Johnny Marches To Savannah and then to North Carolina: E.L. Doctorow’s The March

E.L. Doctorow’s 2005 novel The March pulled a hat trick.  It won the Penn/Faulkner Award, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics’ Award.  It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, ironically losing to a different March by Geraldine Brooks, a retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.  No book has yet managed a grand slam. In the case of The March, the accolades are well-deserved.

The titular March is Sherman’s March to the Sea, the Civil War campaign that struck at the South’s infrastructure and upended the Confederacy. The March first appears in the novel as an “upward-streaming brown cloud risen from the earth, as if the world was turned upside down.”  For the characters in The March, the world indeed has been turned upside down. Swept away in the wake of the March is identity. Planters are homeless refugees; slaves are free; a pair of confederate deserters disguise themselves as federal soldiers and find brief sanctuary in the Union army; an Irish street fighter from New York’s Five Points turns hero; a slave girl, aptly named Pearl, passes as a white drummer boy in the Northern army and later serves as a nurse; and a southern belle finds temporary love with a Union surgeon.  One Union soldier wounded by a spike through the skull loses his identity permanently.  Tragically for Albion Simms, it is “always now.”

Doctorow focuses upon the flotsam and jetsam that attaches itself to the Union army. The Confederate deserters, Willie and Arly, play the parts of Shakespearean fools; their antics are sometimes overly clownish until they become poignant.  As for Emily Thompson, the southern belle, she ultimately finds that she and Wrede Satorius, the Union surgeon, don’t speak the same language. Satorius is a detached man of science, who finds no use for sentiment.  Emily cannot fully shake her identity as a daughter of the Confederacy.  And where Wrede believes Emily “reduces life to its sentiments,” Emily insists that she “enlarges life to its sentiments.”  As much as Emily bemoans all that she has lost—home, family, “principled feeling”–even Emily cannot help becoming transformed by the March. As the March turns north, the book leaves Emily in Columbia, South Carolina assisting in a black orphanage.

Pearl finds love with Stephen Walsh, a stoic and stalwart Union soldier, son of Irish immigrants.  When the March concludes they are prepared to confront the biggest identity crisis of all.  Passing leaves Pearl conflicted.  She asks, “And if I be white until I have my black baby?”  Stephen assures her he will stay by her. Pearl then puzzles, “If I live white, how free am I?”  She continues, “Free everywhere ‘cept in my heart.  Is that freer than my mama Nancy Wilkins?”  Stephen replies, “You will have to let the world catch up to you.”  We all know how that turned out.

And leading the March is the General.   Sherman is multi-dimensional yet flawed.  Master strategist. Grieving father. Beloved by his soldiers.  No friend of the freed slaves. Unwilling to stop the worst of the predations inflicted by unruly Union soldiers.  Pressing for generosity to the South after Johnston’s surrender. And disillusioned, as military authority cedes to political control. “We have been but marching to a politician’s parade,” Sherman reflects.  He thinks back upon the March, already missing it, “not for its blood and death but for the bestowal of meaning to the very ground trod upon.” Sherman sadly realizes that the Civil War will also fade into history: “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.”

If you missed it the first time, grab The March.


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