If you have ever seen the multipart Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War first broadcast by PBS in September 1990, you will undoubtedly remember Shelby Foote (above), who is famous for his trilogy The Civil War: A Narrative. For today, I decided to post my review of the second volume of his trilogy, covering the pivotal year of 1863.
Ever since I first came across the works of Bruce Catton in my teens, I have been an aficionado of the American Civil War. So much concentrated slaughter among peoples who resembled one another so much! Also, so many lessons to be learned about the arts of leadership, and what happens when they are lacking—as in all but the last generals in charge of the Army of the Potomac!
This is the second volume of three of historian Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative. Nestled away in the “Bibliographical Note” section at the end is this revealing quote:
As for method, it may explain much for me to state that my favorite historian is Tacitus, who dealt mainly with high-placed scoundrels, but that the finest compliment I ever heard paid a historian was rendered by Thomas Hobbes in the forward to his translation of The Peloponnesian War, in which he referred to Thucydides as “one who, though he never digress to read a Lecture, Moral or Political, upon his own Text, nor enter into men’s hearts, further than the Actions themselves evidently guide him … filleth his Narrations with that choice of matter, and ordereth them with that Judgement, and with such perspicuity and efficacy expresseth himself that (as Plutarch saith) he maketh his Auditor a Spectator. For he setteth his Reader in the Assemblies of the People, and in their Senates, at their debating; in the Streets, at their Seditions; and in the Field, at their Battels.” There indeed is something worth aiming at, however far short of attainment we fall.
I don’t think Foote falls far short at all. In Periclean Athens, there was not much first-hand information upon which the historian could rely, whereas the Civil War is one of the most written-about episodes in all of world history. In addition to making his information vivid, Foote has to wade through terabytes of minutiae to find interesting episodes. One example: Southern General Nathan Bedford Forrest, encountering one of his men in headlong retreat, stopping him in his tracks, pulling down his trousers, and administering a savage spanking with a brush in front of his peers to motivate him to reconsider, which he did.
The period covered by the volume is calendar year 1863, in which two of the most decisive Union victories took place: Gettysburg and Vicksburg — right around the 4th of July. The other major battle discussed was Chickamauga, a Southern victory which ruined the careers of both generals, Rosecrans and Bragg, and which could have gone either way if a third of the Union line had not panicked and run. There is also a brief look-ahead to the spring of 1864, when U.S. Grant was named a Lieutenant General and appointed to the Army of the Potomac.
This 966-page book seems shorter than its weight would imply. That is due to Foote. In fact, this volume is so good that two extracts have been separately published as books: The Stars in Their Courses about Gettysburg and The Beleaguered City about Vicksburg, both of which are excellent reads in their own right.