Long before Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans, the worst natural disaster to befall the South didn't come from Mother Nature...

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“The March”
by E.L. Doctorow
Random House, 363 pp., $25.95

Long before Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans, the worst natural disaster to befall the South didn’t come from Mother Nature but man himself. Or to be exact: one man’s army. On Nov. 12, 1864, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman marched out of Atlanta and to the sea, bringing with him more than 60,000 Union troops and a comet trail of newly freed slaves.

While the details of Sherman’s lethal procession are well-known today, time seems to have forgotten the human angle. Sure, property was destroyed, but how were the Union troops greeted? Did they proceed with guilt? Did they pause before burning cities to the ground? Did the recently emancipated slaves really believe this fire-breathing beast was their conductor to the Promised Land?

From now on, the most recommended source for answers to such questions ought to be “The March,” E.L. Doctorow’s savage new novel about Sherman and his warpath. The book does not just put us in the thick of battle, bullets whizzing by heads, the stench of dead fouling the air. It uses this cataclysm as a powerful metaphor for the dangerous and unstoppable way we humans move through the world.

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A conventional novel might follow a fixed group of characters through this journey. Not this one. Characters are introduced and then dropped, or summarily killed off — sometimes even offstage. There is no time to grieve on Sherman’s march, as movement must be maintained at all costs.

Amongst the chaos, a few lost souls survive to the end of this book, often by making unusual bargains. A Union surgeon named Col. Sartorius carves his way through the carnage and winds up on the other side as surgeon general of the United States; Emily Thompson, the daughter of a prominent Southern judge, hitches her destiny to his, ensuring safety but not happiness. A mixed-race slave girl named Pearl takes on the identity of a Union drummer boy and travels for a while under the wing of Sherman himself, an avowed racist.

To read this book requires a kind of historical “negative capability,” Keats’ term for living with contradictions and not “searching after fact of reason.” In order to be born, the country had to be burned. Or so Sherman and his compatriots believed. But by doing this they handed the South a twisted sort of moral victory it could lord over the North until the end of time. Secessionists may not have won the war, but at least they were honest about our nation’s views on the races.

This is rich terrain for a novelist, and Doctorow, author of “Ragtime” and “Billy Bathgate,” tills it well, without succumbing to the urge to transplant foreign ideas onto old soil. This means that the ugly word which Mark Twain used throughout “Pudd’nhead Wilson” and other books appears unabashedly throughout this novel, along with the grit and unpleasantness typical of life in the 1860s. The operating scenes in Sartorius’ open-air theater are masterful and gruesome.

Sherman rises up from the stench as an authentic fictional character — a melancholic whose sanity was preserved by a white-knuckled grip on his idea of the Union. He is outraged when the secretary of war tells him all this killing has been done for the black race.

“I have marched an army intact for four hundred miles. I have gutted Johnny Reb’s railroads. I have burned his cities, his forges, his armories, his machine shops, his cotton gins. I have eaten out his crops, I have consumed his livestock and appropriated ten thousand of his horses and mules. … And that is not enough for the Secretary of War. I must abase myself to the slaves. Damn this Stanton — I am sworn to destroy the treasonous insurrection and preserve the Union. That is all. And that is everything.”

But of course, it wasn’t everything — for the war was followed by Reconstruction and a great many freed slaves entered an indentured servitude in some cases worse than slavery itself. “The March” gives us an indelible glimpse of a few souls caught in that brief and fiery moment of hope, when it seemed like things would go another way, even if the way forward was — by martial dictum and executive order — through a valley of death.

John Freeman is a writer in New York.