Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Civil War

It rested there, taunting me. Looking down at me, mocking my ignorance, intimidating me with its heft and reputation. I'd sit down on the couch with some silly little book, a bit of literary fluff, and there it would be, too proud even to smirk. Shelby Foote's The Civil War, a Narrative. Three volumes of it. Almost 3,000 pages. Big, heavy books. This wasn't a quick read, this was a commitment.

I'm not a complete idiot. I knew something of that war. I knew when it was fought, where (generally), why (mostly), and how (a little). I knew something about the major players. I'd read this and that. I've watched the Ken Burns documentary. But even as I watched and listened to Foote himself fill in a detail here and add an impression there, I knew I wasn't getting it. I knew there was so much more to understand than could possibly be covered in a few hours of TV and a patchwork education. What I needed was a complete picture, an overview of the war from start to finish.

There it was, as I said. My Best Beloved's thrice-read copies (yeah, she's like that – turbo history buff). As I've written before (somewhere I'm sure), one of the reason I read is to reduce my huge store of ignorance. It seems I have a never ending supply of the stuff. So I picked up the first volume, determined to plow right through to the end.

I couldn't do it, actually. As good as it was, and it was very good, I needed to take a break from war from time to time, so between volumes I took little excursions. I read about religion, romance, and the British. And then I went back to the war.

One thing I knew. The Civil War was the most transformative event in our country's history. The big, obvious things were settled; whether or not we would be a house divided, whether or not we would be a nation of freedom or slavery. It also changed the very definition of our country, the very way that we saw our nation. It changed the United States from a plural to a singular. Before 1861 most people would say “The United States are . . .” From 1865 on we say “The United States is . . .” In trying to split us apart the south inadvertently stitched us together tighter than before. As Foote points out in his third volume, once these Americans who previously had never been but a few miles from where they were born walked, fought, bled, died, suffered, and grieved all over their country it became something it had never really been before. Their country. E pluribus unum indeed.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I started reading Foote because I wanted to get a good overview of the whole war. I got that. But I also learned how really huge this topic is. Even Foote couldn't capture it all. He missed bits and pieces. One of my favorite people, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Maine, is only briefly mentioned. The horror of Andersonville isn't covered except to say that the war crimes trial of it's commander was unfair. And the more I read the more I realized that no matter how big, no matter how many volumes, no one writer can ever describe the whole of the war. It is just too huge a story.

So Foote's Civil War isn't the place to end your studies. It is the place to begin. It is, as the title says, a narrative history. For all its heft it isn't a dry, scholarly tome. It is a story. A huge, amazing, fascinating, complex, and vitally important story, and Mr Foote took it upon himself the daunting task of telling it. He tells it very well. He was not, when he began this project, an historian. He was a novelist. He approached his history in that way, with a novelist's sense of character, place, plot, pacing, and story. The reader gets a strong sense of the people, mostly of the leaders but peppered with insight into the lives of lower ranking soldiers. The horror of some of the individual battles is shown clearly. Foote's language is poetic when there is call to be poetic, stark when that is called for, and always insightful and informative.

I saw for the first time how battles in far-flung theaters of war affected feelings and strategy across the country. I've always been more aware of the fighting in the east, such as in Gettysburg and Georgia, but now I see the importance of the whole war, including riverboats on the Mississippi, the blunders on the Red River, and fighting ships off the coast of France.

Unlike some readers I tend to view this as a battle of good versus evil. For the north it was a war to make sure that a “government conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” should “not perish from the earth.” For the south it was about preserving a way of life predicated on the right of some people to own other people. While reading I would cheer northern victories and was saddened by their losses. As a good historian Foote took a more evenhanded approach, not going out of his way to condemn but not shying from making moral judgments when they were called for. I was unaware of but unsurprised by the savagery with which Confederate soldiers dealt with black men wearing blue uniforms. I was also unaware of and was surprised by the heartless way U.S. Grant treated his own wounded men, letting them suffer and die on the field rather than allowing a ceasefire to rescue them.

Insights into the leaders of the war is one of the special gifts of these books. The strengths and flaws of Jefferson Davis, contrasted with those of Abraham Lincoln, the single-mindedness of Grant, the manias of Stonewall Jackson, the remarkable and occasionally brutal leadership of Nathan Bedford Forrest, and the tremendous energy and loyalty of Sherman are some of the profiles Foote presents. I don't think anyone will ever understand the incredibly deep and complex mind of Lincoln, but I have come a step closer after reading this.

And I've come a step closer to reducing my store of Civil War ignorance. Unfortunately (or fortunately, since I rather enjoy learning things), I've discovered that even with this huge overview stuffed into my head, my supply of ignorance is greater than I had imagined.

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