The play’s the thing: a magical mirror

Jim Duffy (left) as Col. Alfred Rhett and John Lescault as Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.
Jim Duffy (left) as Col. Alfred Rhett and John Lescault as Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Craig McPherson

I’m not a historian, much less a scientist, so I can’t really say for sure whether human activity caused the American Civil War. But no matter what the cause — and no matter what our political persuasion — we can all agree that the Civil War formally ended exactly 150 years ago this spring.

What will never end is the ever-changing interpretations of the war’s bloody battles, counterfactuals and ultimate meaning. For example, despite the many myths surrounding it, did Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox really end the war?

That’s just one of a number of questions explored in James Reston Jr.’s play, “Sherman the Peacemaker,” to be performed this Saturday at John Henry’s Stone Hill Amphitheater in Flint Hill. For Southerners especially, the play’s title is jarring. To them, William Tecumseh Sherman’s destructive “March to the Sea” across Georgia and then north through the Carolinas made him more appropriately characterized as a war criminal or, at best, a terrible angel of revenge.

Closer to home, “The Burning” of the Shenandoah Valley by Phil Sheridan’s troops meant that what once was the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy” had become, it was said, so desolate that crows flying over it had to carry their own provisions. Like Sherman’s, Sheridan’s name can still evoke rage among some Southerners. But:

After Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination, almost 100,000 Confederate troops under the command of General Joseph E. Johnston remained under arms. They could have easily carried on a guerilla war indefinitely. When in Reston’s play Sherman tells Johnston, “You’re whipped,” the Confederate general softly but boldly replies: “Perhaps. My boys thrive in open country.”

That the war did not devolve into an endless guerilla conflict — à la the U.S. experience in Vietnam and Iraq — can be credited to the honorable surrender terms that Sherman and Johnston negotiated. The Rebels would not be punished. Instead, they were given what the Ghost of Lincoln (in Reston’s play) says they should be given: “All that is left to them is the hope of honorable terms.”

Respect and honor for the opposing side: Without that, no conflict can ever really end, can it? Maybe Reston’s play will resonate among participants in Rappahannock’s current — seemingly never-ending and ever uglier — contretemps over the soul of Little Washington? Civility, not civil conflict, can bring the most lasting resolution.