The Civil War a Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville

The Civil War a Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville - Shelby Foote I've been reading a lot of popular histories lately and more and more have become disenchanted with the kind of history book that tells a reader that a man's "heart beat faster" or "pupils flared" when to say the least, the chances the historian pulled that detail out of a diary or letter are low. And if you are going to get away with such embellishments, your style better have the panache of a Truman Capote, a Tom Wolfe or Erik Larson. Shelby Foote does have style--he's a novelist rather than a historian and he wrote he eschewed footnotes because he didn't want to interrupt the flow with them. His The Civil War then isn't really a work you could use as a scholarly reference, he doesn't note his sources--he calls it a "narrative." But it's often (even if not always) an absorbing narrative, with the strong prose of a gifted novelist, but often what I appreciated most was its restraint. Foote writes in the Bibliographical Note in the back that he "employed the novelist's methods without his license... Nothing is included here, either within or outside quotation marks without the authority of documentary evidence which I consider sound." Foote also said in that note that the historical record is so rich, he didn't feel any temptation to imagine details--what was difficult was what to omit. He never went over the line into details it would be hard to credit didn't come from the record. I also thought his chronicle, at least in this first volume, pretty fair. Yes, from time to time I thought I could detect a Southern bias, particularly in the choices of words and certain emphases. Foote admits he's a son of Mississippi who knew some of the aged surviving Confederate veterans in his youth. But this isn't Gone With the Wind: it doesn't read as a crude apologia for the South. You do get the Southern point of view, yes, but at least in the first volume Lincoln, Grant and Sherman are treated not simply fairly but sympathetically and such Southern shibboleths as General Stonewall Jackson, General Robert E. Lee and President Jefferson Davis come in for a great deal of criticism. And if you read the book closely, you certainly can't brush away that slavery was the cause of the war or accept Davis' claim that "all we ask is to be left alone." The South seceded precisely because a president--Lincoln--was elected who was opposed to the expansion of slavery to new territories. Slavery--never explicitly mentioned in the United States Constitution (three-fifths clause notwithstanding)--was written right into the Confederate constitution. And Davis tried to expand the war--and his new nation--right into the new territories in the South West. Foote details the battles in New Mexico and Davis' ambitions to expand the Confederacy down to all of South America and across to Cuba. What struck me were my own biases. I am a "Yankee," I suppose, having been born and raised and residing in New York. But I would have said I didn't have a dog in this fight. I know little of my father's background--but my mother's ancestors were still in Spain when the American Civil War was being fought. There are no Confederates--or boys in Blue--in my attic. But even with over 150 years having passed, I still gnashed my teeth over every victory of the Confederacy Foote detailed. I couldn't pass over a name like Nathan Bedford Forrest (presented not just sympathetically but by and large admiringly as a military genius) without wanting to hiss. Foote mentions in passing Forrest wasn't simply a slave owner but a slave trader. And though not mentioned in this volume covering only 1861 and 1862, I knew Forrest would help found and lead the Ku Klux Klan after the war. Foote could call the conflict "the Second Revolutionary War" a gazillion times--I could never forget it was a war waged by the Confederacy to keep and expand slavery and its leaders unapologetic slave owners. (As opposed to slave-owning Southern Founding Fathers who did have their regrets and doubts about the institution.) I could rarely feel sympathy for those who fought in gray. Yet I had no problem feeling sympathy for the British when I recently read books about the American Revolutionary War. It probably didn't help that this is above all a battlefield history. Foote does give some of the political context, dealing with both presidents and their cabinets, but mostly the focus is on the armies and navies of the two belligerents, especially focusing on the generals. Not so much Grant and Lee in this first volume. Generals McClellan of the North and Beauregard of the South get much more space in this first volume since they were much more prominent in the opening years of the war. If I had more of the perspective of the rank and file soldier, such as the one Foote related who told the Union soldiers who captured him "I'm fighting because you're down here," maybe I could have felt more sympathy for the other side, fighting for their home and hearth against the invading forces. As it was, the Southern cause seemed such a criminal waste, all the more for the terrible damage the two armies inflicted upon each other. Foote noted that there were more casualties in the single battle of Shiloh than in all previous American wars combined--and later Antietam would overtake its place to become the bloodiest day of the war. Maybe the next two volumes, which would deal with the turning point of the war and the defeat of the South, would better engage my sympathy for both sides. But my biggest problem was that I felt buried by the sheer length, and I'm not sure I'll ever continue on to the next two volumes. I admit I'm curious about Foote's take on Gettysburg and want to read the last chapter he wrote on Reconstruction to see his complaints. But even though I was riveted by Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, a novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, I admit something this detailed going into battle after battle, even minor skirmishes, was numbing--and I've enjoyed books on military history. The first 300 pages I read with enthusiasm, but by page 500 (of 810) of the first volume I admit I was judiciously skimming. Some of this book was a page turner that educated me about aspects of the war I had never known--or at least knew little about. Such as the role of the Navy and the story of how Admiral David Farragut captured New Orleans, or the Battle of Hampton Roads where the ironclads Merrimack and Monitor squared off changing the nature of naval warfare forever. Or the battle for New Mexico and the attempt to expand the Confederacy westward. But so much was a slog. Especially given this wasn't told in strict chronological order and dates weren't always pinned down, all the names thrown at the reader were confusing--especially given Foote's fondness for calling them by epithets such as "the Creole." (There were two important Confederate Generals named Johnston. Since Foote would meander in and out of time, it was very hard to remember which was which. Was this the one who died in the battle of Shiloh some chapters back or another?) Moreover, Foote is fond of such words as defilade, gasconade, eupeptic, dyspepsia, and such classical allusions as the Battle of Cannae. Reading this certainly caused me to give my dictionary and google engine hard usage. So reading this book was definitely like running a marathon, and left me rather exhausted at the finish and unsure I can make myself undergo the ordeal again--let alone twice more to finish off this massive three-volume work. Perhaps next time I tackle it I'll take it in slower steps--a slow trek with stops for rest along the way rather than a race, and that might make all the difference.