Social media have become platforms for attaching new meanings to the past. On Reddit, the community known as r/ShermanPosting has critically reexamined General William Tecumseh Sherman and the political meanings of the American Civil War, a conflict in which he played a major role. Content on r/ShermanPosting positions the general as a unionist and an accidental champion of civil rights. Redditors have employed this image to combat far-right rhetoric from other corners of social media. This article analyzes the content of r/ShermanPosting, particularly the user comments and popular memes that circulate on this site, to argue that netizens are reinterpreting the past and using digital history to make sense of the highly partisan political environment of the 2020s. Deeper collaboration with modern scholarship on the Civil War could enhance the meanings of content produced on this platform to offer an even more robust form of digital history. Above all, r/ShermanPosting demonstrates that memes, images paired with humorous captions, can make the past accessible online in humorous but meaningful ways.

The guns of Union and Confederate armies may have fallen silent over a century ago, but fights over the meaning of the American Civil War continue. Recently, digital history has opened new fronts in the battle over what the conflict signifies to modern Americans. Although some commentators have justifiably perceived online discourse as a hotbed for subversion and racism, more nuanced ideologies have also found support online. On May 14, 2019, users of the social media website Reddit opened a new community designed to reinterpret the Civil War in a popular context. Dubbed r/ShermanPosting, this subreddit (or forum on the broader website) puts forth an interpretation of the legacy of United States General William Tecumseh Sherman, a practitioner of scorched-earth tactics who sapped southern states of their will to fight and their economic capacity to do so. Beyond glorifying a major figure in American military history, r/ShermanPosting offers an informative case study for public historians and digital humanists. Memes, news stories, and other content posted to this subreddit reveal how users have built digital communities around a historical figure. Many of the items on r/ShermanPosting aim to discredit subversion and division in modern America, instead encouraging all visitors to use Sherman and his actions as a counter to seditious discourse.

Studying r/ShermanPosting has significant implications for digital history, historiography, and public history. On this subreddit, users have ascribed new meanings to historical concepts. Scholar Wendy Griswold has offered the idea of casting culture, or melting down cultural artifacts into raw form and pouring them into new molds to inspire fresh meanings.1 Through their posts celebrating the demise of the Confederacy and the rejection of the values it embodied, users of r/ShermanPosting have “recast” Sherman as a champion of American diversity in the twenty-first century and a staunch opponent of the divisive political rhetoric that has taken hold among radical right-wing groups. In the hands of redditors, “Uncle Billy,” as his troops dubbed the general, has become an icon around which to build community online by dismantling the “Lost Cause” mentality and countering the impact of racist and other discordant rhetoric.

Exploring social media can provide scholars with insights into how specific, digitally literate publics such as r/ShermanPosting understand contested aspects of the past. Students of the discipline have offered numerous definitions for the term “public history.” This article contends that it refers to any engagement with the past outside conventional scholarly forums such as peer-reviewed journals and monographs.2 Some scholars consider social media to be a means for creating popular, rather than “public,” history. This term refers to interpretations of the past that are crafted for public audiences and distributed through mass media.3 One could also consider Reddit a form of digital history, that is, historical work on which scholars and members of the public collaborate to create shared understandings of the past through websites, digital imaging projects, and virtual archives. Digital history extends to participatory formats offered by Web 2.0, such as YouTube videos or social media posts.4 To further complicate matters, efforts to craft historical outreach online fall into the field of digital humanities, a concept related to, but distinct from, digital history.5 These interrelated terms—public history, popular history, digital history, and digital humanities—define overlapping concepts, all of which apply to the use of memes and other types of digital communications on Reddit.

This article explores the methods and ideologies of r/ShermanPosting. These range from fighting against the Lost Cause to recasting Sherman as a civil rights champion (a role in which scholarly historians would never place him) and grounding historical discourse about the Civil War into contemporary politics. Exploring the complexities of r/ShermanPosting reveals how social media can support a participatory form of digital history. Michael Frisch, in his formulation of the concept of shared authority, noted that the collision of public ideals with historical inquiry can produce fascinating new approaches to and understandings of the past.6 Combining online discourse with newer scholarly sources on the Civil War could deepen the already robust engagement with the past exhibited by redditors, resulting in provocative yet historiographically informed content. Such efforts would mirror other successful partnerships in digital history, including collaborations between scholars and users on the subreddit r/AskHistorians. Regardless of the impact that a more nuanced understanding of the history of the Civil War would have, r/ShermanPosting already demonstrates a new form of digital history, a confluence of historical content with progressive political views, which allows users to understand Sherman and the Civil War from the vantage point of twenty-first century America.

The role for which redditors have recast their historical beau ideal derives from his military legacy. Born in 1820 to parents Charles R. and Mary Hoyt Sherman in Lancaster, Ohio, the man who would become indispensable to the Union war effort in the 1860s was originally known simply as Tecumseh Sherman, adding the name William later.7 After graduating from West Point, Sherman served in military positions across the country. During his service, he became very familiar with antebellum plantations in the American South. Even when southern states seceded to protect their right to hold Black slaves, Sherman did not criticize the “peculiar institution.” Indeed, he maintained friendships with numerous southern aristocrats and military figures, including Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard.8

Although tolerant of slavery, Sherman found secession deserving of military suppression. Following the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Sherman fought for the Union. After a stint as a brigade commander during the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, he served in Kentucky and Missouri. Sherman’s hardworking, frantic demeanor caused the press to deem him “insane.” Despite this public condemnation, Sherman fought brilliantly in multiple western campaigns, particularly at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. He formed a close friendship with his commander, General Ulysses S. Grant, forging a strategic partnership that transformed the Union war effort.9 As Grant became commander of all Union armies, Sherman received command of the armies of the west, notably including the Army of the Tennessee.10

Sherman’s most celebrated (and condemned) act was his March to the Sea, an aggressive campaign in which the general allowed his troops to live off the countryside of Georgia as a message to southerners that he would take whatever actions he deemed militarily appropriate to defeat the rebels. Comprised of two wings, Sherman’s army of approximately 60,000 men set out for the Atlantic coast from Atlanta on November 12, 1864. Sherman’s forces decimated civilian and business properties such as farms and railroads. Soldiers removed the wooden ties of railroad tracks, setting them ablaze and using the heat to make steel rails malleable enough to twist into “Sherman neckties” that southerners could no longer use for transportation. “Bummers” from Sherman’s army foraged for food on southern plantations.11 However, Sherman implored his soldiers to follow codes of military conduct during the March. As modern historians have stressed, Sherman’s forces did not simply commit wanton destruction. Despite taking crops and other resources from southerners, Sherman left civilians with enough food to avoid starvation, and did not kill them unprovoked. His army also absorbed a number of Black Americans who escaped bondage as Union forces marched across Georgia, much to the chagrin of their commander.12 The troops, enamored of Sherman’s skill, conviction, and hard war philosophy, revered their leader as “Uncle Billy.”13 Although the March to the Sea concluded on December 24, 1864, with the capture of the port city of Savannah, Georgia, Sherman and his troops subsequently turned north to Virginia, causing widespread devastation as they marched through South Carolina on their way to join Grant’s forces at Richmond.14 “Boys,” Sherman reportedly told his troops as they entered the first state to secede from the Union, “this is old South Carolina, let’s give her hell.” While the army wrought more destruction in South Carolina than it had in the Peach State, historians emphasize that Sherman had captured Atlanta bloodlessly, and largely avoided committing atrocities during the March to the Sea.15 This dualism of destruction and restraint has defined Sherman’s military legacy since 1864.

To scholar Anne Sarah Rubin, Sherman not only cut a swath across the American South, but left an imprint on the landscape of American memory. She tracked his legacy through a digital humanities project dedicated to the March. Titled Sherman’s March and America: Mapping Memory, this website combined maps, art, and videos to explore this historical event from the viewpoints of participants. However, long before Rubin’s digital history project, nineteenth-century Americans went to great lengths to preserve memories of the March. Songs, poems, and written works such as Sherman’s memoirs discussed this historical event in detail. Whereas northerners celebrated the impact of the March in drawing the war to a successful conclusion, southerners vilified Sherman and his soldiers. Confederate president Jefferson Davis and early southern historians of the Civil War castigated the general as a ruthless destroyer, popularizing the idea of a vindictive North plundering a defenseless South.16 As Davis’s protests and Rubin’s exploration show, by the end of Sherman’s life, he had carved a niche for himself in the annals of the United States primarily for his war-making capacity long before memes memorialized him.

Although Sherman played a critical role in the destruction of the Confederacy—or perhaps because he did—he has attracted critics over time, particularly adherents of the Lost Cause school of historical thought. The Lost Cause ideology, developed by southerners after the Civil War, justified secession and rebellion as a noble struggle against northern tyranny. It positioned the South and its disunion from the rest of the United States as resulting from that section’s “culturally superiority” to the North. Lost Cause organizations such as the Sons of the Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, as well as the journal Confederate Veteran, excused the South’s racial stratification, bigotry, enslavement of Black Americans, and secession. These entities scorned Sherman and the Union war effort.17 Even university-trained historians, primarily members of the so-called Dunning School, contrived scholarly explanations for the Lost Cause.18 Historian Wesley Moody characterized Sherman as the antithesis, or “demon,” of the Lost Cause mentality, suggesting a philosophical and historical binary between the general and secessionists.

Beyond criticisms levelled by followers of the Lost Cause, Sherman enjoys a mixed legacy among modern historians. Some modern scholars perceive Sherman as a pragmatist whose military philosophy and campaigns predicted the total warfare model of the twentieth century.19 Others have emphasized Sherman’s initial reluctance to engage in destructive warfare. Biographer John Marszalek explained that Sherman abhorred wanton destruction, but targeted economic and civilian resources as a form of psychological warfare against secessionists. Joseph Glatthiar similarly noted that Sherman’s troops largely avoided committing crimes during the March to the Sea.20 Sherman wrote that “War is at best barbarism, but to involve all—children, women, old and helpless—is more than can be justified. Our men will become absolutely lawless unless this can be checked,” and he left families whose plantations he raided with enough food to survive.21 Despite his own and later scholars’ justification for his actions, some members of the public have criticized Sherman for the brutality his armies demonstrated against secessionists. In 1968, residents defaced a statue of Sherman in Pickerington, Ohio, by removing its hand and head, with repairs only completed in 2013.22 However, southern sentiment toward Sherman also shows signs of revisionism. In 2014, the Georgia Historical Society funded the placement of a marker to Sherman’s March to the Sea in Atlanta, Georgia. The plaque went to great lengths to establish Sherman’s attacks as fixed on “Atlanta’s industrial and business (but not residential) districts,” language that drew praise from scholars while annoying some southerners.23 In the hyper-partisan twenty-first century, Sherman remains divisive, hailed by some as one of the heroes who brought the carnage of the Civil War to an end and loathed by others who perceived him as a barbaric, destructive invader.

Perhaps this polarized understanding of Sherman’s place in American history made his role as a topic for online discussion inevitable. Recently, some netizens have embraced Sherman, restoring him to the highest echelon of the American military pantheon and attaching new meanings to his legacy. The social media website Reddit has produced an entire community dedicated to Sherman’s decisive warfare and dogmatic determination to preserve the Union. Launched in 2005 by University of Virginia students Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, Reddit allows users to create or subscribe to communities called subreddits.24 These are formed around shared interests, which can range from government news (such as r/politics) to animals (like r/corgi) and memes (r/prequelmemes, focused on some of the Star Wars films, remains a popular destination). Reddit boasts over fifty million visits by registered users each day, making it a sizable platform. Given its variety of content, its sizable audience, and the depth of (some of) its conversations, Reddit’s claim to be “the front page of the internet” is not unjustified.25 Content is user-generated, and visitors can easily share it—by crossposting, to use the platform’s terminology—from one subreddit to another.26 Additionally, the site aggregates the most popular content to the centralized hubs of r/All and r/Popular. Reddit selects content for these pages by highlighting posts that receive enough upvotes (likes) to significantly increase posters’ karma scores.27

Memes account for a large amount of content posted to Reddit. The term “meme” originally referred to aspects of culture that self-replicated, but has developed a new definition in online environments. In digital settings, the term meme generally applies to an image and caption, with one or both frequently taken out of original context for the sake of humor. Internet memes usually tap into current topics or popular subject matter, and are designed for netizens to spread them easily by text messages, group chats, or on social media.28 Although memes typically rely on recycled images or captions to generate discussion, they offer a window into shared cultural ideas. With deeply embedded social and political content, such as posts that link civil rights to the Civil War created on r/ShermanPosting, these sources will offer future historians sources for understanding social interaction on Web 2.0.

The increasing popularity of memes in the 2010s and 2020s has driven the growth of social media and provided Americans with new ways to form digital communities around politics. For instance, the subreddit r/The_Donald offered a haven to supporters of the forty-fifth American president, where users posted memes and conspiracy theories connected to President Trump’s policies. Sometimes communities such as r/The_Donald have become problematic. In the context of this article, a problematic community is one that shares offensive rhetoric, misinformation, disinformation, and sexist, misogynistic, or other bigoted or prejudicial language. These practices violate Reddit’s formal Content Policy and informal guidelines for “Reddiquette.” Such violations frequently result in Reddit administrators quarantining or shutting down subreddits, as in the case of r/The_Donald.29

These measures have not stemmed destructive online behavior. Harmful social media outlets like r/The_Donald continue to negatively influence online discourse. During the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, some users took to social media to share disinformation about the disease, spreading falsehoods that may have lengthened the pandemic and magnified its harmful impact.30 Following the American presidential election of 2020, supporters of incumbent Donald Trump used social media to baselessly question the legitimacy of Joseph Biden’s electoral victory. Using Facebook and Twitter, these users spread false information that election fraud had cost Trump a second term in the White House.31 As Simon Strick noted, fascist groups have gone online and used methods such as memes to reinterpret history and build political followings around hateful and exclusive ideologies.32 Such instances vividly illustrate the deleterious influence that social media can have on national or international discourse when rooted in disinformation.

Other subreddits behave more constructively. As Terri Lee Harel explored, the communities r/DataHoarder, r/CapitolConsequences, and r/January6 emerged after the failed right-wing insurrection of January 6, 2021. These subreddits documented the rebellious actions that occurred at the US Capitol, preserving social media posts and other content from that day to hold lawbreakers accountable for their crimes. Harel characterized these webpages as a collective “rogue archive,” preserving historical memory to empower users in the face of institutional control online.33 As Brenna Collins and Dylan Ruediger explained, digital humanities are decentralizing and extending beyond academia.34 Reddit’s ability to create and archive content of historical events as they occur showcases a new way to practice digital humanities.

Content on r/ShermanPosting underlines redditors’ constructive use of politically charged historical content. Unlike quarantined communities that aimed to undermine American democracy, r/ShermanPosting offers the Union and one of its most capable generals as unifying symbols. The landing page’s image and community description of r/ShermanPosting immediately revealed its overarching themes. Atop the community’s homepage appears a banner depicting Sherman on horseback leading flag-waving Union troops. The site’s “about” section simply stated “The union forever,” and the first rule listed acceptable content: “Sherman (obviously), The Civil War in general, John brown and other abolitionists, and any current events related to the civil war and neo-confederates. Posts must not be pro-confederacy or anti-abolitionist” [sic].35 The subreddit thus immediately established strong anti-Confederate credentials.

The name of the subreddit is a pun on shitposting. According to the Internet lexicon Urban Dictionary, this entails “Ironically posting something which to the average person looks just like a cringy or weird or stereotypical post conforming to a norm, but is intended to mock, insult, or amuse.”36 Outwardly designed to provoke laughter by pairing images with captions, this particular strain of memes can contain provocative ideas that spur discussion over important topics. Users on r/ShermanPosting have used this tactic to form their digital community. As Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig postulated in their classic introduction to digital history, web platforms create opportunities for historians and users to negotiate “shared authority,” working directly with communities that produce, rather than simply absorb, content.37 Whereas Cohen and Rosenzweig offered their thoughts about digital history in 2005, before social media became mainstream, the creation of communities such as historically based subreddits has affirmed their thinking, and applied conceptions about the past to the present in ways scholars could not have previously imagined, including shitposts.

Content on r/ShermanPosting uses American history to declare undivided loyalty to the United States and rejection of subversion such as that espoused by neo-Confederates. The subreddit’s top post of all time, a video posted by user u/Someathist in February 2022, drew on Civil War imagery to skewer contemporary followers of the Confederacy. At the beginning of the video, u/Someathist posed at the center of the frame. A Confederate battle flag floated over her, and a caption appeared on the screen, declaring “The Confederate flag represents my history” (Figure 1). After a moment, u/Someathist reappeared a blue Union uniform and dabbed while the text “History of taking a Fat Fucking L” replaced the earlier wording (Figure 2). The Union version of the song “Dixie” played in the background, branding the South a “land of traitors, rattlesnakes, and alligators.” Patriotic imagery saturated the remainder of the video, including bald eagles, the American flag, and a burning Confederate battle flag fading into and out of view. The banner image of r/ShermanPosting, showing the general leading Union troops, also appeared in the video.38 This performance-based historical interpretation could not send its message more clearly: anyone who celebrates the Confederacy supports a rebellious organization that deserves ridicule.

Figures 1 and 2.

u/Someathist contests the Confederacy and its grip on American identity. (Reddit)

Figures 1 and 2.

u/Someathist contests the Confederacy and its grip on American identity. (Reddit)

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Content posted to r/ShermanPosting, such as u/Someathist’s video, render history accessible and ascribe new meanings to Sherman. Users recast the Civil War general as the savior of the Union and the bane of traitors, building a digital community around him. This unique form of user-generated digital humanities makes history participatory through memes by applying contemporary trappings to historical content. For instance, one post tapped into the vocabulary of sports by proclaiming, in a collegiate font, that as a general, Sherman was “Undefeated out of Conference” (Figure 3).39 A casual browser might mistake the image of Sherman for a basketball or football coach. The deeper meaning, namely Sherman’s quelling of Confederates, meets the definition of shitpost by applying irony to a historical image. In another meme, Sherman, riding in the World War II-era tank class named in his honor, scalds a Confederate battle flag as it morphs into a swastika. The caption asks, “White supremacist problems? There’s a Sherman for that” (Figure 4).40 Users on r/ShermanPosting mobilize the general, Union images, and other aspects of American history to mock Confederates, Nazis, and alt-right supporters of Donald Trump. Sherman has found new life as an icon of unionism as redditors have recast his military career to fit the social and political contexts of the twenty-first century.

Figure 3.

Sherman as athletic hero. (Reddit)

Figure 3.

Sherman as athletic hero. (Reddit)

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Figure 4.

Two generations of “Shermans” team up to incinerate symbols of bigotry. (Reddit)

Figure 4.

Two generations of “Shermans” team up to incinerate symbols of bigotry. (Reddit)

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Engaging social media users in serious historical and historiographical conversations offers a new avenue of inquiry for scholars engaged in the digital humanities, particularly public history. Sarah Gilbert, in her analysis of the subreddit r/AskHistorians, explained how that community brought scholars together with members of the public in conversations over controversial topics.41 In 2020, historians partnered with Reddit to launch the AskHistorians Digital Conference, using Reddit and YouTube to engage with public audiences. This conference modeled a new form of professional development that centralized public engagement, overcoming financial and geographical barriers in the process. In analyzing the successes of this conference, Fraser Raeburn, Lisa Baer-Tsarfati, and Viktoria Porter defined this strain of digital collaboration as a form of public history.42 In short, recent scholars have embraced Reddit’s potential as a forum for historical discourse. However, r/ShermanPosting adds new methods for promoting historical understanding through its focus on memes and contemporary politics, pioneering a punchy new way to understand the past through bite-sized historical content.

Users on r/ShermanPosting collectively subscribe to a historical outlook that directly contrasts with neo-Confederate beliefs. Many users explicitly reject the Lost Cause mentality, its prejudicial foundations, and perceived historical inaccuracies. Redditors often take their rebuttals of secessionist ideology to humorous extremes. For instance, one user perusing a used bookstore found a copy of The Lost Cause: The Standard Southern History of the War of the Confederates by E. A. Pollard, billed as the editor of the Richmond Examiner in the 1860s. When posting a photograph of the book on the shelf to r/ShermanPosting, the redditor explained that “My local thrift store had a great $1 deal on some highly flammable kindling.” Foregrounded on a shelf with other books, including a humorously placed volume titled Big Mistakes, The Lost Cause represents, in the eyes of redditors, a poor example of subversive history that distorts the past by attempting to justify disloyalty and racism under the banner of states’ rights.43

This post generated a discussion on the philosophical impact of the Lost Cause. Although users agreed that it represented an inaccurate and unacceptable outlook regarding the war, they differed over whether or not to destroy the book. Despite the initial post’s humorous veneer of rejecting a Lost Cause viewpoint as good for nothing but fuel, other users deconstructed the text’s potentially problematic influence on readers and strategized how to counter it. As one respondent wrote, “I would make the case [that] you’re under an obligation to buy and burn this to take away the chance of some otherwise ok person buying it and getting propagandized.” More productively, the user who found the text could also “donate it to a Civil War historian who will use it as a primary source while also not being influenced by the propaganda in it.” Another commenter concurred with the latter assessment, suggesting the inclusion of the book in a publicly accessible place. “That belongs in a library in the ‘anti American propaganda’ section,” this commenter retorted, “not in the fire! We must teach the kids why that ideology is wrong. Not destroy it.” Finally, one redditor suggested digitizing the text to preserve the information, while incinerating the physical copy to “signify that it is trash of no historical or moral value.”44 This viewpoint extended the discussion of the Lost Cause into the digital age, and recognized the variety of new contexts that history can accrue online. Preserving a seemingly problematic source and placing it in context, rather than censoring it, offered a constructive alternative to destruction, as any historian who has consulted inaccurate, incomplete, or biased evidence can attest. As Cohen and Rosenzweig noted, online history offers new avenues for public participation.45 Users on r/ShermanPosting have extended such discussions to the realm of productively problematizing primary sources to unpack their biases.

Although disapproval for Confederates permeates r/ShermanPosting, users also critically engage with the multifaceted legacies of historical figures. One poster shared a photograph of General James Longstreet, a high-ranking officer in the Confederate Army. By way of explanatory caption, the user suggested that Longstreet “relatively redeemed himself by supporting Civil rights after the war.” This fomented a discussion of Longstreet’s “equivalents from other historic Eras.” Responders chimed in that fellow Confederate John Singleton Mosby, who went on to serve the Grant Administration, and Oskar Schindler, a Nazi party member and industrialist who saved over 1,200 Jews by employing them in his factories, resembled Longstreet in combating the dominant strains of prejudice in their societies.46 Redditors’ ability to form analogies suggests not only historical understanding, but also the untapped potential of digital forums like social media to exchange historical ideas.

The discussion over rehabilitation of postbellum Confederates is demonstrated in redditors’ enthusiastic responses to the Lost Cause narrative. “While we’re on the subject of Confederate leaders that redeemed themselves,” a redditor once commented, “PGT Beauregard supported black suffrage and endorsed Grant in 1868.” This led to a heated response over the perceived southern rejection of Beauregard’s legacy. One commenter found the lack of attention given to Beauregard by followers of the Lost Cause baffling. “PGT was relatively competent but he’s persona-non-grata with lost causers,” the user wrote. “Meanwhile Lee had a series of disastrous defeats (including one where he invaded the Union and kidnapped free Black citizens, immediately invalidating almost every lost cause argument) but he’s the GREATEST GENERAL WHO EVER WALKED THE EARTH [sic],” the respondent sarcastically concluded. Although users demonstrated historical knowledge, they also interpreted the Civil War and other armed conflicts through the prism of their understanding of twenty-first century morality. In particular, the discussion emanating from this single posting of a photograph of Longstreet illustrated the tendency to view history on r/ShermanPosting from moralized perspectives.

While this morality allows users to view rehabilitated Confederates with appreciation, deep-seated revulsion toward the Lost Cause saturates r/ShermanPosting. Posters frequently express their strong distaste for pro-Confederate ideology. For example, one post contained a video of a young Black man punching wildly at a camera. A caption at the top of the image contextualized the flurry: “POV You are Woodrow Wilson after I find you in hell.” Some commenters did not understand the original poster’s vitriol for the former president. One respondent clarified the matter by explaining that Wilson had “Screened a pro-Klan movie in the White House, resegregated the federal government, and made lost causerism [sic] mainstream during his time as a historian pre-politics.” The comment section for this post turned its ire toward other politicians for their racist stances, including Adolf Hitler and Ronald Reagan. While painting a range of historical figures and eras with such broad brushstrokes obscured complex political and social contexts, the discourse surrounding this video demonstrated the perseverance (and vehemence) of antiracism on r/ShermanPosting.47

The use of a specific digital mantra expressed the political convictions of redditors. For example, users of r/ShermanPosting reject the argument that states’ rights spurred the Civil War. While responding to commenters who suggest that this was the case, redditors will frequently quip, “a state’s right to what?” This retort suggests that a state’s right to protect slavery from federal interference spurred the secession of eleven states, placing the antebellum South’s “peculiar institution,” and its horrific treatment of African Americans, at the center of the Civil War.48 Restoring slavery to the heart of the conflict illustrates how redditors interpreted the collective memory of the conflict and its relevance to modern America.

Debates over historical interpretation on social media bring discussions about topics such as the Civil War to the 2020s. Aside from memes, redditors on r/ShermanPosting frequently share pertinent news articles from reliable sources. One poster shared a news article from the military detailing plans to remove the names of Confederate figures from different bases.49 As evidenced by the popularity of this thread, users on r/ShermanPosting have demonstrated a strong interest in reconceptualizing historical memory, decentering traitors and racists. This extends to other symbols and public expressions of historical identities.

Redditors reserve a special ire for Confederate symbology, particularly flags. Many such images continue to permeate American culture and society, with numerous states flying variations of different Confederate banners in the 2020s. One meme submitted to r/ShermanPosting drew attention to the similarities between the current flag of the state of Georgia and the original banner of the Confederate States of America. An image of Sherman accompanied these two flags. Placed before the backdrop of a flaming southern city (presumably Atlanta), Sherman sported a “Georgia BBQ Championship” first place ribbon. Considering the flags, he asked simply “Again?” The positioning of this image beneath the flag of Georgia suggested that Americans must remove Confederate imagery and dismantle the racist, divisive practices of secessionists, even if this requires a new March to the Sea.50

The opposition of users on r/ShermanPosting to Confederate sympathy among southern states reached beyond flags to target other types of remembrance. In 2022, after Tate Reeves, the governor of Mississippi, declared April to be Confederate Heritage Month in the Hospitality State, redditors responded venomously. One redditor implored fellow netizens to “wake up Uncle Billy” because “apparently those racist rebs didn’t get the memo.” In the minds of users at r/ShermanPosting, racism undergirds all Confederate imagery. Beneath a headline of Reeves’s proclamation, the poster displayed an image of Sherman rising from a coffin as if to complete the work of suppressing the South and the sentiments that drove secession. One responder suggested tearing Confederate banners into Sherman battle flags.51 Such deconstructing and recoding of Confederate imagery reiterated the desire to remove the Lost Cause ideology from any understanding of American history, and recasts Sherman as an icon within the interpretation of the conflict that centralizes slavery and secession. However, as a closer review of Sherman’s record reveals, his zeal to defeat secessionists and restore the Union did not correlate with the antiracism that redditors have ascribed to him.

Redditors at r/ShermanPosting strongly support the replacement of outdated historiography with multicultural understandings of American history, particularly those that restore Black Americans to the nation’s heritage. Recent decisions to remove Confederate monuments and memorials have won widespread approval on Reddit. In July 2022, Florida placed a likeness of famed Black activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune in National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol. The statue of Bethune replaced that of Edmund Kirby Smith, whom then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi characterized as “a little-known Confederate general.”52 An enterprising netizen added this information to the subreddit r/MarchAgainstNazis, an anti-right-wing forum. From there, another user crossposted the image to r/ShermanPosting, where commenters praised the decision to memorialize a prominent Black American at the expense of the Confederacy. “We should replace all confederate statues with educators, civil rights leaders, astronauts, scientists, [and] writers,” one poster commented. Another redditor thought this would prove difficult, since “traitors” such as those who venerate Confederate monuments “hate intellectualism almost as much as [they dislike] black people.” One responder deemed the statue of Bethune “wholesome,” stating that images of traitors like Kirby Smith “belong nowhere near the places of the very government they tried to subvert.”53 The ruminations of subscribers to r/ShermanPosting over these statues and other monuments to the Confederacy highlight how social media have joined dialogues over the place of history in American life.

As this example suggests, despite the prevalence and easy accessibility of memes, discourse on r/ShermanPosting extended to other methods of historical inquiry. Users frequently shared news articles and editorials. One such post included an article from The Atlantic by acclaimed Civil War historian Stephanie McCurry, who detailed how the Confederacy became an antidemocratic regime predicated on the suppression of people of color and women.54 In the discussion following the post, redditors analyzed McCurry’s interpretation by likening the plantation system of the American South to feudal Europe, criticizing the hypocrisy that the Confederacy exhibited by overriding the ideal of states’ rights that southerners ostensibly formed their nation to protect. Departing from using memes to pithily demean the South, users at r/ShermanPosting, just like those subscribed to r/AskHistorians, incorporated nuanced historical interpretations such as McCurry’s into their efforts to establish community around Unionist sentiment and attach new meanings to the Civil War.55

To be sure, there is room for greater development of historical thought on r/ShermanPosting. For instance, many redditors tended to dismiss the South as economically underdeveloped compared to the industrialized North. Recent historical scholarship, such as that of Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, has argued that the South was actually the nucleus of the American economy. These historians perceived slavery and the cotton it produced as the backbone of early American capitalism, making it a central force in the nation’s history.56 Matthew Karp similarly placed slavery at the center of nineteenth-century American history, emphasizing that slaveholders drove the nation’s foreign policy, built commerce based on goods produced by enslaved people, and spurred expansion across North America. Karp showed that, contrary to popular belief, slavery induced urban growth in the antebellum South, and that even Black intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois understood slavery as a crucial factor behind America’s emergence as a world power.57 The common viewpoint on r/ShermanPosting that the South was economically stagnant obscures this complex economic history in favor of humorous bashing on the Confederacy. A more critical understanding of slavery and capitalism, as informed by modern scholarship, might spur more complex dialogue on the subreddit and produce more substantial understandings about the meaning and legacy of the Civil War.

To further their efforts at reinterpreting the war, redditors on r/ShermanPosting have recast Sherman into a civil rights figure. This project departs significantly from historians’ interpretations of the man, given his attitude toward Black Americans during and after the Civil War. Throughout the conflict, enslaved peoples abandoned southern plantations, often seeking liberation and protection with Union armies, but routinely were disappointed by their poor treatment, including by Sherman. The general only grudgingly tolerated the presence of Black men and women in his camps and resisted bringing Black men into the army. “It is an insult to our Race,” Sherman once complained, “to count them as a part of the [draft] quota.” Many white soldiers in Sherman’s army shared their commander’s attitude, supporting emancipation without accepting Black Americans as equals. Derogatory language about Black Americans permeated Sherman’s correspondence. He flatly declared freedmen “not the equal of the white man,” and thought Black Americans could only practice menial physical labor. He particularly did not perceive the tactical value of African American soldiers, whose military accomplishments during the war many users on r/ShermanPosting admired.58 Sherman carelessly dismissed freedmen and freedwomen so severely that General Henry Halleck, commander-in-chief of the army, warned him to express less vitriol toward freedpeople.59 In short, Sherman was racist.

Sherman saw the issue of secession, rather than the liberation of enslaved Black Americans, as America’s casus belli. In a letter written to his brother, a United States senator, Sherman complained that “Too much stress has been laid on” the liberation of African Americans as an aim of the war. Nonetheless, as Sherman’s army marched across the South, Black Americans sought and enjoyed the protections extended by the Emancipation Proclamation, a measure Sherman had personally opposed. From these roots as what historian Kristopher Teters has called a “reluctant emancipator,” Sherman took his first, extremely limited steps into the realm of civil rights.60 Indeed, as the March to the Sea drew to a close, Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 15, extending food, clothing, and land to freedmen.61 However, scholars and redditors recognize that Sherman issued this proclamation to remove Black Americans from the camps of his armies.

Subscribers of r/ShermanPosting admit that the namesake of their community mistreated Black Americans. Sherman also perceived Indigenous peoples as lazy and inferior to whites, and played a key role in the suppression of Native Americans and their forced relocation onto reservations in the late-nineteenth century.62 As an acknowledgement of the limits of recasting Sherman as an advocate for civil rights, one poster criticized the general’s treatment of American Indians, using a meme of Donald Trump commenting that “You weren’t supposed to do that” regarding the his brutal postbellum suppression of Indigenous peoples.63 A commenter dismissed Sherman as “a raging bigot against the native Americans.” “Yes he was,” another redditor answered. “Nobody here denies that and he’s called out on it very often as he should be.” The latter comment received more than twice as many upvotes (Reddit’s equivalent of “likes”) as the former.64 As this exchange shows, subscribers to r/ShermanPosting understand that “Uncle Billy,” while remaining an effective “demon of the lost cause,” espoused racial attitudes that repulse most twenty-first century Americans. Digital spaces such as r/ShermanPosting have developed forums to reinterpret historical figures in new lights, bringing social media into the realm of historiography.

In spite of Sherman’s white supremacy, members of r/ShermanPosting have wholeheartedly embraced the civil rights agenda stemming from the liberation of slaves and the constitutional amendments passed in the 1860s that aimed to protect them. Moreover, subscribers to r/ShermanPosting published content that pressed civil rights well beyond the nineteenth century. One popular post satirized the segregationists who opposed the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. This meme juxtaposed a bawling, unfavorably illustrated segregationist against Black students and soldiers pictured as masculine and handsome. The contrast between the bearded soldiers and Black students, with their well-defined chins and shaggy beards, against the bald, stubbly segregationist subliminally suggested that champions of civil rights epitomize masculinity, and that racists cannot achieve true Americanness.65

Users have cultivated r/ShermanPosting into a haven for content celebrating Black achievement, particularly as it relates to the Civil War. African Americans who served in the Union army during the conflict have received special praise. A historical photograph of Sergeant William Carney, a member of the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, received nearly 2,000 upvotes on r/ShermanPosting. The poster who shared the image praised Carney, who received a service medal, as “A brave man…who fought for the freedom our Union represents.” Responders universally supported this sentiment, with one likening the 54th Massachusetts to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a military unit comprised of Japanese Americans that earned distinction during World War II despite systemic racial bias.66 Sherman, notorious for his racist attitudes toward African Americans, would likely not have agreed with redditors’ positive assessment of Carney. That has not stopped social media users from casting a site bearing the general’s name into a space to celebrate Black history, reconfiguring Sherman’s legacy in the process.

Support for Black Americans and antiracism accounts for a major strain of content on r/ShermanPosting. Memes focusing on civil rights bridge historical and contemporary discourses. One meme highlighting policing and its connection to civil rights contrasted historical law enforcement with twenty-first-century practices. In the image, a police officer, attired in nineteenth-century garb including a sheriff’s badge and thoroughly muscled to represent the peak of masculinity, explained how he “fought along side with [sic] the black militia to defend the city hall from white supremacists.” A caption labeled this man as “Police from 1865–1877,” noting the positive role of law enforcement in the civil rights accomplishments of Reconstruction. As users pointed out, this meme obliquely referenced the “Battle of Liberty Place” in New Orleans in September 1874, during which police and militiamen clashed with the racist Crescent City White League, an organization dedicated to reversing Black Louisianans’ gains in civil rights during Reconstruction. This battle only ended when soldiers entered the city to quell the uprising.67 Compared unfavorably against this officer was a modern policeman (a dog, in an homage to a particularly popular canine used in numerous memes) in a blue uniform. The modern officer claimed that he “must harass minorities,” rather than safeguarding their suffrage.68 The caption suggested that police in contemporary America deviate significantly from historical antecedents who fought for the civil rights of Black Americans, linking Reconstruction to public discourses over policing communities of color. Beyond its humorous dismissal of modern law enforcement, this post contributed to the reputation of r/ShermanPosting as a space to confront racial animus, in this case by praising the accomplishments of Reconstruction in the South. Such content propelled the subreddit into debates over modern American politics and society, in which redditors have drawn on historical facts to argue for reform.

Beyond Sherman, redditors have recast icons from American history to combat disinformation and racism in the twenty-first century. Patriotic imagery on r/ShermanPosting merged Civil War iconography with more recent expressions of American patriotism. In one evocative image, Uncle Sam, clad in star-spangled attire, rolled up his sleeves and threatened a group of hooded Ku Klux Klansman and Nazi sympathizers waving the Confederate battle flag and the banner of the Third Reich. “You again?” Sam asked, a grimace spreading across his wizened visage. A caption at the bottom of the image implored readers to “Stop the ‘Alt-Right’” (Figure 5).69 This meme linked Confederate ideologies with Nazism, citing a need to counter prominent strains of conservative racism in mainstream American society. In another meme adorned with patriotic symbols, Sherman, seated before an American flag and clad in sunglasses reflecting a burning Confederate battle banner, advised readers to “Remember, remember the tenth of November and Sherman’s March to the Sea/I can think of no reason the banner of treason should fly in the land of the free” (Figure 6).70 A third post solidified the link between the alt-right and the Confederacy. It portrayed two burly arms bearing the stars and bars of the Confederacy and a Trump campaign banner, with the joined hands of the arms humorously lambasting both for “Lasting only 4 years” (Figure 7).71 To many redditors, divisive political ideologies, whether they originated in the nineteenth or twenty-first century, have expiration dates.

Figure 5.

Uncle Sam continues Sherman’s war against America’s enemies. (Reddit)

Figure 5.

Uncle Sam continues Sherman’s war against America’s enemies. (Reddit)

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Figure 6.

Sherman as a latter-day Guy Fawkes. (Reddit)

Figure 6.

Sherman as a latter-day Guy Fawkes. (Reddit)

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Figure 7.

To users on r/ShermanPosting, Trumpism, like the Confederacy, did not last long enough to justify widespread support. (Reddit)

Figure 7.

To users on r/ShermanPosting, Trumpism, like the Confederacy, did not last long enough to justify widespread support. (Reddit)

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Sherman, recast as a cultural counterpoint to neo-Confederates, has become an icon to oppose conservative mainstream media. Fox News, one of the most influential conservative media outlets in the United States, has found itself on the receiving end of r/ShermanPosting’s artillery. One image shared on the subreddit positioned Sherman as a political analyst through a thorough rebuttal of conservative talk show hosts who were Confederate apologists. The meme began with images and quotations of three prominent commentators from Fox News who decried the removal of Confederate monuments and public outcry over the Confederate flag. Beneath the pundits appeared Sherman, who exclaimed that:

[W]e do want, and will have, a just obedience to the laws of the United States. That we will have, and if it involves the destruction of your improvements we cannot help. You have heretofore read public sentiment in your newspapers that live by falsehood and excitement, and the quicker you seek for truth in other quarters the better for you.

Responses agreed with the original poster’s tacit argument that programming on Fox News subverts American unity. “Crazy how far the GOP has fallen,” said one responder. “They are the rebs now.” Another poster, referring to the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century, stated, “They lined themselves up with the rebs when they adopted the southern strategy. President Lincoln and Grant would be disappointed in the direction their party has turned.”72 These redditors believed that in any popular understanding over the Civil War, Sherman and other Unionists deserve the last word.

Redditors’ distaste for disloyalty extended into the realm of popular politics. Users on r/ShermanPosting supported the congressional investigation into the failed coup of January 6, 2021. “For the first time in the history of the Union,” one incredulous poster wrote, “a Confederate flag was carried into the halls of congress [sic] by a mob trying to prevent the appointment of an elected northern president.” The user characterized this as “sedition against the Union,” rhetoric that could have appeared in a northern newspaper in the 1860s. “The whole insurrection was also a violation of the KKK Act,” another redditor commented, “which made it illegal to prevent elected officials from carrying out their Constitutional duties.” This respondent tellingly cited a piece of legislation passed during Reconstruction by a northern Congress to impose the rule of law on the South. Another poster perceived the coup as far worse than the Civil War. “Until the people who engaged in the Jan 6th treasonous insurrection are punished to a degree far more severe than what was undertaken after the Civil War, it will continue.” One redditor compared Republican attempts to discredit the congressional investigation to the Chinese government’s censorship of the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989. This political discourse, rooted in American and world history, epitomized redditors’ ability to foster dialogue informed by those subjects.73

Historical developments that preceded the Civil War offer points of comparison to the state of the American judicial system. One meme featuring Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, famed for penning the Dred Scott decision, began with the jurist bragging about having “stripped away civil rights from 4.4 million blacks.” Beneath Taney, a smiling Justice Samuel Alito countered that his predecessor was “adorable.” Although the poster did not provide context for this meme, it appeared in June 2022, just as the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse Roe v. Wade and limit women’s reproductive rights was leaked to mainstream media. This comparison tacitly suggested that Alito’s embrace of social conservatism mirrored the Dred Scott decision. Although users debated the legitimacy of comparing enslaved Americans to women who can no longer access safe abortions, the point remained that, to redditors, historical memes have become a form of dialogue through which to understand current affairs.74

Other historical connections were more tenuous, if just as revealing about the anti-southern slant of r/ShermanPosting. One user connected various contemporary maladies to slavery by posting a set of maps of the United States linking poorer education, higher rates of poverty, diabetes, teen pregnancy, and child maltreatment to areas where slavery previously flourished. The original poster cautioned readers that the state of socioeconomic affairs in the South reflected “What happens when you don’t do Reconstruction.”75 Although some of the historical connections the poster attributed to the limitations of Reconstruction bear further investigation before one can demonstrate a clear correlation, the presence of historical data in a discussion about modern America reinforces the role of digital history on r/ShermanPosting in understanding twenty-first-century politics and society.

Admittedly, edgier content on r/ShermanPosting can skirt close to controversy. One such meme included an image of Sherman next to Major General Curtis LeMay, who directed strategic bombing of Japanese targets by Allied forces during World War II, including civilian sites. “What do Tokyo, Japan, and Atlanta, Georgia have in common?” the meme queried. “They both look beautiful by the fire light [sic].” Responders took issue with this support for LeMay’s approach. “I know Japan and Germany were the bad guys,” read a lengthier response to the meme. “Firebombing Tokyo [and related military actions] are not things to celebrate. Even to score points on the Rebs.” Comparing Sherman’s focus on nonmilitary targets against LeMay’s attacks on civilians during World War II, the user concluded “Sherman was no angel, and I leave judgment to the Indigenous people he’s harmed (fuck the Confederacy, they weren’t victims). But comparing him to Le May [sic], who is definately [sic] a war criminal” for his actions during the American intervention in Southeast Asia, “is unfair.” To add insult to injury, LeMay “[supported] George Fucking Wallace and ran as his VP candidate,” signifying that “he was probably a fucking Lost Causer.”76 Although this meme and its ensuing discussion did not achieve the standard of problematic content noted earlier in this article—the willful propagation of disinformation—it did reveal the presence of provocative discourse on the subreddit.

Other posts offered less nuance in their anti-southern viewpoints. In one thread, titled “Rare Shelby Foote Footage from the Making of Ken Burns’ Civil War Series,” appeared a picture of Foote, a southern writer whose hefty three-volume series on the conflict informed much of Burns’s documentary. The image showed Foote seated with a body pillow emblazoned with a photograph of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a notorious racist, Confederate war criminal, and founder of the Ku Klux Klan. One respondent to this image criticized Foote’s overlooking of Forrest’s misdeeds more gently: “Foote is (was) like a lot of our grandparents…cool dude with some awesome facts and stories, but never ask him about Nathan Forrest.”77 In another thread, containing a photograph of John Brown and commentary from the social media site Tumblr, a user proclaimed, “Slave owners aren’t people.” Redditors echoed this appraisal, with one saying “John Brown did nothing wrong.” “And if he did,” another commenter answered, “it was that he didn’t kill enough slavers?”78 Advocating violence and denying the personhood of slaveowners encapsulates more radical content on r/ShermanPosting.

Additionally, observers might take objection to the treatment of women on r/ShermanPosting. An example occurred in a “starter pack,” a meme that combines all the essential elements necessary to successfully post content to a subreddit. Within this post appeared u/Someathist, whose video maligning Confederate heritage remains the most popular item on r/ShermanPosting. In the starter pack, a label underneath her image listed her as “This chick,” arguably a patronizing, dismissive label. One user leapt to her defense. “Sherman was the hero we deserved,” the user wrote, quoting a popular film. “u/Someathist is the hero we need. We stan [slang for vigorously support] the folk punk Union queen.” One might construe this comment of a woman as a “queen” as a form of idealization. Nonetheless, u/Someathist responded that the characterization “touched” her, and thanked the poster who identified her by name.79 Another user suggested that he would “simp” for famed Union spy Pauline Cushman.80 According to Urban Dictionary, when used in online forums like Reddit, simping generally refers to men degrading themselves by offering unrequited love to women.81 Although few redditors on r/ShermanPosting have idealized women this way, such behavior is not without precedent.

Despite some edgier rhetoric, r/ShermanPosting effectively blended historical images with present political developments and affirmed memes as a form of digital history. One industrious poster quoted segments of a letter Sherman penned regarding the steps necessary for readmitting reconstructed states to the Union for use in a meme (Figure 8). In the missive, Sherman outlined four types of southerners, and in the image on r/ShermanPosting the user correlated these descriptions to figures from the twenty-first century. Next to Sherman’s description of the first category, comprised of “the ruling class,” appeared a picture of Senator Mitch McConnell in front of a Confederate battle flag. Attendees to a Trump rally, also sporting Confederate battle flags, accompanied Sherman’s analysis of “small farmers, mechanics, merchants, and laborers” who formed most of southern society. Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who denounced Donald Trump’s domination of the Republican Party, appeared as the representation of Sherman’s third category of southerners, who remained loyal to the Union. Finally, the meme’s creator equated alt-right gunmen waving the battle flag of the Confederacy to the “young bloods of the South,” prone to violence, whom Sherman believed “must all be killed or employed by us before we can hope for peace.” The general closed his letter by expressing that it would be impossible to cohabitate with unreconstructed southerners. Instead, he planned to “make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it.” Such language might just as easily apply to members of the alt-right in the 2020s, the poster of this meme seemed to suggest. In this analysis, neo-Confederates should have no influence over American society.82 This redditor has recast Sherman as a historian, whose explanation detailed the evolution of divisive rhetoric in the United States from the 1860s to the 2020s. As this carefully crafted analogy revealed, content on r/ShermanPosting can make insightful commentary on how the past informs the present.

Figure 8.

Sherman’s analysis of disloyal Americans as applied to the contemporary United States. (Reddit)

Figure 8.

Sherman’s analysis of disloyal Americans as applied to the contemporary United States. (Reddit)

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Engaging with recent turns in the professional literature on the Civil War and its causes could enhance social and political discussions on r/ShermanPosting. Although the community acknowledged the centrality of slavery to the war, more meaningful interaction with the role of human bondage in American social and economic development would highlight the historical experiences of enslaved people. In the process, redditors could draw upon an increasingly rich historiography. As Seth Rockman pointed out, many historians view slavery not as an aberration in American economic history, but as the foundation upon which the United States built its unique brand of capitalism. Redditors might draw attention to how underpaid or enslaved people of color made American capitalism and an industrial infrastructure possible in the nineteenth century, exploring social and economic history in greater detail.83 Edward E. Baptist argued that relationships between enslaved people and planter-aristocrats shaped financial growth, social relations, culture, and politics in the United States. His use of the slave narratives recorded during the New Deal of the 1930s could offer redditors new ways of understanding antebellum history from the perspective of enslaved men and women, enhancing the digital community’s focus on civil rights.84 Baptist echoed the scholarship of Walter Johnson, who argued that the institution of slavery created the antebellum South, and that the cotton plantations of the Mississippi Valley brought the United States into the world economy. Johnson’s exploration of the economically and politically savvy class of aristocratic planters reveals a robust, not stagnant, southern society, positioning the Mississippi Valley as “one of the richest agricultural societies in human history.”85

Redditors would also benefit from understanding the scholarly turn toward understanding the Civil War in transnational context. Historians like Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman placed American slavery at the heart of the nineteenth-century Atlantic world, a foundational system that brought southern cotton to the center of global commercial networks. This interpretation of the antebellum South includes reckoning with historians’ claims that that segment of the country achieved technological and economic success, rather than dismissing it as culturally backwards, as members of r/ShermanPosting frequently do.86 Jay Sexton and Douglas R. Egerton connected American diplomacy and international commerce with cotton produced by slaves.87 Kathryn Boodry noted the financial linkages between Great Britain and the United States, which centered on cotton production.88 The success of cotton planters, according to Matthew Karp, brought slaveholders to the forefront of American foreign policy, guiding westward expansion and interactions with Europe and Latin America for much of the nineteenth century. Departing from the viewpoint of content creators on r/ShermanPosting, Karp perceived slavery as the driver of early American history, for good or for ill.89 What new links between this innovative historical perspective and modern global affairs might redditors forge?

The Civil War and its outcomes reverberated transnationally. To David Gleeson and Simon Lewis, emancipation spurred generations of African activists in the twentieth century.90 In a comparative analysis of slavery and emancipation across the Americas, Edward Rugemer reminded readers that the Haitian Revolution was the first act of antislavery in the Western Hemisphere, occurring half a century before the Civil War and undertaken by people of color themselves, rather than reluctant white liberators. Cuba and Brazil also faced civil unrest over slavery following American emancipation.91 Evan Rothera’s impressive juxtaposition of the civil wars and liberation movements in the United States, Mexico, and Argentina in the nineteenth century revealed the international discussions surrounding the civil rights and antislavery movements in the establishment of republican governments in the Americas.92 Greater engagement with these and related perspectives could add further nuance to the discourse on r/ShermanPosting. Understanding more recent conversations about the war that centralize the importance of enslaved people and place these topics in international contexts could produce a multifaceted understanding of the past. The intersection of scholarly history with a digital community on Reddit, as in the case of r/AskHistorians, could combine the best of both worlds.93

These suggestions do not diminish the accomplishments of r/ShermanPosting in demonstrating how to build a digital community around history. This represents a novel form of digital history, in which members of a community recast historical actors and ideas to understand present realities. These redditors believe that contemporary American politics and society stem from history, particularly the Civil War and Reconstruction. Through content that articulates this belief, the subreddit has become a forum for public history from the perspective of those whom previous generations of scholars would have understood as a lay audience. Users have crafted memes and shared articles to reject the Lost Cause in favor of a more critical interpretation of the roles of race and slavery in American history. Users have ascribed new meanings to the past, as seen through the recasting of “Uncle Billy” Sherman into a civil rights figure despite his well-documented bigotry. Social media like r/ShermanPosting have created new ways of applying the past to the present in digital spaces. As compared to other participatory projects like r/AskHistorians, r/ShermanPosting could do more to collaborate with scholars to reflect changing interpretations of the past. Similarly, historians should engage with communities like r/ShermanPosting to better understand how digital publics have found innovative ways of recasting historical concepts and figures.

The success of r/ShermanPosting suggests that memes can spark historical discourse. These short, easily comprehensible means for spreading ideas provide new ways of presenting historical content, even complex topics like the Civil War, into digestible form for public audiences. Other online communities, including those where historians collaborate with digital publics, frown upon memes. The subreddit r/AskHistorians characterized them as “Jokes” or “Clutter.”94 Such outright dismissal of memes ignores their ability to make history more accessible. Shitposts such as the pithy images and captions created by redditors to link historical concepts with present social and political issues show every sign of retaining their appeal to large digital publics.

Historians should consider the possibilities of memes when practicing their craft online. This is not to suggest that scholars abandon traditional public history venues in favor of memes. However, embedding such content into social media pages, digital humanities projects, or “serious” forums like r/AskHistorians would begin to bridge the gap between existing digital history and new online forms. Memes might include links to spaces for further dialogue, or for users to create and post their own memes (pending approval from an informed moderator). This form of engagement could attract users who might otherwise overlook history, providing an entry to deeper discussions between scholars and the public such as those on r/AskHistorians. Historians should experiment with memes as a method for initiating meaningful dialogue with new participants. Recasting historical content such as material about Sherman and the Civil War into new modes that digital publics can easily recognize from prior experiences with memes embodies public historians’ continued commitment to adapting to online environments, potentially strengthening collaborations with digital publics. As a dominant component of the digital zeitgeist, memes have earned a place in the public history toolkit.


Wendy Griswold, American Guides: The Federal Writers’ Project and the Casting of American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), xiii.


Faye Sayer, Public History: A Practical Guide (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 7; Thomas Cauvin, Public History: A Textbook of Practice (New York: Routledge, 2016), 10–11.


I take this definition from Sayer, Public History, 149. Benjamin Filene referred to individuals like the meme-crafting historians of r/ShermanPosting as “outside history-makers,” or non-professionally trained historians who use media like scrapbooks and historical reenactment. Filene, “Passionate Histories: ‘Outsider’ History-Makers and What They Teach Us,” The Public Historian 34, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 12.


Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 1–3, 5; Cauvin, Public History, 176–77.


Matthew Kirschenbaum, “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).


Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), xvi–xviii.


Charles Royster, The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 120; Wesley Moody, Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011), 4.


John F. Marszalek, Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 27, 51.


Marszalek, Sherman, 147, 150–51, 154–55, 163–5, 169–70, 177–81.


Joseph Glatthiar, The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman’s Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaigns (New York: New York University Press, 1985), 5.


Glatthiar, The March to the Sea, 7, 122, 124–26; Anne Sarah Rubin, Through the Heart of Dixie: Sherman’s March and American Memory (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 39; Noah Andre Trudeau, Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea (New York: Harper, 2008), ix–x.


Rubin, Through the Heart of Dixie, 2, 69, 141–44; Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians, 18611865 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 174–75.


Rubin, Through the Heart of Dixie, 218. I borrow the phrase “hard war” from Mark Grimsley, who noted that Sherman and other “destructive” generals followed prescribed codes of conduct and avoided the attacks on civilians that characterized the total warfare model of the twentieth century. Further, Grimsley explained that Union generals only began to view nonmilitary assets as viable targets later in the conflict, not at the outset. Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War, 2, 43–44, 211, 222–23.


Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War, 174–75; Rubin, Through the Heart of Dixie, 3.


Marszalek, Sherman, 283–84, 315–16, 320–21.


Rubin, Through the Heart of Dixie, 7, 46, 122–23, 127, 204. Readers can find Sherman’s March and America at


Moody, Demon of the Lost Cause, 108, 116.


The movement was named for William Archibald Dunning of Columbia University, who, along with his students, vilified Union interference in the South during Reconstruction. John David Smith, “Introduction,” in Smith and J. Vincent Lowery, eds., The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013), 1.


Rubin, Through the Heart of Dixie, 150–51.


Marszalek, Sherman, 315–16; Glatthiar, The March to the Sea and Beyond, 72–73.


Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War, 125.


“Center Gets Refurbished Sherman Statue, Name Change,” The Columbus Dispatch, August 20, 2013.


Alan Binder, “150 Years Later, Wrestling With a Revised View of Sherman’s March,” The New York Times, November 14, 2014.


Gary Reddin, “Wannabe Wired: A Brief History of Reddit,” The Lawton Constitution, February 3, 2021.


Terri Lee Harel, “Archives in the Making: Documenting the January 6 Capitol Riot on Reddit,” Internet Histories 6, no. 4 (2022): 394.


“Dive In,” Reddit,


“What’s the difference between r/all, r/popular, and my home feed?,” Reddit,; Sarah Gilbert, “‘I Run the World’s Largest Historical Outreach Project and It’s on a Cesspool of a Website.’ Moderating a Public Scholarship Site on Reddit: A Case Study of r/AskHistorians,” Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 4, no. 1 (2020): 3–4.


Alexis Benveniste, “The Meaning and History of Memes,” New York Times, January 26, 2022.


Gilbert, “I Run the World’s Largest Historical Outreach Project,” 4; Bobby Allyn, “Reddit Bans The_Donald, Forum of Nearly 800,000 Trump Fans, Over Abusive Posts,” NPR, June 29, 2020.


Michael Gottlied and Sean Dyer, “Information and Disinformation: Social Media in the COVID-19 Crisis,” Academic Emergency Medicine 27, no. 7 (July 2020): 640–41.


Sheera Frenkel, “How Misinformation ‘Superspreaders’ Seed False Election Theories,” New York Times, November 23, 2020; Josh A. Goldstein and Shelby Grossman, “How Disinformation Evolved in 2020,” Brookings, January 4, 2021.


Simon Strick, “Reflexive Fascism in the Age of History Memes,” Journal of Modern European History 20, no. 3 (August 2022): 337, 340, 342.


Harel, “Archives in the Making,” 391–93.


Brenna Collins and Dylan Ruediger, “A ‘No Tent’/No Center Model for Digital Work in the Humanities,” in People, Practice, Power: Digital Humanities Outside the Center ed. Anne B. McGrail, Angel David Nieves, and Siobhan Senier (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021).


“Sherman Posting,” Reddit, The rules for this subreddit have since become more well-defined.


“Shitposting,” Urban Dictionary,


Cohen and Rosenzweig, Digital History, 8.


u/Someathist, “I Was Too Scared to Post This Anywhere Else but I Thought Y’all Might Appreciate It (OC),” Reddit,


u/thefinalcountdown, “For All Your Extermination Needs,” Reddit,


Gilbert, “‘I Run the World’s Largest Historical Outreach Project,’” 1–2.


Fraser Raeburn, Lisa Baer-Tsarfati, and Viktoria Porter, “Out of the Ivory Tower, into the Digital World? Democratising Scholarly Exchange,” History 107, no. 375 (2022): 278–79, 292–94, 300.


u/expos1225, “My Local Thrift Store Had a Great $1 Deal on Some Highly Flammable Kindling,” Reddit,


“My Local Thrift Store.”


Cohen and Rosenzweig, Digital History, 8.


u/Proud3GnAthst, “James Longstreet Was a Confederate general Who Relatively Redeemed Himself by Supporting Civil Rights after the War. Are There Some of his Equivalents from other Historic Eras Like WW2, Roman Empire, etc.?” Reddit,


u/ProfessionalRetard, “Fuck This Confederate Loser,” Reddit,


See, for instance, the comments associated with u/Monkey-Kb88, “States Right to do What,” Reddit,


u/TinyNuggins92, “Pentagon Group Lists 750 Names with Confederate Ties It’s Thinking of Replacing on Bases, Streets and More,” Reddit,


u/Others0, “Lester, Get the Torches,” Reddit,


u/VentralRaptor24, “Someone Wake up Uncle Billy, Apparently Those Racist Rebs Didn’t Get the Memo,” Reddit,


April Rubin, “Statue of Black Educator Replaces Confederate General in U.S. Capitol,” New York Times, July 13, 2022.


u/definitely_nota_spy, “Hell Yeah!” Reddit,


Stephanie McCurry, “The Confederacy Was an Antidemocratic, Centralized State,” The Atlantic, June 21, 2020. This thesis forms the core of Curry’s classic Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).


u/jeremiahthedamned, “The Confederacy Was an Antidemocratic, Centralized State,” Reddit,


Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, “Introduction,” in Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development, ed. Beckert and Rockman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 1–3, 8.


Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 1–2, 8, 100, 127, 151, 251–53.


Rubin, Through the Heart of Dixie, 69, 86; Kristopher A. Teters, Practical Liberators: Union Officers in the Western Theater During the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 136.


Glatthiar, The March to the Sea and Beyond, 52–53; Marszalek, Sherman, 271, 313.


Teters, Practical Liberators, 133–34.


Rubin, Through the Heart of Dixie, 126.


Trudeau, Southern Storm, 30–31; Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 18651896 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 293; Marszalek, Sherman, 379–80, 391.


Anonymous, “I Appreciate That We Don’t *Blindly* Praise Sherman,” Reddit,


u/windigo3, “Sherman Wrote a Letter to Lincoln Explaining the Different Types of Southerners and Why They Can’t Self-govern Yet,” Reddit,


u/PappiStalin, “Shamelessly Stolen,” Reddit,


u/Ninja_attack, “Sgt William Carney of the 54th Massachusetts. ‘Boys, I Did But My Duty; The Dear Old Flag Never Touched the Ground!’” Reddit,


Clyde Woods, “Katrina’s World: Blues, Bourbon, and the Return to the Source,” American Quarterly 61, no. 3 (September 2009): 435–56; Clyde Woods, Development Drowned and Reformed: The Blues and Bourbon Restorations in Post-Katrina New Orleans, eds. Laura Pulido and Jordan T. Camp (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017), 54, 112; Evan C. Rothera, Civil Wars and Reconstructions in the Americas: The United States, Mexico, and Argentina, 18601880 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2022), 198.


u/Poopenfartten, “Can’t Believe Cops Used to be Based,” Reddit,


u/_o_h_n_o_, “Remember What We’re Fighting For,” Reddit,


u/mthrfrkncrys, “Remember the 10th of November,” Reddit, The text of this meme alludes to a verse about the seventeenth-century Gunpowder Plot by English rebel Guy Fawkes.


u/windigo3, “Fox News Loves the Confederacy and Insurrectionists,” Reddit,


u/Some-Wasabi1312, “Jan 6 Hearing,” Reddit,


u/Proud3GnAthst, “Let’s Resurrect John Brown!!!” Reddit,


u/Repulsive_Narwhal_10, “What Happens When You Don’t Do Reconstruction,” Reddit,


u/blong217, “Sometimes Great Men Think Alike,” Reddit,


u/okieatom, “Rare Shelby Foote Footage From the Making of Ken Burns’ Civil War Series,” Reddit,


u/Lazy_boa, “Fredrick Douglass on John Brown (Because This Sub Loves Him!)” Reddit,


u/pantaleonivo, “Mine Eyes Have Seen Glory…,” Reddit,


u/burger3214, “Pauline ‘Chad’ Cushman,” Reddit,


u/windigo3, “Sherman Wrote a Letter to Lincoln.”


Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 5–7, 51, 259.


Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 20, 22.


Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 7–8, 18; Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013), 2–3, 11–12, 152.


Beckert and Rockman, “Introduction,” 1–3, 8; Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), ix–xi, 119.


Jay Sexton, Debtor Diplomacy: Finance and American Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era, 18371873 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005), 1; Douglas R. Egerton, “Rethinking Atlantic Historiography in a Postcolonial Context: The Civil War in a Global Context,” Journal of the Civil War Era 1, no. 1 (March 2011): 80.


Kathryn Boodry, “August Belmont and the World the Slaves Made,” in Beckert and Rockman, eds., Slavery’s Capitalism, 163–64; Sexton, Debtor Diplomacy, 4, 16–17.


Karp, This Vast Southern Empire, 1–2, 6–7, 12–14, 100, 256.


David T. Gleeson and Simon Lewis, “Introduction,” in The Civil War as Global Conflict: Transnational Meanings of the American Civil War, ed. Gleeson and Lewis (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014), 4.


Edward B. Rugemer, “Why Civil War? The Politics of Slavery in Comparative Perspective,” in The Civil War as Global Conflict, 26–27.


Rothera, Civil Wars and Reconstructions, 2–4. To the credit of posters on r/ShermanPosting, the political and military roles of German and Irish Americans have received some attention in meme form. Per u/Sine_Fine_Belli, “For those who don’t know, Germans were among the first ethnic groups in America to significantly oppose slavery. They ended up later being the largest ethnic contingent in the entire Union Army during the Civil War, and became hated by many Confederates,” Reddit, See also u/Regular-Western5096, “With St. Patrick’s Day Tomorrow, Can We Get Some Love for our Irish Boys in Blue,” Reddit,


Gilbert, “I Run the World’s Largest Historical Outreach Project,” 1–2, 9, 21; Raeburn, Baer-Tsarfati, and Porter, “Out of the Ivory Tower,” 289, 296.


“AskHistorians,” Reddit,