“I can make Georgia howl!” boasts General William Tecumseh Sherman at the beginning of his devastating March to the Sea. From Atlanta, Sherman marches 62,000 Union soldiers in a column sixty miles wide. The troops march 300 miles to Savannah in six weeks, stopping only long enough to burn plantations and destroy any infrastructure or armaments the Confederates might use to make war.
Doctorow begins The March in Midgeville, Georgia, midway between Atlanta and Savannah. Employing a fragmented structure, he alternates between several different narrators to give the reader an enjoyable variety of perspectives. The March is an interweaving of many stories; some come together toward the satisfying conclusion while others end prematurely. There is no overarching plot, only the constant momentum of almost 100,000 people moving together in the same direction. Inevitably, they create a floating world, a functioning mobile civilization with engineers, doctors, chefs, musicians, and soldiers. Thousands of newly freed Black Americans make up the rear.
Many Black Americans take turns narrating The March. Pearl, a mulatto teenage girl, is rejected by both Blacks and Whites in her community, but the Union army’s Medical Department sweeps her up, disguises her as a boy, and puts her to work. Calvin, a free black man from Baltimore working as a photographer’s assistant on the march, finds himself in serious racial trouble traveling through the Deep South for the first time. As Calvin forces himself to subvert his notions of entitlement to a more subservient demeanor, readers obtain a sense of how racist nineteenth-century America could be, the Emancipation Proclamation notwithstanding.
Some Southern citizens who rapidly lose everything in the Union’s devastating wake join the march as well. Union soldiers drive Emily out of her plantation manor house, appropriate food and valuables and burn the fields while her father dies in front of her. Like many homeless Georgians, she joins the march to keep from starving to death. Before the Civil War, Emily was a sheltered daughter of a wealthy family. She now relies on the kindness of Union soldiers in order to survive. When Doctorow gives Emily her turn to continue his tale, the story’s true heart comes forward. Emily refuses to become benumbed to the horrors of war, and her constant state of shock and outrage gives the reader an emotional pathway into a story of men who easily forget their humanity in a time of war.
“I do not reduce life to its sentiments…” she says, “I enlarge life to its sentiments. I cannot stand this march any longer. I cannot forgive what has been done here in the name of warfare.”
Doctorow masterfully depicts the peculiar inhumanity of the Civil War. All rules of battlefield chivalry cease to exist. The Confederates employ an ambush and retreat strategy rather than a full bold attack. The Union soldiers, in their paranoid fear of the Confederates, occasionally attack women and old men. Both sides are overextended and exhausted. At this point, men with wives and daughters back home commit brutal acts in the name of both their cause and wartime expediency. In one scene, a few bummers – foragers who travel ahead of the march to take food, valuables, and livestock before plantations are burned – beat and rape the daughter of an elderly, defiant plantation owner. Rather than stop his men, “the Sergeant…made a determination that what was going on was evolved to a military event.” He posts guards so his men will not be interrupted.
Doctorow does not moralize or take sides in The March. He allows each character to advocate his or her cause, including Arly, a mentally unstable Confederate soldier who evolves from deserter to Confederate spy before meeting his own tragic end.
Doctorow keeps his tale within the physical bounds of the march. With the exception of Arly, who marches with the Union soldiers, the Confederate soldiers attacking Sherman’s army do not get a turn as narrators. Readers must be content to learn about the Confederacy from the perspective of its conquerors, for in these last few months of war, the Union soldiers know they are going to win. They know from the start of the march that victory is only a few months away.
Overall, The March is an engaging, fast-paced portrayal of a singular time in American history. Upon reaching North Carolina, General Sherman has made Georgia howl, but he regrets his actions. He resolves that “the kind of thing he had tolerated to the south must not be repeated…North Carolinians do not deserve the kind of punishment he had doled out down there.” Ultimately, he will never be at peace with himself. His confusion and sadness become the great theme which brings The March together. Men in the midst of war commit atrocities they will regret for the rest of their lives. Indeed, in a floating world of violence and fear, sometimes brutality is a soldier’s only option.