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Sherman's March Plays Out Vividly in E.L. Doctorow's New Novel

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``The March'' by E.L. Doctorow; Random House ($25.95)


Not surprisingly, perhaps, Margaret Mitchell got it wrong. It wasn't Gone With the Wind; it was Crushed Under a Bulldozer.

Regardless of Ulysses S. Grant's defeat of Robert E. Lee in the field, it was William Tecumseh Sherman and his 280-mile-long, 60-mile-wide March to the Sea that stopped the Confederacy. In taking Atlanta and then freely raging through Georgia and the Carolinas, he didn't just cripple the South. He showed it couldn't defend its own people, he humiliated it - and in so doing, launched modern ``total'' war. A brutal welcome to a harsh new world.

The March'' is E.L. Doctorow's brilliant and compelling vision of Sherman's campaign, the latest in his series of historical novels that goes back toWelcome to Hard Times'' (1960) and ``Ragtime'' (1975). In that masterpiece, Doctorow pulled together multiple viewpoints, multiple narrative threads, fact and fantasy, the whole net of the post-modern historical novel, to capture an epochal moment in a quiet New York suburb: America entering the 20th century with all its racial violence, showbiz energy and failed radical politics.

The March'' is likeRagtime'' set in motion, ``Ragtime'' on a rampage. It may not be as original or thickly textured as that novel, but in the march Doctorow has found an engine of modern history, a juggernaut of creation and destruction. The novel's vivid characters try to keep up with Sherman's army or flee it; they try to establish a new life or salvage an old one. The images of wreckage and refugees are all too familiar these days: This is Hurricane Sherman.

If the novel has a main figure, however, it is Pearl, a light-skinned young slave, proud child of a plantation owner, who gets disguised as a Union drummer. Meanwhile, two comic-relief Rebs, condemned to death by their own side, escape only to find themselves shifting sides again and again. A Southern woman falls in love with a Union surgeon. A black photographer tries to freeze a few moments of this history.

As is evident in Sherman's own Memoirs,'' he was cantankerous depressive, sharp and hardheaded. Yet ifUncle Billy,'' as his men affectionately call him, is meant to be a stand-in for the novelist in charge, he is hardly in complete control of this storm surge. He's just riding it.

As a character, Doctorow's Sherman is a bristly little god of war, but he's oddly opaque - perhaps because Sherman wasn't entirely comprehensible to himself. He was a racist, but he was also the author of Special Field Order No. 15, the famous unfulfilled promise of ``40 acres and a mule'' to freed slaves - to give them a stake to start their new lives and to solve his giant refugee problem. A mile-long train of penniless blacks followed his army like the Israelites out of Egypt.

In chronological terms, The March'' would actually be Doctorow's first historical fiction. It's fitting because, as much as it is a war novel,The March'' is about a ``new nation'' being re-conceived by Abraham Lincoln as well as Sherman - and by Lincoln's murder and a frail but hopeful union between Pearl and a young, lost Yankee. Doctorow has lavished on it some of his finest, most accessible writing, wise and tender - prose like fresh water.


(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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