Civil War historical fiction: ‘The March’

Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s capture of the city of Atlanta, Ga., in early September 1864 had a positive effect in the North, and helped to guarantee the reelection of President Abraham Lincoln to a second term.

Sherman’s subsequent march from Atlanta eastward through Georgia to the Atlantic Ocean, then north through the Carolinas, with his army of more than 60,000 troops has since become legendary.

What is known as the March to the Sea is well-documented, and novelists have found the subject matter of this now-famous — or, in the eyes of many, infamous — venture enticing. In 1994, for example, Cynthia Bass published a novel titled “Sherman’s March.”

Then, 11 years later, novelist E.L. Doctorow penned a classic version the tale of Sherman’s destructive campaign during a lengthy trek through the Southern states, simply called “The March.” He credited Joseph T. Glatthaar’s “The March to the Sea & Beyond: Sherman’s Troops in the Savannah & Carolinas Campaigns” for the inspiration, because “it had an identity apart from everything else in the Civil War.”

When Sherman’s army departed Atlanta on Nov. 15, heading east through Georgia, word spread like wildfire among the residents of towns along his path. Many white residents packed their valuables and fled to safer ground, while the blacks — mostly slaves — wrapped their belongings in bundles or carried carpetbags as they anxiously awaited their hoped-for deliverance by the Union soldiers.

As this turmoil was occurring, the visible scene in the sky from the west was smoke rising, resulting from Sherman’s so-called “bummers,” who were torching their way through Georgia after confiscating or destroying everything of value in the way of food, furnishings or personal belongings.

Doctorow portrayed a scene where some 20 Union soldiers came upon a plantation and set fire to a stack of forage, killed the farm mules, slaughtered the sows, and confiscated crocks of honey and sorghum, sides of bacon and cured hams, as well as 200 pounds of sweet potatoes.

From the perspective of the leader of this rampage, a soldier named Clarke, everyone was having a good time. “It’s a happy war, this.”

Before his hasty departure, the plantation master decided to drown his cows in a nearby swamp to deny them to Sherman’s foragers. One of the slaves, however, led Clarke to the hiding place, and the Union soldiers salvaged several for their own use.

The author describes how the northern and southern wings of Sherman’s army merged at Milledgeville, at that time the capital of Georgia — located in the center of the state. Union officers billeted themselves in private homes, and surgeons, operating in barns, severed limbs of soldiers who sustained wounds while repelling Rebel cavalry attacks along the route.

As the march continues, Doctorow introduces individual soldiers in Sherman’s army, people in the towns through which it passes, members of the Rebel force fighting guerrilla-style to harass and delay the inexorable Union movement, and slaves determined to gain freedom through this God-sent presence of the Confederate’s enemies whom they see as their friends.

Historically, Sherman drove a stake through the heart of the Confederacy by moving northward into South Carolina and North Carolina after completing his March to the Sea once he reached Savannah, Ga. Doctorow illustrates the vengeful destruction of South Carolina, which prided itself for having led the way for secession of 11 states from the Union.

Upon reaching the town of Barnwell, Union cavalry commander Justin Kilpatrick took pride and joy in observing “tongues of fire shot skyward as the … town burned around them.” In a quick note to Sherman, Kilpatrick wrote “I have renamed Barnwell Burnwell.”

The author of this historical novel describes in human terms the tumultuous events taking place as “The March” through Georgia and the Carolinas evolved over a five-month period. And, as the Washington Post announced on Feb., 21, 2006, the PEN/Faulkner Foundation bestowed its annual award on E.L. Doctorow for “combining literary ambition and commercial success,” and one of the judges said, “I think it’s his best so far.”

Having discussed novels that had as their setting Pennsylvania (“The Killer Angels”), Virginia (“The Red Badge of Courage”), North Carolina (“Cold Mountain”), as well as Georgia and the Carolinas (“The March”), next we will travel to Tennessee and visit the town of Franklin. Novelist Robert Hicks will expound on the aftermath of one of the Civil War’s costliest battles in his bestselling “The Widow of the South.”

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” available at Bethany Beach Books, Browseabout Books in Rehoboth and Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. His latest book with co-author Rick Schaus, due out in May 2019, is titled “‘Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken’: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863.” Contact him at or visit his website at

By Tom Ryan

Special to the Coastal Point