After I expressed some grumbling dissatisfaction with the audiobook version of the first volume of Shelby Foote’s Civil War, a number of friends urged me to press on to the second, The Civil War, From Fredericksburg to Meridian. I did, and although it took an unusually long time to listen through (I started in September), I am glad I did.
I had expressed two complaints about the first book:
(1) The Civil War was poorly suited to audio format, because it demanded an atlas by one’s side, or anyway, by my side. My mental visual map of the United States emphasizes state lines. I can “see” the border between Kentucky and Tennessee or between Louisiana and Arkansas. I cannot however “see” the courses of the Tennessee or Cumberland rivers, and those are far more relevant to understanding the progress of the conflict than political cartography. I found even descriptions of individual battlefields confusing. My son and I have spent many hours touring the battlefields near Washington: Gettysburg (to me, the most moving landscape in North America), Antietam, the Richmond park system, Petersburg, Appomattox. But I have never been to the fields of Pea Ridge or Shiloh, and so find it difficult to visualize those fights. Unlike say John Keegan, the early Foote is not good at conveying the logic of a battle – why this spot on the map rather than that was the place for which men in their hundreds and thousands struggled and died.
2 ) Volume 1 takes a romantic, almost light-hearted view of war. Perhaps because I was listening to it at the same time as I was embarking on my post-Normandy vacation World War II reading binge, I was again and again jarred by Foote’s use of expressions like “dropped from their saddles” or “paid a price in blood” to describe the realities of human pain, mutilation, and death. Although some admirer has described The Civil War as “an American Iliad,” the opening volume of Foote too often lacked Homer’s appreciation of fear and suffering.
HOWEVER – with Volume 2, Foote’s writing – like the war itself – takes on greater clarity, meaning, and terror.
This is the volume that encompasses the great setpiece battles of the middle phase of the war: Fredericksburg, Second Manassas, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chickimauga, Chatanooga. Foote’s voice deepens and thickens as he tells these stories, while retaining enough humor (that often seemed discordant in volume 1) to do justice to the absurd personalities of men like John Pope and Joe Hooker.
Personality is his great skill, and he does rich justice to his joint biographies of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. He avoids hero worship.
He acknowledges the brutality of Ulysses Grant (who refused to request a truce at Vicksburg to retrieve men wounded in his unsuccessful first assault – consigning them to lingering death in order to avoid any appearance of weakness). He appreciates Grant’s skill at bureaucratic warfare, his undercutting of rivals, and he has no truck at all with the absurd attempts of Grant’s admirers to deny the general’s binge-drinking.
He is uninfatuated with Lee. Little murmurs of dissent keep erupting from Foote’s normally Confederate-leaning pen. Lee over-favored Virginians in promotion. His desire to protect his own state from the ravages of war tempted him into an over-aggressive strategy that the South could not afford, losing sight of Davis’s original better insight that the South should keep to the defensive. His winning rule-breaking gambles at Chancellorsville and elsewhere tempted him to return to the table one time too many at Gettysburg, in defiance of the first rule of gambling never to bet more than you can afford to lose. Worst, Lee refused after Chatanooga to accept command in the West, where he was most needed.
Best of all are Foote’s many brilliant dazzling studies of secondary figures of the war. If he still slights the ordinary soldier, he at least memorializes the brigadiers, colonels, and captains who fought with a death-defying courage that seems almost unimaginable in the modern context.
Special notice for me goes to Gouverneur Warren. I had known only two things about Warren: He was the officer who ordered a brigade to occupy Little Round Top just minutes before the Confederates attacked, probably by that single action deciding the course of the battle – and yet for reasons I never understood, he was savaged by Grant in Grant’s memoirs.
Foote filled me in on the story of the rest of his career: how he wrecked Lee’s last aggressive campaign at Bristoe Station in October 1863 – and even more impressively how as a corps commander he defied a direct order from George Meade to attack a prepared Confederate position in the campaign of Mine Run in December 1863, saving many hundreds of men from what would have been, Foote predicts, a second Fredericksburg disaster for the Union.
There’s a statue of Warren at Little Round Top, but Foote’s praise may prove an even more enduring memorial to an American hero whose final days were darkened by vindictive detraction.