Shelby Foote’s THE CIVIL WAR, A NARRATIVE: FORT SUMTER TO PERRYVILLE
Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
I completed this 800+ page tome through a combination of reading the oversize trade paperback and listening to the splendid recorded Audible version.
There is never a dull moment in this book. We get to know the key players “warts and all.” The story’s sweep, both intellectual and historical, is huge but well organized. I learned a lot and my perceptions of the U.S. Civil War have been forever changed.
Living as I do in Northern Virginia I’m used to seeing battlefield memorials and place names that reflect famous names and places from that era. The book portrays the Civil War as so much more than a series of battles. This book goes into much more detail and reflects the personal and political relationships of the time in a way that makes the players come alive.
The image of the Confederacy that emerges in this first of three volumes is one of impending doom balanced against brilliant generalship and the frequent smiles of Lady Luck. Jefferson Davis’ personality also comes across as being more remote and private and definitely different from Lincoln’s depression and inherent leadership capabilities. Foote does especially well at portraying how Lincoln wrestled with the political and moral issues of the time.
The breadth and scale of the conflict and the great physical distances involved impress the reader given the vagaries of 19th century communication and transportation resources. That orders to from Washington DC to generals in the field could be telegraphed so rapidly contrasts sharply with the fog of battle and the uncertainties faced by field leaders who never quite know where their enemy or their own troops actually were at any given moment.
The role of the U.S. Navy in bottling up the South and the clashes involving ironclads get their due here and remind the reader that the conflict involved more than massed troops marching and firing at each other across fields. Also interesting are the attempts of the South to gain European support.
A major topic is Lincoln’s dissatisfaction with the performance of his generals and his regular replacement of them. Partly this was due to a lack of aggressive spirit on the part of McClellan and the others. It’s also in response, Foote seems to be saying, to the South’s lack of resources and its willingness to take more risks because it had no choice.
Foote’s writing is downright poetic in parts and sensitive to portraying the psychological and emotional states of the key players. I don’t know how “professional” or academic historians feel about the Foote narrative but I think the writing itself is a big reason why this book is so much more than just a big detailed history book. The author cares about writing as an art and this shows through, big time.
Postscript: this book is the perfect antidote for anyone who seriously believes that politics back then was any different from today. Lincoln faced incredible dissension and disagreement within his own party and his own cabinet. This makes Gates’ recent revelations about his relationship with the Obama Administration pale by comparison.
Copyright © 2014 by Dennis D. McDonald