Shelby Foote’s Civil War holds a deservedly iconic place in the American consciousness. (You’ll notice, for example, that Foote’s three volumes are the only books visible in the bookcase behind Fred Thompson in his announcement speech.)
I’ve owned these books for years, dipping into them from time to time for descriptions of battles or character sketches of the combatants. I’d never tried to read them all the way through, however, daunted by the immensity of the work But with August coming – and a long series drive from Washington DC to Muskoka, Ontario, to Prince Edward County in the east of the province, to Toronto, and then back to Washington again – the moment seemed to have come to give Foote my ears, if not my eyes.
That decision proved an error. Foote is a famously vivid writer, and he anticipates the audiobook listener with helpful reminders linking events in one theater of war to things happening the same day, week, or month in another. Still … listening to him without an atlas in hand (here’s an excellent one) will frustrate any reader without the most minute geographical knowledge. That would most certainly include me.
Beyond, that, however, I have to admit an even deeper problem. While listening to Foote, I was reading (ie, visually) a bunch of books on the Normandy invasion in preparation for our family’s early summer trip to Europe. (To be covered in forthcoming Bookshelves.)
This departed from my usual book-reading habits. Normally I have three books on the go at any given moment: fiction on the audiobook, history on my nightstand, a policy or political book at the office to read in intervals during the day. Double-history at the same time gets confusing and interferes with the memory.
This time, the departure had another effect. Even the most technical of books on WW2 pay considerable atention to the combat experience of the ordinary soldier. In part this is due to the growing abundance of historical materials that allows the historian to make accurate statements about that experience. In part it is due to so many of these historians having had personal or familial experience of that war. But even more it is due to changing ideas about how history is to be written – and to the literary revolution after World War I, which denounced any romance in the description of war.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,Ñ
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
George Orwell complained in his famous 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,”writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion.” Modern writing by contrast emphasized the horror and sadness of war, even in the very best cause.
Foote could never be accused of sentimentalizing war. He writes in a vivid, forthright style, uninflated by poetical flourishes. But it certainly is true that he writes about war in a way that owes much more to the literature of the 19th century than to that of the 20th. Armies “meet.” The losers “recoil” or “are repulsed.” When things go badly, they “pay a price in blood.”
Foote is a superb literary artist. He can when he chooses represent death in all its gurgling painfulness and sadness: see for example his moving description of the death of General Albert Sidney Johnston at the battle of Shiloh. (A single battle that, as Foote notes, killed more Americans than had been killed in all the nation’s previous wars combined.) But Foote’s close accounts of death are almost invariably reserved for senior officers. The critic who called Foote’s Civil War “an American Iliad” spoke perhaps more exactly than he realized: like Homer, Foote gives personality only to war chieftains.
On the other hand: what personalities he gives them! I didn’t know that AP Hill had courted and been accepted by General McClellan’s future wife – until her father forbade the marriage on the grounds of Hill’s impecuniousness. That father ended up as McClellan’s chief of staff. According to Foote, when McClellan’s men came under fierce attack from Hill during the battles of the Seven Days on the James River peninsula, they would mutter: “You should have married the other one, Nelly.” (Foote then takes the time to note that this suspicion was unjust: Hill found another wife, and their marriage was a famously happy one – so much so that Mrs Hill had to be personally ordered by Robert E. Lee not to follow her husband into battle.)
I didn’t know either that George Sykes (who played such a crucial role holding the left flank of the Union Army at Gettysburg) first earned fame in a battle against his West Point room-mate, DH (Harvey) Hill.
I didn’t know the story of Colonel Ellet, the engineer who became obsessively convinced that the physics formula F=MV (force = mass x velocity) was the secret to control of the Mississippi River – and persuaded the Union Navy to let him build a fleet of fast, ironclad boats that used all their power to ram Confederate vessels. Ellet’s fleet went into battle on June 6, 1862, destroying Confederate power on the Upper Mississippi and capturing Memphis literally without a shot. Ellet lost his own life, but proved his theory – a transaction (Foote suggests) Ellet would have regarded as a very fair trade.
I finished this first volume enthralled but also uncertain whether to commit to the 55 listening hours of Volume II and the 70 hours of Volume III. This is not the Civil War as it was, a nightmare slaughter, in which hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans died in fear, pain, mud, and filth, in terrifying battles under often incompetent leaders. It is, though, the Civil War the way most Americans prefer to remember it: heroic, gallant, transforming, with claims to justice on both sides, and peace and reconciliation as the reward for northern victory and the recompense for southern defeat.