by Robert WeibezahlOctober, 2005
Retracing Sherman's march to the sea
E.L. Doctorow begins his engrossing new novel, The March, with a 168-word-long, comma-laden sentence worthy of Faulkner. It is a fitting start for this fictional account of one of the defining episodes in the history of the American South General William Tecumseh Sherman's destructive military campaign across three states, which brought a devastating close to the Civil War.
Doctorow is one of our great American storytellers, employing panoramic narratives to tell the stories of events and epochs that shaped us as a nation. There is often a strong undertow of violence in his work, whether he is depicting the underworld of the 1930s, as he did in Billy Bathgate, or cultural excess and racism at the turn of the 20th century, as in his masterwork, Ragtime. The March does not have the breathtaking, virtuosic synchronicity of plot and character that made the latter impossible to put down, but it does have an undeniably persuasive momentum that mirrors Sherman's relentless drive to the sea.
As the novel begins, Sherman's forces have already cleared Atlanta and have just taken Milledgeville. There, the first of many characters join the refugee parade. Pearl, a white-skinned slave sired by her master, is all but adopted by a company commander. Emily Thompson, daughter of a local judge who has just died of natural causes amid the chaos, casts her fate as a volunteer nurse with one of the Union military surgeons, a German named Wrede Sartorius. Two Confederate deserters, Arly and Will, don the uniforms of the fallen enemy and blend in with the massive exodus of soldiers and former slaves.
The intertwined fates of these and the numerous other characters introduced en route give the often-told story of Sherman's march a new heart and soul. A few will make it to the end of the novel (and the march); most will fall behind or even die along the way. The storyline, like the march itself, has room for all manner of saints and sinners, orphans and criminals, officers and foot soldiers, men and women, whites and blacks. As he often does, Doctorow introduces actual historical figures into the action, most notably Sherman himself. Grant, Lincoln and their wives make cameo appearances, as does the fictitious Coalhouse Walker, Sr., father of the main character in Ragtime. Giving away too much of the plot would spoil the pleasure that readers will encounter with each of Doctorow's clever narrative turns. Truth to tell, though, while intricate plots have always driven Doctorow's stories, here plot remains subordinate to the relationships among the characters. Still, there are some marvelous moments, including one that involves a Johnny Reb masquerading as a battle photographer in order to assassinate Sherman, and another in which a slave child is rescued by a British journalist. Pearl, arguably the central character of the book, has her share of adventures and awakenings on the road to freedom, and there is a wounded soldier with a spike in his head who won't quickly be forgotten.
Be forewarned: while the battle scenes in the novel are convincingly bloody, the true tests of the faint-hearted reader are the many vividly detailed scenes in the makeshift battlefield hospitals, where Dr. Sartorius attempts to repair and save the torn-apart casualties. These frequent moments provide the most lingering images in the novel, reminding us that this truly was the first modern war in terms of sheer brutality. With this evocative novel, Doctorow puts a human face on something that for many today is just a footnote in history. Sure, we've heard about Sherman's march, maybe even studied it in school as part of the larger story of the Civil War. But a century and a half after the fact, it has become a dim glimmer in our collective memory. Few think about what it must have been like to live through (or die from) the unprecedented swath of destruction, to be one of the individual souls who today would euphemistically be labeled "collateral damage." The March rectifies this time-induced amnesia as perhaps only fiction can—reminding us that history is nothing if not the story of those who dare to stray into its path.
Robert Weibezahl is author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead.