Published two years after DRUMS, James Boyd’s first novel, MARCHING ON continues to explore the emerging identity of America’s common man. The heroes of both works have the same last name, Fraser, although Boyd never suggests a family connection. Whereas the hero of his first novel, John, comes from a simpler background than the aristocratic types with whom he consorts, the social gap between James in MARCHING ON and the Prevost family is much wider. The second novel, despite the fact that its plot reads like a conventional romance (poor boy yearns for rich girl, then goes off to battle and wins her love), is actually sharper in its social criticism than the first.
DRUMS pulls social classes together to face a common enemy, the British, during the American Revolution. MARCHING ON underscores the social injustice of the plantation system during the Civil War period. As a result, James Fraser’s dedicated support of the Confederate cause is tragic and ironic in contrast to John Fraser’s personal fulfillment in the cause of the Revolution some eighty-five years earlier. James suffers imprisonment and endless agonies as a foot soldier in defense of a social system that cuts him off from Stewart, the woman he loves. To compare the naturalistic description of James and his fellow soldiers caught up in their endless marching with the heroic description of the marching men of the Revolutionary army at the close of DRUMS is to focus very clearly on the major difference between the two works.
The romance between James and Stewart has been dismissed as socially impossible during Civil War days. In fairness to Boyd, it must be acknowledged that, in this instance, he attempted a form of historical symbolism rather than historical realism. The Civil War did result in a social leveling of the South that freed both landowners and white yeomen from the dehumanizing effect of insurmountable social barriers.