The Civil War: A Narrative
by Shelby Foote
Random House, 2011
In honor of the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War’s beginning (we can expect an orgy of such commemorations in the coming four years, and like all orgies, it will be excessive but undeniably enjoyable), Random House has issued a sturdy, compact, black-spined boxed-set of the late, beloved historian Shelby Foote’s massive three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative. This hardcover boxed set features dozens of digitally remastered photographs from the war and introductory matter by Jon Meacham, whose 2008 American Lion slathered praise all over one of the worst U.S. presidents the country has ever seen.
At the same time, Random House also designed, printed, and immediately hid all evidence of a second three-volume boxed-set reprint of The Civil War: A Narrative, also intended to cash in on – er, that is, commemorate the war’s anniversary. This second set is a very handsome high-quality paperback reprint of the trilogy’s original hardcover release, complete with end paper maps and Fred Banbury’s scratchy, evocative cover sketches. The individual volumes in the set are magisterially solid, and the cover typeface is tenderly nostalgic. There are no photographs, and the reader doesn’t miss them for a minute.
The reader wouldn’t miss them for a minute, that is, if this particular reprinted set had any readers, but Random House will have to look out for that on their own hook. My own copy of this boxed set was purchased in a bookstore in Boston and is right now resting settled in the flab-folds of my sleeping basset hound, but after thirty minutes of looking for any evidence of the thing online – and after being re-directed constantly either to the aforementioned hardcover set, or else the individual paperback volumes sans box, or else the old paperback set, used, courtesy of Daffy Dave’s Deep Discount – I gave up. You’ll have to take my word for it: not only does this paperback boxed set reprint exist, but it’s the best reprint of this trilogy that’s every likely to be produced. It’s a bonny thing, and if you manage to thwart Random House’s wishes and find a copy, you should buy it.
You should buy it and read it, because it’s very, very good. It’s nowhere near as good as its latest crop of fans will maintain, but no books ever could be. Quite unintentionally, Foote did just about everything he could do in order to become a modern-day legend. He was approached to write the book (rather than avariciously pitching it like some money-grubbing hussy); he used a nibbed quill pen (or some such nonsense) to write all 3000 pages of it; he took twenty years (five times as long as the war he chronicles) to complete it; he drawled self-deprecating quips when that fact was pointed out to him (“Well, there was a lot more of them than there was of me” being woefully representative); and then, in a coup de theatre worthy of John Wilkes Booth, he became the Wise Old Man of Ken Burns’ magnificent PBS documentary The Civil War, which briefly united an entire country in 1990. In his many talking-head moments during that documentary, Foote offered homespun anecdotes about Confederate generals and infantrymen in such intimate tones that he seemed to have just come from lunch with them. He became a national sensation, and his books suddenly sold by the lorry-load. Against every expectation he’d ever had for himself, he died a very wealthy man.
And unlike so many historical bestsellers, these books were actually read – their fans are legion. Upon re-reading the trilogy, I saw anew all the reasons why this should be so.
Foote decided to tell the story with a tight, almost unwavering focus on the war; there are virtually no extended considerations of the politics or social situations that gave rise to the conflict or reacted to it or gave it shape (for such things, you’ll have to turn to Foote’s only rival as a Civil War narrative historian, Bruce Catton – and you should turn to him, because Catton may just be the finest writer of American history since Francis Parkman). Even when Foote does write about politicians – like the War Department’s Edwin Stanton (who was known to call Lincoln “that long-armed creature”) – the stories, however wonderful, are specifically military:
He came at many people like a tiger, especially at those in his Department who showed less devotion to work than he himself did. Soon after he took office he received from Harpers Ferry an urgent call for heavy guns. He ordered them sent at once. Going by the locked arsenal after hours, he learned that the guns were still there: whereupon he ordered the gates broken open, helped the watchmen drag the guns out, and saw them loaded onto a north-bound train. Next morning the arsenal officer reported that he had not found it convenient to ship the guns the day before; he would get them off this morning, he said. “The guns are now at Harpers Ferry!” Stanton barked. “And you, sir, are no longer in the service of the United States Government.”
Even so, you can see in that passage – and countless passages just like it – the sure hand of a practiced novelist. The interpersonal drama of the epic tale he’s relating is always foremost in Foote’s writing mind. A little too much personal drama, at some times, in fact: the lovingly protracted death-scene of arch-traitor Jefferson Davis practically comes with its own Puccini aria. Foote always denied that he was a Confederate sympathizer (in the Ken Burns documentary, he even works in a gallant tip of the cap to the bravery of Union soldiers – but he only smiles that adorable, sales-goosing smile when he’s talking about his boys in grey), but there’s no denying that The Civil War: A Narrative spends a good deal more time in the Confederate circling camps than anywhere else. The Confederate generals – that merry, treasonous bunch – are given glowing portraits, and again, an expert novelist is at work, as in this encounter between Generals Longstreet and Jackson:
As he turned to leave, Longstreet began to bait him again. “General, do not all those multitudes of Federals frighten you?” Old Peter’s humor was heavy-handed, but Jackson had no humor at all. “We shall see very soon whether I shall not frighten them,” he said as he put one foot in the stirrup. But Longstreet kept at him. “Jackson, what are you going to do with all those people over there?” Stonewall mounted. “Sir, we will give them the bayonet,” he said, and he turned his horse and rode away.
Perhaps the most reassuring thing about this trilogy is how dutifully Foote backs up his prior training as a novelist, though: there’s a great mountain of solid research here, despite some minute gaffes that are more detectable the second time around. Still, whenever he can decently stretch his dramatist’s legs, he does so – and always to satisfying, memorable, visually adept effect, as in the interval when morning breaks over the unfortunate town of Stafford Heights, at the beginning of the holocaust called Fredericksburg:
By 10 o’clock the fog had begun to thin. It drained downward, burned away by the sun, layer upon layer, so that the valley seemed to empty after the manner of a tub when the plug is pulled. Gradually the town revealed itself: first the steeples of the two churches and the courthouse, then the chimneys and rooftops, and finally the houses and gardens, set upon the checkerboard streets.
Foote is determined to leave no ceremony out, so almost every battle of any significance at all is rollingly brought to life. Fans of military history (in whose guilty ranks I certainly include myself) will eat this stuff up like mint chocolate chip ice cream and want more. Other, more civilian-minded readers may find the going a bit of a slog through several hundred passages like this one, about the disastrous straggle of Bentonville:
Convinced by now, if not sooner, that all had been done that could be done once his plan for exploiting the initial shock had gone awry, Johnston instructed Hardee to pull Stewart’s and Taliaferro’s men back in the darkness to their original position north of the road, confronting with Bragg the reunited half of Sherman’s army under Slocum, while Wheeler’s troops, just arrived from their decoy work in front of Raleigh, proceeded east toward Cox’s Bridge to delay the advance of the other half under Howard, who was no doubt hard on the way from that direction in response to the eight-hour boom and growl of guns near Bentonville today. (In point of fact, Old Joe would have had to do this, or something like it, in any case – preferably an outright skedaddle – since even if he had succeeded in abolishing Slocum’s wing entirely, despite its three-to-two preponderance in numbers, Sherman could then have brought Scofield across the Neuse to combine with Howard for a counterattack with the odds extended to three-to-one or worse.)
… although just about any reader is going to smile at that “outright skedaddle.”
I’d forgotten how enjoyable this trilogy is. Indeed, despite logistical nightmares like that passage just quoted, the whole of these three fat volumes is meant to be enjoyed more than it’s meant for any other purpose. The detail of it being hand-written by a crackling fireplace (or, again, some such nonsense) might be a marketing department’s dream come true, but the narrative itself displays all the unmistakable signs of prose that’s been worked over and brooded over. The especially dramatic passages are finished in a way that virtually no prose composed on a computer ever is; there’s everywhere the feeling of being swept up in a carefully-woven story. The great American historians all manage this little miracle: Prescott, Parkman, Morison, of course Catton – they all craft their books into emotional experiences that not only instruct their readers but ensnare them.
Now more than ever, I’m willing to admit Foote to that hallowed company, despite the fact that I know damn well which side he’d have picked in 1860.