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Monday, January 23, 2012

"The Civil War: A Narrative; Fort Sumter to Perryville", by Shelby Dade Foote, Jr.


 840 pages, Random House, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0394419480

How can one man possibly know so much about such a large and complex historical event? The research required, the understanding of the political issues, and the insight into the motivations of the many key players involved boggles the mind. Foote somehow manages to get his hands completely around the enigmatic thing we know as the Civil War and deliver it to us in clear, complete and compelling fashion. This is the Ring Trilogy of historical military literature. Other worthy efforts such as The Killer Angels or, more recently, The Last Full Measure may delve deeper into one particular battle or limited campaign, but no other work provides such a comprehensive and detailed picture of the entire conflict.

The scope is so impressive. Foote does not focus solely on the battles, but rather drills down to the core political and moral issues so that we see the whole chess match. And his rendering of the characters? Words fail me. We follow Stonewall Jackson, or Robert E. Lee, or McClellan, or U.S. Grant for a hundred pages, mesmerized, and then cry out as he swings the scene to another theater. But two pages later we don't care; we're sucked in again. Foote captures the emotion of the time. His love of the subject is apparent. It is amazing to read the details of such a divisive and horrific event, to taste Lincoln's frustration over McClellan's waffling, to cheer the audacious achievements of Lee and Jackson, to wonder at Lee's tragic march toward Appomattox, and to empathize with both sides along the way. Shelby Foote has done justice to a defining moment in the history of our great union, leaving readers north and south proud to be Americans. 

Though the book seems to dwell slightly more on the Confederate point-of-view, there is still ample coverage of what was being planned and done up in the North. While the book may not be purely objective, Foote lays out in detail the strengths and weaknesses on both sides. In fact, written out as they are, it almost makes you wonder how the South could have expected to win at all, considering their lack of industrial strength.  This isn't the book you turn to if you're looking for a brief introduction or want a comprehensive analysis of the social, philosophical, economic and moral issues involved with this conflict. Although, I will say that Foote's presentation of the events has caused me to seriously reconsider not only the centrality of this event in shaping contemporary American identity but also the legitimacy of the mythological veneer that has been cast over certain historical figures.

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