Life's been busy lately and I haven't had the time to post... This is a book I read for a men's book group that meets on the island.
E. L. Doctorow, The March (2005, New York: Random House Paperback, 2010), 363 pages
In The March, E. L. Doctorow (who died this past summer) attempts to portray Sherman’s trek across Georgia and the Carolinas as it would have been experienced by individuals caught up in the army’s push. Instead of focusing on commanding officers or even soldiers, Doctorow tells the story from the point of view of freed slaves (including Pearl, whose skin is while like her father's), aristocratic southerners who have lost everything, a photographer and his free black aid (Mr. Culp and Calvin), two Confederate deserters (Will and Arly), and a skilled surgeon (Wrede Sartorius). Along the way, Sherman’s soldiers forage for food and supplies, raiding the plantations that dotted countryside, often burning the buildings. The cotton and railroads and anything that could be used in the war effort are destroyed. The stories is told through characters who don't understand the tactics nor the Union Army's overall plan. Many of the freed slaves can’t read, but see Sherman as a Savior and blindly follow him across Georgia. Others join the band following the army because they have no other place to go or, like Arly and Will (the Confederate deserters) because they sense an opportunity.
I enjoyed how Doctorow tells the story without explaining or naming the events. The slaves who drown at Ebenezer Creek just west of Savannah don't understand the tactic of the Union General Jefferson Davis, who had the bridges destroyed as a way to rid himself of slaves whom he's unable to careful, but keep following. The rumor of Confederate cavalry leads many to run into the waters where they drown. Instead of learning of the tragedy from a distance, we experience it first hand as Pearl (a freed slave) finds herself trapped and then is saved by other slaves who create makeshift rafts. Likewise, as the army moves into North Carolina and begins to experience more unified resistance from a thrown-together army, we learn of the battles from the places in which they occur (Averasboro and Bentonville).
Doctorow also captures some of the personality such as characterizing Union General Kilpatrick as a womanizer (Sherman had one of his women sent down river to Wilmington and told another officer to make sure Kilpatrick doesn’t swim after her). He captures the funny scene at the last cavalry battle of the war, outside of Fayetteville, NC, where Kirkpatrick had to flee with his mistress in a battle that has been called Kilpatrick’s Shirttail Skedaddle. Again, we don't fully learn what happened or the name that the engagement is now known as. Instead, only what was experienced from the eyes of Doctorow's characters. Doctorow also uses the slave with white skin (Pearl) as a way to show her difficulty in fitting in with the white and black communities. The book ends with the death of Lincoln and the surrender of Johnston's army (which occurred nine days after Lee's surrender in Virginia).
This is a work of historical fiction. It would be beneficial for the reader to have some idea of Sherman's march across the South, but this is not a story about the Sherman's tactics as it is to show how it was experienced by the civilians and this is the best part of the book and would make it interesting beyond Civil War students. Among the dozen of men who read this, those most interested in history were less impressed with the book. Several readers found the book confusing as Doctorow jumps from character to character, but that chaos I felt helped capture the way most people would have experienced the horror of war.
A Quote: A former slave speaking to others: “If you long for the General to protect you, you are still unfree. Freedom should fill your heart and lift your spirit…” (261)