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
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.
In these opening sections, Doctorow develops a single idea: that as a civilization is uprooted its members are given the chance to invent themselves anew. Light-skinned Pearl puts on a Union uniform and serves briefly as a drummer boy, then as Sherman’s mascot, and finally, along with the judge’s daughter, as a nurse assisting the army surgeon. The escaped Confederate soldiers, Arly and Will, dress up as Yankees and bring off a series of picaresque escapades, stealing cash from a church collection to pay for a visit to a brothel before going on to more serious acts of mayhem. Even Uncle Billy, the West Point professional soldier, undergoes a transformation: “Sherman affected the sloppy uniform, and shared the hardships, of the enlisted man.”
Amid the steady attrition of the march, we’re never quite sure who the main characters are and which ones are subsidiary—just as we are reasonably certain that Lieutenant Clarke is a durable hero, Doctorow kills him off, replacing him with another noble Northerner, Stephen Walsh, who carries Pearl to freedom. Meanwhile, Doctorow continues to introduce significant characters late in the novel: a British journalist, a Mathew Brady– like photographer and his black assistant, and, in an affecting portrait, Abraham Lincoln, “the amassed miseries of this torn-apart country made incarnate.”
We are meant to feel that this ebb and flow of characters reflects the turbulence of the march, a “floating world,” as Emily Thompson, the judge’s daughter, puts it. At the same time, Doctorow seems to distrust the possibility that a shaped narrative can emerge from the ongoing “march of life,” which has no goal or consummation. In the past he has had recourse to a closing violent cataclysm of some kind, as in the ending of Ragtime when the black Coalhouse Walker is shot by the police. The historical record has given him an obvious climax to the march in the assassination of Lincoln, but since Lincoln’s death is expected, Doctorow has contrived a parallel plot involving a threat to Sherman’s life to intensify the sense of an ending.
The sturdiest, most fully imagined characters in the book are Arly Wilcox, a half-cracked Confederate master of disguise and escape, and the Union army surgeon Wrede Sartorius. Sartorius and Wilcox are in some sense opposites—the one unchangeable and imperturbable under the most horrific conditions, the other Protean in his shifting personalities and mercurial escapes—but they both thrive in the nomadic world of the march. Arly joins a long line of illusionists and con artists in Doctorow’s fiction, most memorably Houdini in Ragtime. The German-born Dr. Sartorius, trained in medicine at Göttingen, is a more complicated character. He introduces advances in medical treatment on the battlefield, but in his zeal for modern methods he seems a little too impervious to the sufferings around him. He doesn’t get the girl, Emily, but whether this is a failing in her or in him (he wonders at one point whether he doesn’t resemble, in his lack of feeling, one of his patients, who has a spike lodged in his brain) is never quite made clear.
What is most unnerving about Dr. Sartorius, however, is that we have met him before, as the sinister medical researcher in Doctorow’s gothic novel The Waterworks, set in New York during the aftermath of the Civil War. We are meant to believe that the sympathetic army surgeon of The March turned into the nightmare figure, half Dr. Frankenstein and half Dr. Mengele (all mad doctors are German) of The Waterworks. This little in-joke does nothing to make Sartorius convincing in The March, however; nor do Sartorius’s unlikely predictions of penicillin, blood transfusions, and X-rays. In a similar narrative sally, we meet, during the pontoon bridge incident, the parents of the ragtime pianist and sympathetic terrorist Coalhouse Walker Jr. from Ragtime. Doctorow may be reminding us that a major theme in Ragtime is a rich white family’s redemption through the adoption of a black child—a theme reworked in various ways in The March.
But there is only one dominating character in Doctorow’s novel, and that is the march itself. For the Southerners in its path, the march is like some supernatural disaster unleashed on the countryside:
When the sound of this cloud reached them, it was like nothing they had ever heard in their lives. It was not fearsomely heaven-made, like thunder or lightning or howling wind, but something felt through their feet, a resonance, as if the earth was humming.
For Sherman and his men, by contrast, the march is a kind of visionary alternative to the settled life of city and farm. It is “the new way to live,” as Arly says, and a constant injunction to live “in the present as if there were no future,” as Sartorius is said to live. Doctorow adopts both these perspectives, noting the hardships imposed on the South by the “bummers” while writing sympathetically of Sherman’s hatred of “city governance and dealing endlessly with whining civilians.”
As Sherman argues with Secretary of State Stanton about the terms of surrender, with Stanton pushing for a more punitive treatment of the South, we are invited to share in Sherman’s exultation in the meaning of the completed march:
Though this march is done, and well accomplished, I think of it now, God help me, with longing—not for its blood and death but for the bestowal of meaning to the very ground trod upon, how it made every field and swamp and river and road into something of moral consequence, whereas now, as the march dissolves so does the meaning, the army strewing itself into the isolated intentions of diffuse private life, and the terrain thereby left blank and also diffuse, and ineffable, a thing once again, and victoriously, without reason, and, whether diurnally lit and darkened, or sere or fruitful, or raging or calm, completely insensible and without any purpose of its own.
This baroque elaboration of the Gettysburg Address (“we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it…”) tempts us to forget the atrocities wrought by both sides along the route of the march.
In offering so many divergent views of the march, Doctorow has conveyed some of the complexity of the historical event, but what, finally, does the march signify for Doctorow himself? Perhaps the divergent views are themselves the point. In his Massey lectures at Harvard, published in 2003 as Reporting the Universe, Doctorow maintained that a “multiplicity of witness” was crucial to a free society: “A true democracy endows itself with a multiplicity of voices and assures the creation of a self-revising consensual reality that inches forward over the generations to a dream of truth.”
But this merely postpones the question, for what “dream of truth” about our national history does The March move toward? Is Sherman’s march to the sea meant to be a metaphor for Manifest Destiny, the American empire expanding and consuming what first Native Americans and then African-American slaves have sown? Is Sherman, with his contempt for poor blacks and his single-minded concentration on “the mission,” some sort of stand-in for President Bush? Is he meant as an ironic reminder that emancipation was largely the work of men who didn’t give a damn about the slaves? Is Pearl, daughter of a slaveholder and a slave, meant to be a hopeful embodiment of a better, more inclusive America? None of these possibilities seems particularly convincing, and whatever light Doctorow thought to shine on our own difficult times remains diffuse at best. Indeed, two other novels by Doctorow—the apocalyptic City of God (2000) and Ragtime, with its family fortune built on patriotic flags and fireworks—seem more incisive anticipations of September 11 and Bush’s America than The March.
It is one of the many ironies of the Gilded Age that General Sherman, scourge of Georgia, became a popular figure in the postwar South as he urged policies of reconciliation and forgiveness. If it were not for his distaste for bureaucracy and the press, he probably could have joined, had he wished to do so, the other Union generals elected to the presidency. His popularity was still high in 1903 when Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s gilded monument of Sherman was installed at the southeast entrance of Central Park. The statue—in which the mounted general is preceded by a crowned figure bearing an olive branch—lacks the simple nobility of Saint-Gaudens’s monument for Colonel Shaw and his black soldiers on Boston Common. There is something conflicted in the Sherman monument, “a certain ambiguity,” as Henry James (whose younger brother Wilkinson had been grievously wounded in Shaw’s doomed charge) noticed when he contemplated the statue in 1904, a year after its installation:
Its idea, to which I have alluded, strikes me as equivocal, or more exactly as double; the image being, on the one side, and splendidly rendered, that of an overwhelming military advance, an irresistible march into an enemy’s country—the strain forward, the very inflation of drapery with the rush, symbolizing the very breath of the Destroyer. But the idea is at the same time—which part of it is also admirably expressed—that the Destroyer is a messenger of peace, with the olive branch too waved in the blast and with embodied grace, in the form of a beautiful American girl, attending his business. And I confess to a lapse of satisfaction in the presence of this interweaving—the result doubtless of a sharp suspicion of all attempts, however glittering and golden, to confound destroyers with benefactors. The military monument in the City Square responds evidently, wherever a pretext can be found for it, to a desire of men’s hearts; but I would have it always as military as possible, and I would have the Destroyer, in intention at least, not docked of one of his bristles. I would have him deadly and terrible, and, if he be wanted beautiful, beautiful only as a war-god and crested not with peace, but with snakes.
There is a kindred ambiguity in E.L. Doctorow’s novel about the irresistible march. It concludes on a sentimental note, with Pearl, now of age, and her husband-to-be, the New Yorker Stephen Walsh, marching toward the great city with some of Sherman’s glittering aplomb. He will read law, like Oliver Wendell Holmes. She will go to medical school and, at Walsh’s urging, “let the world catch up to you.” What seems a pathetic fallacy lifted from the closing paragraph of Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage seals the happy ending: “There was still a scent of gunfire in the trees, and they were glad to come out into the sun again.” This is the reassuring image of the beautiful American girl with the olive branch rather than that of the bristling war god crowned with snakes. Doctorow may have wished to preserve the ambiguity, the mixing of destroyers and benefactors. But in the comforting resolution of The March, it is an ambiguity without pain or peril.
October 20, 2005
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. ↩
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. ↩