Last week, I at last completed listening to the final volume of Shelby Foote’s civil war trilogy:
The Civil War Vol. 3: Red River to Appomattox
I’d expressed some qualms at the start of the series, but volume 2 won me – and volume 3 overwhelmed me. As the war becomes more terrible, Foote’s tone deepens in sympathy to the very end of his fearsome story.
Ulysses Grant launched his great campaign against all fronts of the Confederacy in May 1864. Over the final 11 months of the war, the two sides would suffer as many again casualties as they had taken in the previous three years, three years that had included almost all the famous set piece battles of the war, from Bull Run to Gettysburg to Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge. Ahead lay the grim business of man-killing to the point of exhaustion and collapse. It is amazing that the war lasted as it did.
Foote is not one of those who share Maj.-Gen. JFC Fuller’s admiration for the generalship of Grant. His Grant wins by applying unrelenting willpower and overwhelming resources to the destruction of the Confederate Army. On his march from the Rappahannock to Appomattox, Foote’s Grant knows only one trick – keep sliding past the enemy’s flank, almost always his right flank – and he repeats it over and over again. Except when he forgets it, such as at Cold Harbour, and flings men into murderous frontal assaults seemingly without qualm or remorse.
Foote’s southern sympathies, noticeable at the start of the series, fade into a more universal emotion by the end. Yet still he leaves no doubt that he believes that the Army of Northern Virginia was the greatest fighting force ever fielded by Americans. From their early astounding victories to their final grim resistance without adequate food, clothing, or footware, these soldiers did something that Americans have rarely done in the service of much better causes than that of the Confederacy: they fought and endured for months against overwhelming numerical and material odds.
Foote does not go into much detail about the hardships and terrors of Civil War soldiering. He leaves much to the imagination. But one senses enough to be left very seriously uncomfortable with this widespread trope that describes the generation that experienced the Second World War – not just the front-line soldiers who encountered the Wehrmacht or the Japanese, but the millions of others who wore the uniform behind the lines and the millions more who stayed home – as “the greatest generation.” How does the courage and sacrifice of the few become the property of all? By what curious right of inheritance do the survivors gain the merit of those who laid down their lives?
Foote recognizes this problem. Through the massive length of his great work he tells as much of incompetence and venality as of heroism and patriotism. And in the deeply moving coda, he gives the floor to Abraham Lincoln to deliver an anticipatory rebuttal to those who would suggest that the human beings of one era might be greater or lesser than those of another. On Election Night 1864, a group of supporters came to the White House grounds to serenade Lincoln. In his short impromptu address of thanks, Lincoln offered these words:
What has occured in this case must ever recur in similar cases. Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents of this as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.