In his historical novels, E.L. Doctorow has written about ragtime and the Rosenbergs, about mobsters and world fairs. His most recent novel deals with one of the most fraught subjects in US history: the long march of General William Tecumseh Sherman in the final months of the Civil War. The election of 1864 was a referendum on whether the Union should fight to achieve total victory or seek a negotiated peace, which would almost certainly have required the Union to rescind its emancipation of the slaves. President Lincoln was not willing to sacrifice the slaves to secure peace, but the opposition party, led by one of his former generals, was eager to do so. And so were the voters, worn down by three years of casualties and drafts. Lincoln's electoral chances fell even further when he was forced, in the middle of the election campaign, to draft 500,000 men to replace those whose enlistments were coming to an end. 'I am going to be beaten,' Lincoln confided to one of his officers, 'and unless some great change takes place badly beaten.' The great change was Sherman's capture of Atlanta, the centre of Southern industry and the hub of the Southern railroads. Northern morale soared, soldiers voluntarily re-enlisted, and Lincoln was re-elected.
LRB 26 January 2006 | PDF Download