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Patriotic Gore

The March

by E.L. Doctorow
Random House, 363 pp., $25.95

1.

Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, the men with the exotic names who turned the Civil War decisively in the North’s favor, are sometimes credited with putting an end to the romance of war. The once popular Southern novelist John Esten Cooke lamented that in modern warfare as conducted by the Union forces, “where men are organized in masses and converted into insensate machines, there is nothing heroic or romantic or in any way calculated to appeal to the imagination.” One looks in vain among the Northern victors for the flair and dash of the Confederate heroes—the wily guerrilla raider John Mosby, celebrated in a poem of Melville’s, or Jeb Stuart sporting an ostrich plume in his cap.

The North, to be sure, was not without its distinguished martyrs. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw led his black troops in the doomed charge on Fort Wagner, giving Boston Brahmins a fit subject for their fantasies of leadership and martial heroism. Another Bostonian, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, led a black regiment to occupy Jacksonville, Florida, ordering that no houses be destroyed or plundered—“Sherman’s ‘bummers’ not having yet arrived,” Higginson noted proudly. When the town went up in flames anyway, Higginson insisted that it was the white reinforcements who had torched the wooden buildings and not his own well-mannered troops. Preparing for departure, he returned through the smoke-filled streets to the house where he had been billeted to pluck a tea rose for his lapel.1

The grim conditions of the final stages of the war put an end to such sentimental gestures, as Lincoln turned to the implacable generals who understood that victory was a matter of superior numbers and superior technology. Sherman knew well that he couldn’t compete with the young hotheads of the South according to their own methods. “War suits them,” he wrote, “and the rascals are brave, fine riders, bold to rashness, and dangerous subjects in every sense…. These men must all be killed or employed by us before we can hope for peace.”

For Sherman, the romance of war lay neither in the battlefield bravura of the Confederate cavalry nor in the idealized antislavery causes espoused by Boston Brahmins, but rather in what he called “the grand and beautiful game of war.” It was a game for which he was well suited. The son of a lawyer with Connecticut roots who admired Tecumseh, the great chief of the Shawnees, Sherman had grown up in the frontier state of Ohio—“an untamed animal just caught in the far West,” he called himself—and attended West Point, from which he graduated in 1840. Sherman was never an abolitionist; he fervently opposed using black soldiers during the war as well as giving the vote to blacks. He felt at ease in the South, where he had taken part in mop-up operations against the Seminoles in Florida before serving in Mobile and Charleston, where he had friends among the leading families. When he taught at a military academy in Louisiana in 1860, he suggested to his wife back in Ohio that they might purchase slaves to run the household. She was appalled. Sherman’s view of the rebellious South was not ideological; in his view, the South needed to be disciplined for its ill-advised decision to secede from the Union.

Like Grant’s, Sherman’s early service in the war was undistinguished, and he almost gave up the “beautiful game” after some setbacks along the Mississippi, when he was much maligned in the newspapers for overestimating Confederate troop strength in Kentucky, for his harsh treatment of civilian supporters of the Confederacy in Memphis, and for what Edmund Wilson called “a certain insouciance in his efforts to protect property.”2 Relieved of his command in late 1861, sullen and suicidal, Sherman developed a lifelong hatred of the press. Many, including his wife, feared that he was insane. When he returned to the battlefield, as Grant’s main lieutenant, he was openly determined to pursue the game of war according to his own convictions.

What secured Sherman’s fame was the great campaign beginning in the spring of 1864, when he crisscrossed the state of Georgia, first taking Atlanta, then marching to Savannah—the “March to the Sea”—then back up the coast through the Carolinas to Raleigh and final victory. Throughout this campaign, Sherman, affectionately called “Uncle Billy” by his troops, showed a zeal for technological and tactical innovation. His troops were so skilled in the demolition and rebuilding of railroads, bridges, and tunnels that one Confederate claimed that Sherman carried an extra tunnel with him. Sherman’s huge army of 62,000 on the march was self-sustaining, moving a dozen miles a day and cutting a swath twenty-five to sixty miles wide through the countryside, while drawing provisions from farms and plantations along the way—the work of the so-called “bummers.” The regular troops were followed by a second army of freed slaves and sympathizers, a constant annoyance to Sherman who, on one occasion, removed the pontoon bridges from a river so that this band of camp followers was left behind—to face the dangers of drowning or of vindictive Confederate raiders and slaveholders.

Sherman clearly relished the imaginative ways in which he subdued and terrorized the countryside—German generals in World War II read his vivid Memoirs with care—but he retained a strict sense of the rules. When in his view they were broken, he was outraged and vengeful. On the road to Savannah, a young Union officer’s foot was blown to pieces by a land mine planted in the road. “This was not war, but murder,” Sherman wrote. In response, he ordered a group of Confederate prisoners “armed with picks and spades” to “march in close order along the road, so as to explode their own torpedoes, or to discover and dig them up.” When the prisoners hesitated, Sherman was delighted: “I…could hardly help laughing at their stepping so gingerly along the road.” The reader of Sherman’s Memoirs finds his sympathies shifting back and forth in this horrible scene, from the young officer’s suffering to the hapless prisoners. But Sherman’s laughter can only appall.

E.L. Doctorow includes both of these disturbing episodes, the pontoon bridge and the land mine, in The March, a sprawling historical novel that takes Sherman’s exploits and what Doctorow calls “the brutal romance of war” as its subject. The Civil War has been the great mother lode of historical fiction in America, from The Red Badge of Courage to Gone with the Wind, Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, and, more recently, Cold Mountain. No American novelist of the twentieth century has done more than Doctorow—now in his seventy-fifth year and the author of nine novels in addition to short stories, critical essays, screenplays, and a play—to enliven the historical novel, already by the 1930s a musty sideline in American literature.

Doctorow has brought to what had been a conservative genre a conceptual vigor and a narrative excitement that has affinities with experiments of his own generation of fabulists—John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Kurt Vonnegut. He has had a special interest (as in Loon Lake and Billy Bathgate) in the gangsters and hoboes of the Depression. His best novel remains the highly entertaining Ragtime, with the outsized personalities Stanford White, J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Houdini, and the rest inhabiting the sepia-tinged turn-of-the-century New York of the Gilded Age. The Civil War has turned up only tangentially in his books. So it is with much anticipation that one turns to Doctorow’s new novel about the national cataclysm that gave rise to the Gilded Age.

Like all Doctorow’s work, The March is stylishly written—his model, here as elsewhere, is F. Scott Fitzgerald—but it seems, despite its considerable length, a smaller, less ambitious book than one might have expected in view of his subject. What seemed bracingly experimental in some of Doctorow’s previous novels, the combination of historical and fictional characters and fates in surprising ways, seems merely conventional in The March. Doctorow recasts some of the most closely examined events in American history: the uncertain beginnings of the march in Georgia; Lincoln’s reelection, based in large part on Sherman’s success in taking Atlanta; the endgame of the war; the assassination of Lincoln; the controversy over the terms of surrender and reconstruction. Toward the end of the novel, Doctorow gropes for the significance of the march itself, both as a historical event and as some kind of metaphor for grand human effort. The publication of this novel in the aftermath of September 11 and while the nation is again at war raises a tantalizing question: Why Sherman, and why now?3

2.

The narrative of The March begins in confusion, when the settled life of the fictional Jameson plantation in rural Georgia is disrupted by the impending arrival of Sherman’s army:

At five in the morning someone banging on the door and shouting, her husband, John, leaping out of bed, grabbing his rifle, and Roscoe at the same time roused from the backhouse, his bare feet pounding: Mattie hurriedly pulled on her robe, her mind prepared for the alarm of war, but the heart stricken that it would finally have come, and down the stairs she flew to see through the open door in the lamplight, at the steps of the portico, the two horses, steam rising from their flanks, their heads lifting, their eyes wild, the driver a young darkie with rounded shoulders, showing stolid patience even in this, and the woman standing in her carriage no one but her aunt Letitia Pettibone of McDonough, her elderly face drawn in anguish, her hair a straggled mess, this woman of such fine grooming, this dowager who practically ruled the season in Atlanta standing up in the equipage like some hag of doom, which indeed she would prove to be.

The headlong dash of this opening sentence, as though punctuation itself is gone with the wind, is meant to convey Sherman’s merciless uprooting of a whole civilization. From now on everyone and everything will be on the move. “And I know him!” Letitia screams of General Sherman. “He has dined in my home. He has lived among us. He burns where he has ridden to lunch, he fires the city in whose clubs he once gave toasts.” It will be another seventy pages, however, before we get a glimpse of Sherman himself, with his battered cap and a cigar stub in his mouth, riding nonchalantly on his small horse.

Meanwhile, Doctorow introduces a cast of invented folk to connect, as though by contagion, the famous names and places. Some of these come from previous novels, by Doctorow and other writers; some seem lightly disguised historical characters. Doctorow has fun with their names. Two slaves are called Jake Early and Jubal Samuels, evoking the Confederate general Jubal Early. A spirited slave girl called Pearl seems to have stepped out of The Scarlet Letter—in her red shawl threaded with gold she even dresses like Hawthorne’s illegitimate scamp. The Boston-bred Lieutenant Clarke rescues Pearl from slavery without quite acknowledging her sexual allure. At Milledgeville, capital of Georgia during the war, another group of loosely connected characters joins Doctorow’s traveling show: an efficient Union army surgeon with a bloodied saw in his hand; a judge’s daughter who asks the surgeon’s help with her dying father; two bedraggled Confederate soldiers, incarcerated for desertion and dereliction of duty, who have escaped from the Milledgeville prison.

  1. 1

    On Robert Gould Shaw, see Chapter 10, “The Martyr and His Friends,” in George M. Fredrickson, The Inner Civil War (Harper and Row, 1965). For Higginson’s tea rose, see The Complete Civil War Journal and Selected Letters of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, edited by Christopher Looby (University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 120.

  2. 2

    Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore (Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 182. Wilson’s chapter on Sherman is particularly revealing of the inner conflicts in the man.

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