It is easy to understand why the American Civil War would appeal to a gifted fiction writer such as E. L. Doctorow. This immense conflict began in 1861 and ended in 1865, a period that saw the destruction of much of the American South and the manumission of its slaves. What is more difficult to grasp in a time of such tumult is its impact upon individuals. It is true that participants in the American Civil War were perhaps the most literate group of soldiers in history up to that time. They generally wrote well, and they wrote often; however, the historical record is largely silent regarding those who were simultaneously the most marginalized and the most deeply affected by the conflict, African Americans. Unlike modern wars, a relatively small number of civilians died as a direct result of the conflict, but few were untouched by the economic and cultural maelstrom it created.
Without question, the most chaotic period of the warand the portion most devastating to the Southwas the long march of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman and his sixty thousand-man army to the sea in the closing months of 1864. The general’s goal was twofold: to subdue the forces of Confederate General Joseph Johnston and to destroy the South’s ability to wage war by pillaging large sections of it. In addition to the turmoil one would normally expect from war, there was also the matter of thousands of newly freed but homeless slaves. All of this is fertile ground for fiction. Doctorow has covered similar ground before. In Ragtime (1975), he dealt with the turmoil of early twentieth century America, with its waves of immigrants and explosive race relations. It is appropriate that Doctorow has selected the Civil War South as the setting for The March, for in it one can find the seeds of the racial oppression so painfully elucidated in Ragtime.
Up until November of 1864, when The March begins, the Confederacy had resisted the overwhelmingly superior forces of the Union Army, despite the fact that its cause was all but hopeless. Sherman’s solution was to bring the horrors of war to the farms and large plantations whose products enabled the Confederacy to survive. While Sherman’s forces had standing orders to seize whatever goods were deemed necessary without causing collateral damage, in practice the Army of the West had carte blanche to lay waste to anything in its path. To Sherman, this was a necessary act of war; to the slaves, the Union Army was a force of liberation.
The novel opens at the center of this whirlwind, with a young slave girl named Pearl viewed at the moment of manumission. Doctorow’s description of the approach of Union forces is masterly and is worth quoting: “And, as they watched, the brown cloud took on a reddish cast. It moved forward, thin as a hatchet blade in front and then widening like the furrow from the plow. . . . When the sound of this cloud reached them, it was like nothing they had ever heard in their lives.”
Pearl Jameson is that most unusual product of slavery, a “white” Negro; that is, she has the physiognomy of her African American mother but with the pale flesh tones of her slaveholding father. Doctorow has chosen his character well, for she embodies the two-fold dilemma concomitant with the arrival of Sherman’s troops. Manumission leaves the former slaves free but homeless in a society that is rapidly collapsing. Pearl, as the illegitimate child of her slave-owning father, would seem to be in the worst of all possible worlds. Given her light completion, she might have been able to assimilate into the white population of the South had she been acknowledged by John Jameson as a rightful heir; however, Jameson never regarded her as anything more than an embarrassing byproduct of his relations with Pearl’s mother. He and his family flee Sherman’s forces without the slightest consideration for this young woman, who is left to face an invading army with neither food nor shelter.
Appropriately, the only aid comes from Roscoe, a fellow slave who tosses his life savings to Pearl as he flees with his master. It is to Doctorow’s credit that he allows this poignant moment to develop fully...
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