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The Civil War by Shelby Foote. Tom Send a noteboard - 28/10/2010 08:25:39 PM
I am happy to report that I have finished Shelby Foote’s mammoth, 1.2 million-word The Civil War and would like to share some thoughts about it for those who may be contemplating reading it. It is a daunting task to commit oneself to read three volumes, each of approximately 1000 pages of history, and regardless of its narrative style, no non-fiction work can be read as quickly and effortlessly as the fluffy sci-fi and fantasy that many here prefer.

Despite this reality, Foote’s trilogy was a comparatively effortless read. Although the work is comprehensive – nearly every shot fired in the course of the four year American Civil War is covered or mentioned in some way – it manages to clip by at a vigorous pace. Notwithstanding the need to provide a wealth of statistics and numbers (and maps, which are plethora), Foote interweaves the facts with anecdotes, interesting trivia and memorable conversations. And even though the subject matter is serious and in many ways tragic, Foote finds the means of relieving the heaviness of his narrative with humor. An example of this last is the way that Foote comments, with regard to the incompetent Union General Pope’s decision to publish a newspaper for the soldiers called “Headquarters in the Saddle”, that many soldiers felt this meant his headquarters were located in his hindquarters.

This is not to say that the books did not contain a few boring excurses, or that the pace was always optimal. However, when one considers the enormity of the task that Foote took up, the execution is as close to flawless as one could hope.

The trilogy is one that I recommend to those who are interested in the history of what is perhaps even now the most significant conflict in American history, as well as anyone who enjoys reading military history generally. There are few writers of history who can translate into words the complex maneuvers of armed formations in a way that allows the reader to understand and, to a certain extent, see exactly how the battles unfolded, but Foote is one of them. In fact, the only other military historian whose works I have read who has done as good of a job as Foote in describing battles is David Chandler, author of the magnum opus Campaigns of Napoleon. Like Chandler, Foote supplements his text with maps of many of the battles described.

While some may be discouraged by the length of the books, I would note that Foote does not assume that the reader has moved directly from Volume I to Volume II (nor should he have, given the fact that the three volumes were published over the course of sixteen years (and it is clear that the research that went into their composition was phenomenal). As a result, it is possible for a reader to read Volume I, which covers the period from the beginning of the war to the Battle of Perryville (fought October 8, 1862), and then take a break before taking up Volume II, which covers the span from Fredericksburg and Murfreesboro in the last days of 1862 to Sherman’s burning of Meridian, Mississippi in February 1864, with another break between it and Volume III, which covers the remainder of the war and the dénouement following its end all the way to the death of Jefferson Davis at the age of 81, saying that all he ever did was love America.

I feel it is incumbent upon Americans to read books like Foote’s trilogy, even if this particular work is too long or ponderous for someone’s individual tastes. Much of our subsequent history as a nation was shaped by this war, from Reconstruction and the civil rights movement to the chaotic and violent way in which the nation expanded westwards. The greatness of Lincoln stands in sharp contrast to the scheming politicians around him, and his compassion for the people of the South is striking. The reader is also shown a great deal of insight into Davis, and in the process he becomes a sympathetic figure in many ways regardless of the injustice of slavery that pushed the North and South into the conflict. Finally, the scope of the change can be felt at the end of the trilogy, when Foote notes that, prior to thewar, one would say “the United States are”, but after it, the proper form became “the United States is”. It is something to reflect on at a time when the size and power of the Federal government are under more scrutiny than perhaps at any point since the Civil War.

I would be happy to address any particular questions about The Civil War if anyone has them.
Political correctness is the pettiest form of casuistry.

ἡ δὲ κἀκ τριῶν τρυπημάτων ἐργαζομένη ἐνεκάλει τῇ φύσει, δυσφορουμένη, ὅτι δὴ μὴ καὶ τοὺς τιτθοὺς αὐτῇ εὐρύτερον ἢ νῦν εἰσι τρυπώη, ὅπως καὶ ἄλλην ἐνταῦθα μίξιν ἐπιτεχνᾶσθαι δυνατὴ εἴη. – Procopius

Ummaka qinnassa nīk!

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The Civil War by Shelby Foote. - 28/10/2010 08:25:39 PM 11635 Views
Thank you for the review. - 28/10/2010 08:37:38 PM 1299 Views
If you do, be sure to let me know what you think - 28/10/2010 08:56:15 PM 1284 Views
I will. - 28/10/2010 09:24:00 PM 1316 Views
Interesting. I do have a number of questions... - 28/10/2010 08:38:46 PM 1348 Views
Answers - 28/10/2010 08:52:48 PM 1487 Views
Re: Answers - 28/10/2010 09:22:01 PM 1442 Views
Thanks for the review. - 28/10/2010 11:09:19 PM 1321 Views
You should! - 30/10/2010 05:35:03 AM 1361 Views
Excellent. - 29/10/2010 02:24:56 AM 1483 Views
Chandler's book is excellent. - 29/10/2010 03:28:18 PM 1506 Views
I am curious - 30/10/2010 03:38:56 AM 1516 Views
Foote mentions it. - 30/10/2010 05:34:33 AM 1380 Views
Cool. *NM* - 31/10/2010 02:05:05 AM 724 Views
My brain instantly assumed it would be about Britain. Huh. - 30/10/2010 12:00:54 PM 1290 Views

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