The March by E.L. Doctorow

Some of my favorite books are war novels. One of my first “big” books (300+ pages) was a fortuitous find on my school’s library shelves: Newberry Winner Rifles for Watie. I loved that book. I did not realize at the time, but it was my first introduction to a more nuanced understanding of the Civil War than the traditional southern “Lost Cause” mythology that seems to get passed down nearly by osmosis to those who grow up in the American South.

I read a few other novels set during the Civil War as a child, but mostly moved on to other things. In my teens, I read some war novels, usually set in Vietnam, and Clancy’s military-techno-thrillers (my mother brought home The Hunt for Red October for my brother and me; we loved it). As an adult, my experience with “war novels” includes these favorites: A Farewell to Arms, Slaughterhouse Five, Killer Angels, and Catch-22.

At the time I read Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, I would not have consciously thought of what a “war novel” would or should look like. Most of the novels I had read to that point, however, had been told from the grunt’s point of view and had taken the reasonable view that war is hell. Killer Angels has a different feel, as explained by D.G. Meyers in his interesting review of Killer Angels. In the review, Meyers argues that Shaara freshly demonstrated with his novel that “a war novel need not be a ‘trauma novel.’”

Killer Angels is told almost exclusively from the officers’ point of view, rather than from the grunts’ point of view. This does make for a different sort of “war novel.” I think Meyers makes a good point. He closes by saying “there has been no other novel like it in forty years.”

TheMarchWhile The March is not exactly like Killer Angels in elevating the war to “a conflict of strategies and philosophies – a continuation of policies rather than an uninterrupted anarchy”, E.L. Doctorow perhaps learned something from that earlier book. Doctorow gives us multiple views up and down the chain of command, both inside and outside the military. And though The March is unlikely to leave you feeling that war is anything other than hell, it also recognizes and gives homage to the strategies and philosophies motivating the conflict.

Doctorow achieves this latter effect by drafting into his cause actual participants in Sherman’s march through the South, including most prominently, General Sherman himself. Several other historical figures, including President Lincoln and General Grant, are included in Doctorow’s large cast of characters. The character of Sherman is embellished with idiosyncrasies such as insomnia and dislike of conventional beds. Doctorow’s President Lincoln is perhaps a bit too hallowed by the other characters, wringing visible sympathy from the normally cold Wrede Sartorius. Still, Doctorow must have extensively researched his material because he, like Shaara, is able to explain and convey both the military strategy and the military tactics of the battles he relates.

If you are not familiar with the American Civil War, General Sherman took over as Union commander in the Western Theater of the war when General Grant was elevated from that post to general-in-chief of the Union Army in 1864. General Sherman captured Atlanta on September 2, 1864. His victory helped secure Lincoln’s election to a second term.

From there, Sherman followed a “hard war” policy while marching southeast through Georgia to Savannah and then up through the Carolinas. Sherman’s “hard war” consisted of destroying the Confederacy’s infrastructure and, he hoped, eviscerating the Confederacy’s will to continue the fight.

The March opens from the point of view of a southern plantation owner, John Jameson, preparing his family for flight as General Sherman is beginning his march from Atlanta to the Atlantic coast. The slaves are left behind. The most important of those to the novel is Pearl, a young female slave who, by outward appearance, is white. We soon learn that she is the daughter of John Jameson. Sherman’s army does get to the plantation and Lieutenant Clarke finds Pearl:

Her chin lifted, she regarded him as if she were the mistress of the house. She couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen, barefoot, in a plain frock to her knees, but caped by the shawl into a shockingly regal young woman. Before he could say anything, she darted past him and down the stairs. He caught a glimpse of smooth white calves, the shawl flying behind her.

Clarke and his men burn down the plantation and pillage everything of value. When they leave, the slaves go with them, there being no shelter or food remaining. Pearl stands apart from the other slaves who have piled into wagons and joined the procession. Clarke sees her and pulls her up on his horse. With this, Pearl is pulled into the march to stay.

It would take too long to properly introduce all the other major characters, so I will summarize. Lieutenant Clarke’s storyline soon intersects with that of two Confederates slated for hanging by their own side. The older, cynical, and cunning Arly fell asleep at his post, while the young, naïve, homesick Will deserted. Before the march has reached Savannah, Will and Arly will have switched sides several times. Emily Thompson is the daughter of a respected Judge and, eventually, joins the march as a nurse for Europe-educated Colonel Wrede Sartorius. Sartorius is a brilliant, if somewhat cold, army surgeon. In fact, he is the most respected surgeon in the Union. Perhaps, in Doctorow’s rendering, he is a little too brilliant.

Even so, Sartorius is a particularly interesting character. While not uncaring, his sympathy is almost exclusively expressed as efficiency. A typical show of his compassion is the amputation of a limb in nine seconds, a Union army best. His sex scene will send shivers through anyone with a modicum of romance. He is dissected best, perhaps, in these lines:

It is a cold, dark life, the life of principled feeling.

Sartorius is a principled man and his principles all serve to advance medical science. In one example, he refuses to operate on Albion Simms, a soldier with a spike on his head and, instead, takes him along on the march to study his deterioration. Albion Simms loses his memory along the way:

Yes. That is why my head hurts. It’s always now. That’s what hurts. Who did you say I was?

Albion Simms.

No, I can’t remember. There is no remembering. It’s always now.

Are you crying?

Yes. Because it’s always now. What did I just say?

It’s always now.


Albion, in tears, held his bar and nodded. Then he rocked himself back and forth, back and forth. It’s always now, he said. It’s always now.

This patient and his condition act as a metaphor for the march and war. In war, Doctorow points out, it is always now.

But to give any idea of the scope of the novel, I should mention the many other characters. Wilma Jones and Coalhouse Walker are slaves freed by Sherman’s army who meet and try to survive by following the march. Coalhouse is the father of a character in another of Doctorow’s novels. Roscoe is a distinguished black slave to John Jameson. Jameson’s wife Mattie searches for her two Confederate soldier sons. Then there is the photographer Josiah Culp and his assistant Calvin Harper who have a run-in with Arly and Will.

Gen. Judson Kilpatrick is a dandy and heads one of Sherman’s cavalry units, seducing and being seduced along the march. Stephen Walsh is a Union soldier who finds his way through to Colonel Sartorius’s surgery. Hugh Pryce is an English journalist who becomes involved in events which hinders his reporting. And there are numerous other minor characters. From Generals to slaves to “white trash”, Doctorow examines all strata of those affected by the march.

Yet, while each of these characters is important, the story is not about any particular character. The story is about the march. When Sherman muses at the march’s end:

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.

And why is Grant so solemn today upon our great achievement, except he knows this unmeaning inhuman planet will need our warring imprint to give it value, and that our civil war, the devastating manufacture of the bones of our sons, is but a war after a war, a war before a war.

This hearkens back to Albion Simms and his condition. In war, as with Simms, it is always now. Immediate survival and, hence, immediate gratification are the primary aims of the participants and those caught up in its horrors. Arly and Will exemplify that approach. Their sympathies lie with the South, but, in the always now war, they will put on whatever uniform is most conducive to survival. For generals, though, their own survival is rarely an issue. They have bigger goals which become their “always now”. The devouring beast of war is a means not only to an end, but to meaning.

12 Responses to The March by E.L. Doctorow

  1. If you are up to more war novels, Kerry, I’d add a couple of British collections for consideration. I think Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road) would stand as my nomination for best effort. I also quite liked Sebastian Faulks’ three war books (Birdsong, The Girl at the Lion d’Or, Charlotte Grey). And I will admit that I have read about as much as I want to about the Civil War (that comes from being Canadian, I confess). So I appreciate your thoughts on this one, but won’t be adding it to my pile.

  2. Kerry says:

    This is not a book I will be pushing others to read. It is good, though I would not say great. I think it nicely rounds off my journey through Civil War novels, so, as with you, I think I have had my fill. I did not know as much about Sherman’s march as about other aspects of the Civil War (Lee and whichever Union general was opposing him at the time being the focus of most other fiction and non-fiction I have read concerning the Civil War).

    Thank you for the suggestions. This probably will be my last war novel for a few months, but I will definitely remember your Barker and Faulks suggestions. Barker’s trilogy, in fact, is officially under serious consideration for my TBR.

  3. anokatony says:

    This is my first visit to your blog. I got the site address from your comments on my new blog. Having read both “The Killer Angels” and “The March”, I was very interested in this article. My opinion is possibly similar to yours. “The Killer Angels” was a revelation, the best Civil War novel I’ve read. “The March” was just very good. For some reason I’ve never attempted to read any of Michael Shaara’s son Jeff’s novels, because they are always marketed like best sellers. My favorite war novel of all time is “The Good Soldier Schweik” which is anarchic and humorous. Then probably Catch 22 which is also anarchic and humorous, then “Going After Cacciato” by Minnesota writer Tim O’Brien about Vietnam.

  4. Kerry says:

    Thank you very much for stopping in. I agree that Killer Angels is better and was, for me too, something of a revelation. Also, interestingly enough, I have avoided the Shaara son’s novels for pretty much the same reason. Catch-22 is my favorite war novel. I am not sure what I would put second. I might try both Going After Cacciato because I respect Tim O’Brien (if he is who I am thinking of) and I have not read a quality novel about Vietnam. Thank again, anokatony.

  5. Very interesting Kerry, and thanks for the background – the US civil war isn’t one I know a huge amount about.

    Over at mine, you mentioned that one character was a little too prescient with respect to future advances in medicine, I take it that was the overly brilliant Dr Sartorius?

    Did you think the depiction of Lincoln owed more to modern views than period ones? I got that impression slightly. I guess I’m wondering whether with the Sartorius bits this was a bit anachronistic in places.

    Also, one issue I had with The Glass Palace was that everyone was special, everyone was brilliant or beautiful or something. It sounds like this avoids this, with Will and Arly, does it? Or is that a problem here too?

    On war novels more generally, I’ve not read many. I understand the first of the Regeneration trilogy is supposed to be the best, but I’ve not read any of them so I bow to Kevin here. One I would suggest is a novel I covered early on at my own blog, Goshawk Squadron, which is a 1971 Booker listed novel by Derek Robinson. It’s ostensibly about WWI British pilots operating out of France, but it amply deserved its Booker nomination. That might be worth checking out some time, it in some ways reminds me of Saturn 5 – totally different prose style and no fantastic elements at all but at its core is the message that war is random and survival is too. A bleaker message in some ways it’s hard to think of.

  6. Kerry says:


    Yours is a very perceptive comment. Dr. Sartorius is the overly brilliant and “a little too prescient” character. In one place, Dr. Sartorius offhandedly mentions:

    Someday 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 bones. And so on.

    Now, molds had long been used to fight infection (stuffing moldy food into wounds), so he could have known about that and made a reasonable conjecture (though penicillin was not discovered/manufactured until the 1900s). By 1830, serious experiments with blood transfusions were taking place, so he could have had some idea of that (any routine use was still decades off as of Sartorius’s time). But photographing through body? Photography using visible light was a nascent technology and X-rays had not even been discovered. The stumble onto X-rays’ potential diagnostic use was still well in the future. Is that really something Dr. Sartorius could foresee?

    Otherwise, he was constantly at risk of becoming a Spock-like caricature. To Doctorow’s credit, he did not, but the danger was there.

    Yes, Max, everyone was special, or nearly everyone. Perhaps with so many characters, each needs a defining virtue and defect to keep them separate. Still, Pearl is terribly beautiful, Sartorius brilliant, Coalhouse the strongest and most handsome, Emily Thompson the most pure of heart, etc. Even many of the villians are the most unprincipled or the most lecherous or most vile in some other way. Not all the characters fit in this mold, but too many are archetypes. This aspect seemed to smooth out a bit, or I got used to it, but it almost put me off the novel entirely at the start.

    So, to answer your very perceptive question: Yes, that was a problem here too.

    I do think some Lincoln worship crept into the book. It is a small part, so not terribly important, but I did get the feeling the Doctorow probably holds Lincoln in very high regard. The fact that I, as a reader, felt that is something of a failure, either on my part or on Doctorow’s.

    I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I was born in 1971. I know too little about WWI. I am intrigued by the randomness of survival idea. I will head to your blog to read more, but I think Goshawk Squadron will go on the TBR. You see how random my book selections can be. Thank you for the suggestion.

  7. Sarah says:

    This sounds interesting, Kerry. Most of my war reading has been confined to WWII, and the Holocaust. The majority of my American Civil War knowledge is courtesy of Gone With the Wind, and a couple of pot boilers…

    Hm, could be time to read a more authorititive account.

    Do you find that one war story leads to another? Earlier this year I read All Quiet on the Western Front, which led to Evan Wright’s Generation Kill. A concurrent Michael Morpurgo war story read to the kids suggested Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell.

    Of these it is the George Orwell which I would recommend most highly.

  8. Kerry says:

    You cannot really go wrong with either this book or The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, though I thought the latter was slightly better. The primary difference, in a few words, is that The Killer Angels is far more focused on the fighting and the military leadership. I think it is a success. In The March, Doctorow is trying to accomplish broader objectives than presenting the war. In some ways, he succeeds; in other ways, he does not.

    I really enjoy Orwell and I have heard the praises of Homage to Catalonia before, so I will definitely put that on the TBR.

    It is interesting how one book will lead to another, pulling you in directions you have not planned.

  9. Sarah says:

    I think it would have to be the Doctorow for me. Fighting and military leadership does not appeal hugely. I don’t think my horizons will ever stretch quite that far.

    The broader aims of Doctorow are conveyed very clearly in your review, and it was chiefly this, in conjunction with an unfamiliar period of history, which caught my interest.

  10. Kerry says:

    Thank you, Sarah. If you try it, I hope you’ll like it and return to share your thoughts or a link to your review!

  11. Random book selections are the way forward Kerry, that’s how I work too. I just started a John Fante recommended to me by Kevin of Kevinfromcanada, but I only started it now because I went into a bookshop to buy something else, saw it there and remembered his recommendation.

    There’s so much wonderful stuff out there, any sensible approach is doomed to failure, we may as well read what inspires us at the moment. I could live a 1,000 years and still not run short of great works, and I don’t just read great works…

    On Sarah’s note, I do find books of one sort sometimes lead to another, though for me it’s more that a book of one sort causes me to buy another which I read later on. After I finish a book of one type, I usually read something quite different next. Thoughtful literary fiction by say a Czech writer causes me to go out and buy more Czech fiction, but the next book I read will probably be American crime or something like that to keep things fresh.

    The Derek Robinson writeup is here if you’re still interested Kerry: – if you do read it I’ll be interested to see what you make of it.

  12. Kerry says:


    I always take hear that “any sensible approach is doomed to failure”. It is liberating to be reminded of the futulity of trying to conquer all (or even a reasonable portion).

    I agree with your strategy of mixing things up, though sometimes a couple books in a row of the same type can be interesting for comparison. Though, even then, a different book in between can be better.

    I read your reviw and look forward to picking up the Derek Robinson book. I will be sure to share my thoughts both here and, in shorter form, on your site.

    Thank you!

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