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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

When E.L. Doctorow came to our New York studio, he read from "The March." This is a scene in which Wrede Sartorius, a battlefield surgeon in the Union Army, describes life on the march to his lover, Emily Thompson.

Mr. E.L. DOCTOROW (Author, "The March"): (Reading) Imagine a great segmented body moving in contractions and dilations at a rate of 12 or 15 miles a day, a creature of 100,000 feet. It is tubular in its being and tentacle to the roads and bridges over which it travels. It sends out as antennae its men on horses. It consumes everything in its path. It's an immense organism, this army, with a small brain. That would be General Sherman, whom I've never seen. `I'm not sure the general would be pleased to hear himself described so,' Emily said in all solemnity, and then she left.

SIEGEL: And that non-human form is--that is the march. That is Sherman's army.

Mr. DOCTOROW: Yes, that is his scientific metaphor for what is going on.

SIEGEL: What drew you to the subject of General Sherman's march as the subject of a novel?

Mr. DOCTOROW: Well, I first read about the march many years ago. I read Sherman's own memoirs. He's a wonderful writer. He and Grant were both wonderful writers. You don't find generals today who write that well or think that clearly. And he--of course, his memoirs are more than the march, but that particular occasion so devastating, so uprooting of an entire civilization, seemed to me a possible basis for a novel, although I did nothing about it for many, many years. You know, we all carry lots of ideas in our heads, and unfortunately most of them never see the light of day. But every once in a while one speaks to you with urgency, and you find yourself setting about writing it.

SIEGEL: One of the great impressions that "The March" makes is how, during this war, the living learned to live in great proximity to the dead. This is--the distance between the two shortens dramatically during that time.

Mr. DOCTOROW: Yes, death becomes a cliche. It becomes ordinary. The march of 60,000 men went through the land and became a kind of total war, and people found their own security in attaching themselves to the march, not just the freed slaves who couldn't stay behind because there was retribution once the Union Army moved on. But a lot of whites, too, were dispossessed. And in all that and in the skirmishing and the battling and the incursion into civilian life, there was a lot of death, and it became a daily sort of, quote, "to the end" thing and the troops learned to live with it. And in one scene after Sherman's people capture Ft. McAllister, the soldiers are very tired and they lie down at night next to the dead bodies of the Confederate soldiers, and he reflects on the difference between sleep and death. Sherman does a kind of soliloquy.

SIEGEL: Did you come to think of the march as you immersed yourself in this project as--well, as an atrocity, for example? Would General Sherman be sent to The Hague nowadays for what he did in the South?

Mr. DOCTOROW: Well, he is defensive about it. In fact, he was so defensive that when the war was over, he left his troops--they were being marched up to Washington--and ran down, back down South to aid and recovery and rehabilitation, rescuing operations in just those places that he had demolished. So he obviously had mixed feelings about it. He'd served in the South before the war and knew the territory very, very well, which was part of what made him so effective as a strategist. And I have him reflecting at the end of the book as he takes surrender from General George Ellingston(ph), the Confederate commander.

(Reading) Only afterward in the late night, as Sherman sat by the hearth in the billet provided him, did he feel a peculiar envy for Joe Johnston and the South he represented. How unsettling. In one hand, Sherman held a cigar; in the other his schooner of brandy. He stared into the fire. There was this about the end of the war: that once the cheering was over, you were of two minds. Yes, your cause was just. Yes, you could drink your flagon of pride. But victory was a shadow then, an ambiguous thing. I would go on wondering about my actions, whereas General Johnston and his colleagues of the unjust cause, now embittered and awash in defeat, will sublime to a righteously aggrieved state that would empower them for a century.

SIEGEL: Now what you have General Sherman reflecting on at that moment when he--and he's actually giving very generous terms of surrender to Johnston, the Confederate.

Mr. DOCTOROW: Yeah, he did. He shocked the people in Washington. Grant had to come down quickly to amend his giveaways, and that might have been some reflection on his guilt.

SIEGEL: But he is reflecting on the illusory or the very transitory nature of victory, but the enduring anchor that military defeat can be to a people, the Southerners.

Mr. DOCTOROW: Well, you--it happens to be true that--I mean, we see that in Iraq today; that invasion created a reaction that we had not anticipated and which has been enormous. And we don't seem to be able to handle it. When the Germans lost in World War I, the rage was sufficient to make that entire country vulnerable to the appeal of a national racist and pseudoreligious appeal of Adolf Hitler.

SIEGEL: Mr. Doctorow, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. DOCTOROW: Well, you're welcome.

SIEGEL: E.L. Doctorow, who's new novel is called "The March."

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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