Monday, November 16, 2015

The March

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 destroyedThe 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)

24 comments:

  1. Not very familiar with Doctorow's work. Know the name, of course.

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    1. This was the first book I've read by him. Like you, I'd heard the name but that was it.

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  2. I usually enjoy historical fiction, especially when they add personality and cultural aspects into it.

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    1. You should check it out--I'd love to hear what you think of the book.

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  3. I love all of the different perspectives in this story. I've read a lot of stories in the point-of-view of slaves and people of color and always enjoy the history and culture.

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    1. It is nice to get different perspectives and to put ourselves into the shoes of others

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  4. Historians as a bunch tend to the high horseyness. We can become so focused on clearing clutter that we can miss the essence of an event or era.
    But here even historians, outside of those connected with the academies of the military arts, forget that the length of the march was of lesser importance to the width of the movements over the landscape. The point was to remove all food stuffs, all food stuffs, that could be used by the foe crossing from the grain basket and foundries to the west to the active fronts in the north. Or to put it another way, it was utterly inevitable that the entire population would either starve or move to the wings and become the headache for the municipalities on either side. Which, in itself would serendipitously extend the effect for the refugees would consume that needed for an army passing through.
    Just a tiny point though. I expect the Union force was very lucky. Had it moved earlier it was very likely it would've been pinched out and forced into a massive pocket which could only be supplied by sea.

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    1. I agree they were lucky as the South made a big mistake in trying to retake Tennessee instead of falling back across Georgia. With Sherman's army so spread out--a strong force could have done many hit-and-run battles slowing his advance as they drew him away from his supply lines--Savannah was spared destruction, partly because he needed the city and harbor to resupply his troops before heading north into South Carolina.

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    2. No, it wasn't the advance that they should've worried about but cutting across his support column. Crossing a T. Doing to him what he was trying to do to the entire South. But politics intervened and the South split focus.
      In truth though the South was at the very end of it's economic cycle. It should've see the scribblings on the wall when the entire slave owning segment of the UK was paid off 30 years earlier.

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  5. Fist time I heard of E. L. Doctorow ... Rest his soul ...

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    1. I'd heard of him but this is my first book.

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  6. It sounds like a savage time in history for many to have endured, Sage!

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    1. War is always a savage time and those who followed Sherman were like other refuges of other war

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  7. The civilian experience of war is always a worthwhile topic.

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  8. I didn't know Doctorow passed. I haven't read him before, but I've been meaning to dive into his books.

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    1. I am not sure if I'll read others of his--some sound good but there are so many books...

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  9. Yes - it definitely captured the chaos of war. I read this with my book group a few years ago. I love the part written about my home town of Milledgeville, Georgia. Since I've been inside the old Governors' Mansion so many times - I could see the whole thing as they stood looking outside its windows.

    I think some characters that appeared in his book Ragtime where in this one, too. I didn't read Ragtime, but my book group friends recommended it.

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    1. Glad to hear that you have read it and to get your view of it. I still haven't been to Milledgeville, but it is my favorite name for a town in Georgia

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  10. This is the first that I'd heard of this author, but that's probably because I don't usually read this type of book. Glad you liked it. A very interesting look into a subject that doesn't get talked about a lot.

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    1. It is interesting to read about a time Americans were refugees!

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  11. sounds an interesting book, thanks for the review. I've read a couple of Doctorow'snovels and enjoyed them

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    1. Which novels of his did you enjoy? This was the only one I've read.

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  12. Sounds like a great read. Love love love the quote at the end :-)
    Have a happy Thanksgiving Sage :-)

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