Monday, October 27, 2008

Shelby Foote: The Civil War

I'm almost done with Shelby Foote's master work, The Civil War: A Narrative. "Almost" means 200 pages to go in volume 3* - this is a long, long telling of a long, long war. I'm a history buff, so this was a natural, especially when seen on the "Bargain Books" shelf at Barnes and Noble.

If you've seen PBS' The Civil War, you'll remember Foote, with his gracious southern manner and white beard. Foote passed on in 2005, but is remembered in a Youtube tribute that is good enough to post here.

While not all of Ken Burn's material came from Foote's book, a huge amount did. It's impossible to do this justice in a post, but here are some impressions of the books:
  • While I'd studied the "Grant vs. Lee" bit before (I'm a history buff, after all), I'd never really understood how it worked. Lee was a master of maneuver, and this was how he had beaten all the previous Union generals. While it was true that "Grant wouldn't stay whupped", that really wasn't the key to Grant's genius. By continually threatening first Richmond and then Petersburg throughout 1864, Grant immobilized Lee. Even Lee understood that the end was only a matter of time once things settled down to a siege outside Petersburg.
  • The Confederate generals really were that much better than the Union ones, but they couldn't be replaced. About the only Confederate general who "rose through the ranks" was Nathan Bedford Forrest, and that wasn't nearly enough. As more and more of the original Confederate generals fell in battle (Stonewall Jackson, of course, but also Albert Sydney Johnston and many, many more), their places were filled with less capable men. The new commanders simply couldn't accomplish for Lee what their predecessors could. The Union, on the other hand, kept bring on new men until they found a set who could win battles.
  • Everyone remembers William T. Sherman's "March to the Sea" - having lived in Roswell, GA, I can personally attest that they haven't forgotten. Or forgiven. Most folks haven't heard about his march though South Carolina at the beginning of 1865, which was much, much more destructive - South Carolina was seen as the "Cradle of the Confederacy", and the destruction was designed not to provide supplies (as in Georgia), but explicitly to lay waste as a punishment. Foote's discussion of the burning of the capitol city of Columbia underlines how this wasn't a bug, but rather was a feature.
This is admittedly no light work - I've been reading this off and on since June. However, this is well worth a read, especially for Europeans who want to better understand how Americans tick. It's not accurate to say that America has never been invaded and occupied; the portion south of the Mason Dixon line has.

* Volume 3 is 1060 pages plus notes, bibliography, maps, etc. The three volumes are combined well over 3000 pages.

1 comment:

chrisb said...

This is indeed an awesome work. I got through the first volume before putting it down. Hopefully I will make time to get back to it soon.