E.L. Doctorow’s latest novel, “The March,” is based on Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s bloody sweep through the South during the Civil War, a military campaign that forced a mass exodus from Confederate states.
“So what this is, is a ‘road novel,’ Doctorow told a crowd of 200 Tuesday night at The Carter Center, which incidentally was built upon the hill that Sherman used to survey the progress of the battle of Atlanta. His troops burned the city to the ground during his famous March to the Sea.
Eventually, an entire civilization had been uprooted and “people found security only in movement,” Doctorow said.
“That interested me enormously ... A friend from New Orleans, he said when he read the book, ‘This is like Hurricane Katrina.”’
The 74-year-old New York City native, who wrote the novels “Ragtime” and “Billy Bathgate,” said that although Sherman’s march has personal significance to those from the South, he wrote about it as a national event.
“It may have been impertinent for a Northerner to have written this book but I think of it as a national novel and I gave voice to everyone in the book, I had to give everyone their justice, whatever it was,” he said.
The book has been climbing the best-seller lists since it was published last month. And in Atlanta — which boasts the motto “The City Too Busy to Hate” — plenty of residents still take time to despise Sherman.
“The man is Attila the Hun,” says Atlanta lawyer Alan Koman. “As long as the Confederacy is remembered, there are going to be sons and daughters who will think that of him.”
One of the ‘great iconographic experiences’Doctorow said those lingering strong feelings prompted him to write his novel.
“The thing about this march is it was totally different than the rest of the war, as bloody and brutal and awful as it was,” Doctorow said.
As Sherman’s troops created a path of destruction through the South, his army grew. Former slaves and even displaced Southerners joined up, knowing they were risking their lives by staying in their devastated towns.
Sherman’s march is “one of the great iconographic experiences of this country — it is the defining event in a lot of people’s perceptions of how the war was fought,” said Gordon Jones of the Atlanta History Center.
People still have misperceptions of Sherman’s army, especially in the South, Jones said.
“It was not a lawless band, it was a disciplined army,” he said. “It was not a campaign of total destruction — in a large sense, it was a military operation to get Sherman’s army to a seaport where it could be supplied.”
Sherman also needed to unite his forces with Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s army to crush Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who had the South’s last viable field army in the area. But at the same time, Sherman aimed to sap the South’s ability to wage war through the destruction his army caused during the march, Jones said.
Koman said he has enjoyed reading the novel, but he doesn’t expect the book to shed a different light on the Union general.
“I already know what I think of Sherman,” he said, “and this book is not going to change it.”