He came, he saw, he burned

Sherman's march through Georgia sets the scene for E.L. Doctorow's version of the Civil War novel

There have been so many books written about the American Civil War, it seems as if every soldier should have had a chapter named after him by now.

The field is so crowded that E.L. Doctorow's new novel isn't even the first book set during the Civil War this year named "March" - that honor goes to Geraldine Brooks, who shipped the father from "Little Women" off to join the Union Army in early spring.

But, perhaps in a desire to avoid comparisons with a certain phone-book-sized classic, not many novelists have tackled General William Tecumseh Sherman's rampage through Georgia and the Carolinas head on.

Historians are another matter - and no wonder. It's compelling, if brutal, stuff.

Sherman (or Uncle Billy, as he was known to the troops) unleashed more than 60,000 soldiers on the South's civilians, burning, looting, raping, and leaving a scar 300 miles long and 60 miles wide from Atlanta to Savannah.

Doctorow ("City of God," "Billy Bathgate") has proven incredibly adept at recreating history, and the National Book Award winner is certainly not one to flee, even before the green-eyed monster of Southern literature.

And while none of his characters is as indelible as Scarlett O'Hara, it is a testament to the strength of his writing that Tara never casts its shadow over The March.

As with "Ragtime," Doctorow uses the lives of 20-odd individuals to weave together a picture of history.

(Fans of that book will take notice when a freed slave named Coalhouse Walker shows up and acquits himself admirably.)

Characters range from General Sherman and President Lincoln to a London Times correspondent who shows up just long enough to inadvertently free a slave child from a plantation.

But the most memorable are Arly, a rebel deserter and opportunist, who gets all the best lines; Emily Thompson, a Southern woman who lost her whole family and finds herself nursing the Union Army; and Pearl, the teenage daughter of a plantation owner and a slave.

If there is a heart to the novel, it belongs to Pearl, whom Doctorow gifts with preternatural dignity. He also gives her the greatest payback scene in the novel.

But the central "character" is the marching Army itself: "Imagine a great segmented body ... a creature of a hundred thousand feet. It is tubular in its being and tentacled to the roads and bridges over which it travels," Army surgeon Wrede Sartorious explains to Emily. "And any one of the sixty thousand of us has no identity but as a cell in the body of this giant creature's function, which is to move forward and consume all before it."

And consume they do, perhaps no one more gleefully than Col. Justin "Kil" Kilpatrick, who brings his 10-year-old nephew along to see the pillaging of the Carolinas.

Kil helps himself to anything that catches his fancy, including a Cajun chef. "You all, he said, turning to the frightened slaves, you all are free. You, he said to the chef, raise your right hand. And right then and there he inducted the bewildered Jean-Pierre into the Army, conferring upon him the rank of Sergeant of the Mess. With all the rights and privileges thereof, Kilpatrick said. I'll have a plate of that [stew] now, Pierre, and then we'll be on our way."

Doctorow, like most writers operating out of their own period, does let a few anachronisms slip through.

For example, a Union lieutenant compares Pearl to white chocolate, which was first manufactured in the 1930s.

But - although I do not pretend to be a Civil War scholar - the errors I noticed were really minor, and didn't distract from the narrative.

Doctorow takes a rather matter-of-fact approach to the horrors of war, showing what it does to both man and beast. There is a scene of horses' corpses clogging a river that is particularly unsettling.

The most graphic passages, however, are reserved for Sartorius's work, where Doctorow shows off his historical knowledge of 19th-century brain surgery.

Sherman, with his mercurial moods and desperate need for self-aggrandizement, could have been played as a cartoon.

But Doctorow also brings out the general's intelligence, grief for his two lost sons, and guilt about the Army's worst excesses.

"There was this about the end of a war, that once the cheering was over, you were of two minds. Yes, your cause was just. Yes, you could drink your flagon of pride. But victory was a shadowed, ambiguous thing. I will go on wondering about my actions. Whereas General Johnston and his colleagues of the unjust cause, now embittered and awash in defeat, will have sublimed to a righteously aggrieved state that would empower them for a century."

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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