Sherman's War on Barbarity
The March by E.L. Doctorow
RANDOM HOUSE; 363 PAGES; $25.95
This review originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.
The Civil War has a long literary history, beginning with Walt Whitman's poetry and Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage" and peaking in the 1930s when Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" became a national phenomenon, both in print and on film.
In 1990, Ken Burn's 11-hour PBS series "The Civil War" reignited war fever, a fire that turned recently deceased Civil War historian Shelby Foote into a best-seller for the first time. In recent memory, there have been a number of undeniably good books about the war, the most notable of which is probably Charles Frazier's 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Cold Mountain."
With "The March," E.L. Doctorow makes a fine contribution to the Civil War bookshelf, one that offers a panoptic view of one of the most notorious military campaigns in U.S. history: Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's infamous march through Georgia and South Carolina in the final months of the war.
Doctorow begins in the days after the burning of Atlanta in November 1864. With a scorched-earth policy intended to break what remained of the South's will, Sherman orders his 60,000 troops to burn crops, kill livestock and destroy any buildings (except churches and Masonic temples) in the Army's path. Plantation owners and other Georgia gentry are fleeing toward Savannah. Most have left slaves behind, who wait in expectation of the liberating army:
"And, as they watched, the brown cloud took on a reddish cast. It moved forward, thin as a hatchet blade in front then widening like the furrow from the plow. ... 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." The terror is not that of God, but of man. Where the slaves see the Union as sowing freedom in the furrowed earth, the Southerners see it as sowing death.
As the novel progresses, Doctorow shifts smoothly among a dozen points of view, from slaves to civilians to enlisted men and officers on both sides. Among the characters through whom we experience the war are Sherman himself (known to his men as "Uncle Billy"), a German battlefield surgeon named Wrede Sartorius, and Pearl, a 13-year-old "white negro" who is the illegitimate offspring of a plantation owner and one of his slaves.
Throughout, the portrayal of the characters constantly shifts. Sherman is alternately depicted as a ruthless warlord and an asthmatic and insomniac troubled by the deaths of his young sons. Sartorius, renowned for "removing a leg in twelve seconds" (an arm "took only nine"), appears at first with a bloody saw in hand, "inviolate in the carnage around him." But he also is a brilliant medical mind and predicts that there will be a time when "we will have other means. We will have found botanical molds to reverse infection. We will replace lost blood. We will photograph through the body to the bones."
At various times, Pearl will pass for white and black, a boy and a girl, a child and an adult, a nurse and Sherman's drummer boy. Southern belles profane themselves to maintain some semblance of status. In one of the finest turns in the book, a cowardly Confederate soldier who has previously commandeered the uniform of a slain Union soldier in order to save himself adopts the identity of dandified war photographer and very nearly becomes a hero of the Confederacy.
Despite his sympathy for the plight of the innocents, Doctorow make it clear that Sherman's barbarity is the evolution of an ancient militaristic impulse toward seeking glory through war, one that casts a shadow over all humanity. As an English journalist named Pryce remarks, "These chaps were industrial-killers, they had repeating rifles that could kill at a thousand yards, grape that could decimate an advancing line, cannon, fieldpieces, munitions that could bring down entire cities. Their war was so impersonally murderous as to make quaint anything that had gone on before." But at the same time, "the brutal romance of war was still possible in the taking of spoils. Each town the army overran was a prize. In this village was an amazing store of wine, in that a granary brimming to the rafters, a herd of beef here, an armory there, homes to loot, slaves to incorporate. There was something undeniably classical about it, for how else did the armies of Greece and Rome supply themselves?"
The cruel irony, of course, is that Sherman's brutal methods seem to have hastened the end of the war. He established a haunting precedent, one that probably contributed to the thinking that justified the dropping the atomic bomb on Japan, which helped to hasten the end of World War II. But aside from the cost in human lives, what is the intangible price of waging such warfare?
Doctorow seems to answer, in the voice of an elderly and dying Marcus Aurelius Thompson, chief judge of Georgia, as he flees from Sherman on the back of a wagon: "The wretched war had destroyed not only their country but all their presumptions of human self-regard. What a scant, foolish pretense was a family, a culture, a place in history, when it was all so easily defamed. And God was behind this."
It's a haunting valediction and one that echoes through parts of the South, even today.
Edward Nawotka lives in Austin, Texas, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.