MILLEDGEVILLE, GA. - At the heart of this well-preserved antebellum city, sunbeams stream through the arched windows of a grand public meeting room that mirrors the whole Civil War - including its death throes, unfolding 150 years ago this week when Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman launched his scorching March to the Sea.

The first major objective along Sherman's route, Milledgeville was Georgia's capital at the time, and this room was the legislative chamber. Crossing its gleaming floor, Amy Wright couldn't help recalling family stories of the hated "foragers" who swept through then. "They were just called 'Sherman's men,'" she said in a hushed voice.

Gesturing across the room, she pointed to the spot where Georgia's leaders had voted to secede in 1861. This, too, was where, after three years of brutal fighting, battle-hardened soldiers in Sherman's juggernaut burst in, drunkenly convened a mock assembly and "repealed" secession.

Their raucous laughter soon gave way to rampaging - and then to tears and fury among local people, including Wright's forebears, and countless others along the path of destruction Sherman slashed from smoking Atlanta to trembling Savannah and beyond. For many, even a century and a half later, Sherman's name still evokes epithets - villain, war criminal, devil - for the horrors he countenanced, and even commanded.

Still, if his reputation for mayhem remains firmly intact, the passage of time has allowed for his march and indeed his own complex character to receive a more nuanced reassessment. And it's not just historians who are looking anew.

Consider, Wright says, the next big event planned for Milledgeville's old legislative chamber: Local folks will gather there for a commemorative "Dinner with Uncle Billy," complete with 19th-century fare, finished with buttermilk pie. They'll watch an original drama created from the words of those who were here with Sherman - rank-and-file soldiers, shopkeepers, enslaved people, even the unsmiling, red-headed general himself.

Organizers like Wright wanted all of those "witnesses" in the performance.

"Coming from this area, growing up here, I've heard the stories of Sherman's occupation all my life," said Wright, who brought a doctorate as well as five generations of personal history to her job directing the capital museum.

She was told as a girl that Sherman's men ransacked houses, stole property, set fires. It was an unusually cold winter, harvests were taken or destroyed - "and there was no making up a crop." People were left to starve. She winced relating stories of soldiers wantonly killing animals they couldn't carry away.

Her grandfather loved to take a Sunday drive and would often stop at the family's old property, which again brought out the tales: "The family was unprotected. ... Truly it was the devil incarnate. The focus of all their suffering was directed at Sherman."

The message: "'Never forget.'"

But as she grew older she noticed that, harsh as it was, "the march took on more and more violence in the repetition."

While plenty of stories were verifiable, others were exaggerated, many baseless, historians have found, rejecting a simple story line that's been offered for the march and its leader.

Was Sherman truly a sadistic Satan? Or, after years of carnage without resolution, was he demonically driven to test a hard and fiery new way to bring peace?

At the dinner drama, the witnesses will offer their contradictory testimony.

"And now, 150 years later," Wright says, "you decide."