TOP 100 REVIEWERon 2 October 2017
In his latest novel, E.L. Doctorow explores the American Civil War, specifically the march of General W.T. Sherman and his army through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina in 1864 --1865. Sherman's march is generally regarded by historians as the predecessor of modern total war. The march was directed not only against the Confederate army, but against an entire people, as Sherman's soldiers cut a broad swatch through the States and through cities, destroying resources, homes and food everything in their path. The war was of such a magnitude and the passions among the combatants and the citizens so strong that the will of the South to fight, not only the force of arms, needed to be subdued. This was a cruel, difficult, and still controversial march as Sherman cut his Army of from its own communications and supplies further North, marauded, and pillaged and lived off the land bringing destruction to everything in its wake and spawning a long legacy of bitterness in the South.
Doctorow begins his story of Sherman's campaign in the midst of it -- after the Union Army had captured Atlanta and begun the first leg of its march to Savannah, Georgia. Doctorow gives a vivid picture of an Army on the march, for the most part unopposed, destroying everything in its path. The march through Georgia is the subject of the first section of the book.
The second part of the book describes the campaign into South Carolina. Destruction in this portion of the campaign reached astounding levels because Sherman, together with most of the Union leaders, held South Carolina responsible for initiating the war. This section of the book includes graphic pictures of the Union Army's difficult march through the swamps of lower South Carolina and of the burning of Columbia. (There is still disagreement about whether the North or the South was primarily responsible for the burning. Doctorow shows that it was some of both.)
The third section of the book, set in North Carolina, deals with the waning days of the War, with the final battle of Bentonville, with Sherman's meeting with Grant and Lincoln, and with the end of the War and Lincoln's assassination. The Nation clearly and a great deal of healing and soul-searching to do.
Doctorow gives the reader an excellent sense of the movement of the armies, the horrors of war, death, injury, and barbarity, and, in particular, of the state of medical practice during the conflict. We are given a good portrait of General Sherman, but of the other leaders of the Army only the clvalry leader Kilpatrick, known as "Kil -Kilpatrick" for his feckless behavior gets a great deal of attention.
The book takes a broad sweep, but there is no single main character that stands out. The story is mostly presented through vignettes and miniatures involving a wide cast of characters. These include a brilliant but emotionally cold Union doctor, Wrede Sartorius, a beautiful young former slave, Pearl, who can pass for white, former Southern slaveholders whose plantations are destroyed and lives uprooted, and Arly and Will, two poor rural Southern soldiers who endure a variety of adventures behind Union lines and provide comic, if sardonic, relief. These individual stories are told from a variety of perspectives and are interlaced with each other. Thus, it takes attention on the reader's part to follow the narrative.
The stories show a great deal about the effects of the march on specific people and groups of people -- we see the war through the eyes of the newly freed slaves, of the dispossessed plantation owners, and of the troops on the ground, among other people and are encouraged to think about its scope and significance. Doctorow puts meditations and soliloquy passages into the parts of some of his protagonists about death, freedom, destruction, and sexuality. These are among the best parts of the book. Doctorow's characters are well-developed and their stories help us to understand varying perspectives on the conflict. But at times, I found them somewhat mannered and a distraction from the focus of the book on Sherman's march.
There are several highly graphic depictions of death, injury, suffering, and surgical operations in this book which capture unforgettably the brutality of warfare.
Doctorow has written an excellent novel about Sherman's march which will encourage the reader to reflect upon its meaning for and continued influence upon our Nation's history.