Executive Times

 

 

 

 

 

2005 Book Reviews

 

The March by E.L. Doctorow

 

Rating: (Recommended)

 

 

 

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Sweeping

 

In his latest novel, The March, E.L. Doctorow continues his past practices of including both real and fictional characters. This time, the key real character is “Uncle Billy,” General William Tecumseh Sherman, and the title refers to the 60,000 troops and thousands of civilians he led through Georgia and the Carolinas on a journey of death and destruction during the Civil War. Doctorow allows the story of The March to be told by an ensemble of characters, and he never fails to plumb the psychological depths behind the action. In a kindly bow to literature teachers and students, Doctorow reprises Dr. Sartorious from Waterworks, and presents the slave Coalhouse Walker, who’s likely to become the father of the Ragtime jazz pianist. One can almost anticipate the essay questions. To what extent did Colonel Wrede Sartorius’ experiences during The March influence his villainous behavior in Waterworks? Would the chosen career of Coalhouse Walker be a disappointment to his father? Use passages from Ragtime and The March to illustrate. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter XIII, pp. 86-90:

 

Sherman’s glasses were turned on Fort McAlister which guarded Savannah from the south, a formidably risen, parapeted earthwork with a ravine before it and obstructions of abatis made of felled oak trees, and chevaux-de-frise whose stripped branches had been honed into sharp spikes. It was late in the after­noon. He stood with Morrison, his signal officer, atop a mill roof on the left bank of the Ogeechee a mile or two distant. Above them on a crow’s nest hurriedly constructed by the engineers was Morrison’s signalman, who was in communication with one of Admiral Dahlgren’s squadron laying at anchor in Ossabaw Sound. So the navy was there with the clothing and shoes, provisions, and mail that the men had been yearning for these many weeks. But it could not come in up the river till the fort was taken.

Entrenched in a great arc of siege in the swampland south and west of the city, Sherman’s Fourteenth, Twentieth, Seventeenth, and Fifteenth Corps were hunkered down in the pooling sumps of canal water and sand. His men were cold and miserable and hungry, having marched through a barren sandy territory that devolved into water­logged rice plantations where there was no forage to be had. They could not light fires to warm themselves lest they invite grapeshot from the Rebel guns. Miles behind them was the wagon train with its hardtack and coffee and its beef on the hoof, but nothing could move forward into this chilled watery lowland until the city was taken.

Your division will storm Fort McAllister, Sherman had told General Hazen. I won’t fuddle about. I’ve come this far and my army wants its prize. We take Fort McAllister and we’ll have Savannah.

Now, he saw Hazen’s regiments moving into position through a woods and halting at its edge. Signal Admiral Dahlgren the assault is about to begin, Sherman said. Then order Hazen to begin. Yes, let it begin, let it begin, Sherman said.

Within moments the blue lines appeared in parade at the edge of the open land and began their advance—a quick trot, arms at the ready, through the fields in the late-afternoon sun toward the fort some eight hundred yards away. Rebel Napoleons immediately boomed forth their round shot. The lines, he saw now, were converg­ing from three directions—north, south, and along the capital—col­ors flying. My God, they are magnificent, Sherman cried. Within moments the smoke of the big guns enveloped the scene like fog drift, and the wind brought to Sherman the pungency of blown pow­der. And now only the caprices of the wind would let him see dis­crete moments of the action, tantalizing glimpses as if, he thought, the smoke were the diaphanous dance veil of the war goddess. And I’m seduced, Sherman said, aloud, to a startled Morrison.

Yet even from these glimpses Sherman saw things that assured him the assault would succeed. The Rebels had left fallen trees in the field where his men could take cover and return fire. And the big guns were without embrasures: his sharpshooters would kill the ar­tillerists. And as he listened the tempo of shot and shell seemed to slow. The white smoke of the battle began to lift, and now he could see his men clambering up the glacis from the ravine, some of them blown into the air by torpedo mines embanked there. But the blue lines came on, more and more of them, and the parapet was gained. He could see the fighting hand to hand. Sherman had to lower his glass, too overcome to watch. He loved a brave man. Regiments of them brought sobs of joy.

How many minutes later was it when Captain Morrison called out, It’s ours, sir, I see the colors! And it was true. All at once the fir­ing ceased, and they heard a great shout over the field. And through his glass Sherman saw his men waving their fists, and firing their muskets into the sky.

 

 

It was dark when Sherman arrived at the fort. He made his in­spection and complimented the defending commander, a young major who admitted that he had not expected an attack so late in the day.

The moon had risen, throwing a chill white light over the dead, who lay where they had fallen. But among them lay his own sleeping soldiers. Sherman’s men had found foodstuffs and wine in the cellars, and now they slept.

Sitting with crossed legs on a barrel, a cigar in one hand and a cup of wine in the other, Sherman contemplated how matter-of factly his men accepted the dead that they could lie down, so casually, beside them. All of them asleep, though some forever. He barely no­ticed the coat thrown around his shoulders by his servant, Moses Brown. His thoughts ran this way: What if the dead man dreams as the sleeper dreams? How do we know there is not a posthumous mind? Or that death is not a dream state from which the dead can’t awaken? And so they are trapped in the hideous universe of such looming terrors as I have known in my nightmares.

The only reason to fear death is that it is not a true, insensible end of consciousness. That is the only reason I fear death. In fact, we don’t know what it is other than a profound humiliation. We are not made to appreciate it. As a general officer I consider the death of one of my soldiers, first and foremost, a numerical disadvantage, an entry in the liability column. That is all my description of it. It is a utilitar­ian idea of death—that I am reduced by one in my ability to fight a war. When we lost so many men in the first years of the war, the President simply called for the recruitment of three hundred thou­sand more. So how could he, the President, understand death, truly?

Each man has a life and a spirit and the habits of thought and person that define him, but en masse he is uniformed over. And what­ever he may think of himself, I think of him as a weapon. And per­haps we call a private a private, for whatever he is to himself it is private to him and of no use to the General. And so a generalship di­minishes the imagination of the General.

But these troops, too, who have battled and eaten and drunk and fallen asleep with some justifiable self-satisfaction: what is their imagination of death who can lie down with it? They are no more appreciative of its meaning than I.

 

 

And so who is left but the ladies? Perhaps they know. They bring life into being, perhaps they know what it is as afterlife. But often they talk of Heaven or Hell. I take no stock in such ideas as Heaven or Hell. And fate? In war a fate is altogether incidental. In fact, it is nothing as awesome as fate if you happen to raise your head in the path of a cannonball. That nigger who was killed the other day by the railroad track not ten yards from me—I saw the ball coming, a thirty-two-pound round shot, and I shouted, but as he turned it bounced up from the ground and took off his head. That was not fate. There are too many missiles in the air for it to be your fate to be killed by one of them. Just as the number of men set to fighting deem any of their deaths of no great moment.

In this war among the states, why should the reason for the fight­ing count for anything? For if death doesn’t matter, why should life matter?

But of course I can’t believe this or I will lose my mind. Willie, my son Willie, oh my son, my son, shall I say his life didn’t matter to me? And the thought of his body lying in its grave terrifies me no less to think he is not imprisoned in his dreams as he is in his coffin. It is insupportable, in any event.

It is in fear of my own death, whatever it is, that I would wrest immortality from the killing war I wage. I would live forever down the generations.

And so the world in its beliefs snaps back into place. Yes. There is now Savannah to see to. I will invest it and call for its surrender. I have a cause. I have a command. And what I do I do well. And, God help me, but I am thrilled to be praised by my peers and revered by my countrymen. There are men and nations, there is right and wrong. There is this Union. And it must not fall.

Sherman drank off his wine and flung the cup over the entrench­ment. He lurched to his feet and peered every which way in the moonlight. But where is my drummer boy? he said.

 

Many of the almost 400 pages of this book present vivid images of the horror of war. Each page also presents the manner in which personal lives are transformed by the experience of war. The March has a sweep of his own across the landscape of human behavior, and in Doctorow’s talented hands, readers learn more about themselves and the breadth of behavior.

 

Steve Hopkins, November 21, 2005

 

 

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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the December 2005 issue of Executive Times

 

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