Many events are never woven into stories. Others are told for a while, then fade as they lose significance. But the ones that survive are put to use.

"The narratives that we tell about our past create expectations for us about the way the world is or the way it should be," Henken said. "It gives us a sense not only of who we are and how we came to be that way, but also of where we're going."

The tales of Glyndöwr are a case in point. In her book, National Redeemer: Owain Glyndöwr in Welsh Tradition, Henken examines the interplay of history and folklore - how history shapes the legend, and how the legend shapes history.

When Glyndöwr started his uprising against the English in 1400, his people perceived him as the seventh in a line of eight "redeemer heroes" - a mythical hero who never died and who will one day return to restore his nation's glory.

"They saw him as this next redeemer hero, and he played on that, not just with the Welsh but with the king of France and the Irish and Scottish lords who had been prophesied to come and help the Welsh when the redeemer would come," Henken said. "So he wrote to them and reminded them of the prophecy, that they were expected to help."

Glyndöwr's efforts against the English fell just short of success, and he disappeared in 1415. The legends, though, claim he never died. They say that he's simply asleep in the hills, waiting until the time is right to return. Through the simple power of words carried down through the centuries, Glyndöwr has become a primary symbol of modern Welsh nationalism, Henken said.

"He's used as a reminder that the nation could be free, could be independent, if the battle were just completed," she said. "There's a group that burns down English-owned summer homes in Wales. They call themselves Meibion Glyndöwr [Sons of Glyndöwr], and they sign their letters to the police with the name of his first lieutenant."

Political speeches and protest songs also contain references to Glyndöwr. And his name comes up even in semi-casual conversation. "When someone talks about a major problem they're having, not a personal problem but a community problem, they say, "If only Glyndöwr would come,'" Henken said.

Henken's book on Glyndöwr has earned favorable attention both at home and abroad. BBC Radio Wales interviewed her twice shortly after the book was published. In 1998, the book earned her a Creative Research Medal from the UGA Research Foundation.

"Elissa is an absolutely first-rate folklorist," said Charles Doyle, a UGA associate professor of English. "Her approach is deeply informed by her knowledge and understanding of how legends work in various historical eras, the patterns that connect the legends of, for example, medieval Wales with the legends of modern Georgia."

"Although in one case," Henken said, "the legends are about the community's hero and in the other about its villian, both societies have had to try to salvage - against considerable odds - a dignified identity from the throes of military defeat and national subordination. Both have had to endure not only economic depredations, but also the scorn and ridicule of the conquerors."

Men MarchingThough the folklore Henken studies is tightly interwoven with history, verifying or disproving the stories as actual events holds little interest for her. For example, she has found that some of the stories of "the town preserved" arose in communities that were never in Sherman's path in the first place. So what?

"This is an area where historians and I differ," Henken said. "I'm not interested as much in what actually happened as in what people perceived to have happened. That's what people base their actions, their beliefs, their attitudes on."

Sometimes in her fieldwork, Henken has to confront the differences between folklore and historical fact head on. For instance, in 1996, organizers of the Sons of Confederate Veterans' annual convention in Milledgeville, Ga., granted her permission to collect stories. One man she met there was skeptical. Would this native New Yorker, asking all these questions, really tell the truth? Henken replied that it was not her aim to determine the factual truth, but that she could promise to present its voice as accurately as possible.

"It reminded me that so much of my job as a folklorist is to let different voices be heard," she said. "I try to make some sense of it, but the first thing is that people get to tell their own story, the world as they know it."

The Sons of Confederate Veterans did, in fact, entrust Henken with a treasure trove of stories. A requirement of membership in the Sons is to document the Confederate military service of their ancestors, so the storytellers naturally were steeped in history. They could recite tales of conflicts in which their warrior-ancestors had fought as far back as the Celts in Ireland. Their pride in the military heritage of their families carried through the Civil War to the World Wars, Korea and Vietnam.

And yet more often than not, the stories they told Henken were about what had happened on the home front rather than on the battle front. They told stories of families suffering, of women outwitting soldiers who came to steal from them, of troops who came to take provisions but, after hearing of the family's privations, ended up leaving food instead. The interviews demonstrated just how powerful family narratives can be.

"These stories had great emotional impact. The people telling the stories would be tearing up, and I'd be listening and tearing up," she said. "They kept trying to explain to me how much their families had suffered, sometimes during the war itself and sometimes during Reconstruction."

Many of the men who talked with Henken at the convention were Vietnam veterans who had endured disparagement and stigma when they returned home, and they recounted how it had been the same for their ancestors after the Civil War. They used their forefathers' example to assess their own actions, as a standard to which they should be held.

The women Henken met in Milledgeville did likewise. They talked about the strength of their foremothers who had managed to keep their homesteads going, feeding and taking care of their children during very trying times. "They'd say, ÔI don't know how they did it. I don't think I'd have the strength to do it,'" Henken said.

Henken attempts to fit the folk tales into a framework that explains both their origin and their purpose. To some extent the legends seem to keep alive the memory of a righteous South battling a wicked North, she said. Legends in general, as Doyle noted, might be called folk history. "They are one of the ways in which oral tradition retains memories of the past, often beyond any living individual's memory," he said.

Yet Henken suspects that the effect of the Sherman legends is more complicated than that - assuaging survivor's guilt, denying collaboration with the enemy and, most importantly, asserting cultural pride and values. As a matter of historical record, Sherman's policy was to destroy towns that resisted his armies and to spare those that did not. A community left intact thus risked having its Confederate loyalty called into question.

Henken has found a number of stories in which a town is saved as the result of a bribe or some other questionable act performed by the mayor. The reputation of the community's citizens as a whole could, therefore, remain intact at the expense of one man.

"These stories exist as a way of saying that they didn't consort with the enemy, they didn't give in, that this civilizing effect they had on Sherman was part of their virtue," she said. "In taming the Northern monster, a conquered people overcame its enemy."

Marching to the Sea...
For behind they left a wailing,
   A terror and a ban,
And blazing cinders sailing,
   And houseless households wan,
Wide zones of country paling
   And towns where maniacs ran.
Was it Treason's retribution -
   Necessity the plea?
They will long remember Sherman
   And his streaming columns free -
They will long remember Sherman
   Marching to the sea.

                                     - Herman Melville

E-mail ehenken@uga.cc.uga.edu for more information.

Steven N. Koppes, an award-winning writer, is a former UGA assitant director of research communications and associate editor of Research Reporter. He has a bachelor's degree in anthropology and a master's degree in journalism, and is a science writer at the University of Chicago.


Return to Spring 2000 Index

Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
For comments or for information please e-mail the editor: rcomm@uga.edu
To contact the webmaster please email: ovprweb@uga.edu










General William T. Sherman