The March by E.L. Doctorow

October 5, 2009

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.

Yes.

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.