The American Civil War 150th Anniversary: Shelby Foote

Most of us picture Mr. Foote from his appearance in Burns's "Civil War."  I am old, too, and so I understand how he probably saw himself.  (Image:  American Society of Authors and Writers)

Most of us picture Mr. Foote from his appearance in Burns’s “Civil War.” I am old, too, and so I understand how he probably saw himself. (Image: American Society of Authors and Writers)

Finally, after doing the weekly timeline for almost the total length of the war, I am reading Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative.

I feel ready for it now.

Before doing so, I read Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic. It is gonzo-style reporting that isn’t nearly as good as his gonzo-style Blue Latitudes, written during a personal search for Captain James Cook. Horwitz was on the outside of the Civil War throughout, although he is a good journalist and transmitted the opinions of some who knew about it. I was especially impressed with the words of a black man playing pool, and a white waitress.

Horwitz also, I think, had a moment of self-awareness but was unable to embrace it – an inability shared by most people in our generation; that is, he made the parallel with the 1960s and described himself as a self-indulgent youth who was impressed with certain romantic aspects of this historical event but had no clue about its complex realities, and then he rattled around the South and just described modern realities there.

We children of the Sixties all have a major lesson to learn from the American Civil War, and most of us are learning it right now:

Our strife pertains to ourselves – to the passing generations of men; and it can without convulsion be hushed forever with the passing of one generation.

– Abraham Lincoln, quoted by Shelby Foote in Volume 1 of “The Civil War: A Narrative”

Anyway, Horwitz interviewed Mr. Foote during the process, and although he felt he made a breakthrough eventually, I think he skipped off the surface of those tranquil depths like a stone thrown at a mill pond.

I’m a lot like Tony Horwitz in that I’m on the outside, too, when it comes to Southern history. I was never more aware of that than during my time in Alabama and Mississippi. Like him (and most other Northerners) I was fascinated with the Civil War and associated it with a “hump” I had to get over to understand my fellow Americans south of the old Mason-Dixon link. Unlike him, I chose to look instead at the historical event, through the timeline.

Thus I am now aware of the general order and shape of the events that Mr. Foote describes in The Civil War: A Narrative. I know he isn’t infallible. I know his version is no more true than anyone else’s. But it’s much less false. He’s a great storyteller, and he is working with real events, from authentic sources, and most importantly (in my limited viewpoint) from the inside.

Reading this huge work of love is very enjoyable. Also, I’m learning the significance of names. I consciously avoided using the usual terminology of “X’s brigade” or “Z’s battery” that appeared in many sources, especially those from eyewitnesses like Wyeth, though I knew it would remove several deep layers of meaning. Back then, who was in charge, and the personalities in the entire chain of command, made a big difference.

In the timeline, after all, I was only looking for general shapes. Mr. Foote adds the human dimension as he tells the Southern version of the Civil War – which history has so often kept buried. Now I can put those unit names together, understanding the context better. And I also see more clearly a few of the more notable movers and shakers, particularly Jefferson Davis and General McClellan, differently (I have only finished the first of the Narrative’s three volumes so far).

An outsider might expect that means I would see the Northerners through hateful eyes, reading the words of a Southerner. No. It is the eyes of respect and the common human bond in the face of great tragedy. And, as Mr. Foote mentioned in Ken Burns’s saga as well as to Mr. Horwitz, it is also the wry truthfulness of an Irish fighter given to the qualities of one who beat him.

And…oops. I referred to Nathan Bedford Forrest only by his last name in the timeline. Mr. Foote says “Bedford Forrest.”

I’d like to say more, but thus far have no more useful words available. There’s no simple way to describe or visualize the Civil War. But I’m moving ahead in the process of understanding its basics.

For example, one day when I was in Vicksburg (I’ve mentioned this elsewhere in the timeline), a young man told me a Civil War tale, how local kids during the siege of Vicksburg in 1863 put a mine on a boat and sent it drifting down the river toward the gunboats. It hit one. I loved the tale, even with its aura of “maybe, maybe not,” but upon reading about the career of the CSS Arkansas in the Narrative, I realized that could have been the basis for the young man’s story. And it was bigger and better, as well as definitely being true!

Anyway, Civil War storytelling is still alive in the hearts and minds of young Southerners. The long memory has been passed on. And that’s a wonderful thing.

All these were hounoured in their generations
And were the glory of their times

There be of them
That have left a name behind them
that their praises might be reported

And some there be which have no memorial
who are perished as though they had never been
and are become as though they had never been born
and their children after them

But these were merciful men
whose righteousness hath not been forgotten

With their seed shall continually remain
a good inheritance
and their children are within the covenant

Their seed standeth fast
and their children for their sakes

Their seed shall remain for ever
and their glory shall not be blotted out

Their bodies are buried in peace
but their name liveth for evermore

Ecclesiasticus xliv
(set opposite the title page of “The Civil War: A Narrative”)

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party — and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true — that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.

— Abraham Lincoln, quoted by Foote in Volume 1 of “Narrative”

Categories: Random thoughts

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