Review of "The Civil War" vol. 2 by Shelby Foote

The second book in the series was as good as the first, which is to say that it was incredibly good.

The writing is too good to stop to take too many notes while I’m reading, so these reviews are going to be disjointed. Deal with it.

I would say I am most struck by the descriptions of the time. I feel like I leave the current era and transport back to the mid 1800s while I’m reading these books. I can’t stress how incredible this achievement is, as our current society is so far removed this older time period.

Next, I’m struck by the characters. Four characters – Lee, Lincoln, Sherman and Forrest – particularly stand out, in my opinion. Lee seems like as good a man as any that have ever lived. Foote tells a story in with some shaky details, but the gist was that Confederates believed they had thwarted an attack to destroy Richmond by less-than-noble means. Many in the South called for similar destructive tactics, in response. Lee simply asked Meade if the plan had been to destroy the city and any or all of its inhabitants. Meade said “no.” This response was sufficient for Lee.

Lincoln comes across as brilliant. Again this is an achievement as Foote does not go all wobbly in his admiration for Lincoln. Lincoln was brilliant, but he was not god-like, as so many of his biographers suggest. Foote is not afraid to mention the bad along with the good. Many of Lincoln’s detractors miss his tactical brilliance – one almost feels sorry for the other politicians who scheme against him, as Foote describes how Lincoln seemingly effortlessly out-maneuvers them.

Foote’s descriptions of Forrest make him possibly the most interesting character in the books. He out generals everyone who he comes into contact with despite his total lack of education and training. Unlike other generals, Forrest gets his hands dirty, very dirty. The descriptions of Forrest plugging bullet wounds in his horse with his finger so that he can keep fighting, and of Forrest plunging into battle at the seemingly most inopportune times, are beautiful.

It seems that the only person who understood how amazing Forrest was, was Sherman. It also seems like Sherman was the only person to understand how to defeat a guerilla rebellion and to understand that winning the war meant absolutely crushing the South. Sherman seemed to understand these things from the first days of the war, when he was ridiculed for voicing his opinions. As second book ends, Foote is setting up Sherman’s march. Foote has used Sherman as an almost oracular figure in the books (maybe he was one). I can’t help but wonder if Foote – who avoids commenting on Reconstruction, for the most part – is using Sherman’s beliefs to bring his own views on the subsequent injustice of Reconstruction. Here are some tidbits from Sherman from the book:

In [Sherman’s] absence, guerillas had taken to firing at steamboats from the banks of the big river, north and south of Vicksburg, and he did not intend to abide this outrage. “To secure the safety of the navigation of the Mississippi River, “he declared, “I would slay millions. On that point I am not only insane, but mad. . . . I think I see one or two quick blows that will astonish the natives of the South and will convince them that, though to stand behind a big cottonwood and shoot at a passing boat is good sport and safe, it may still reach and kill their friends and families hundreds of miles off.” . . .

“War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” . . .

[Sherman’s plan for reconstruction ended with] “I would banish all minor questions, assert the broad doctrine that as a nation the United States has the right, and also the physical power, to penetrate to every part of our national domain, and that we will do it – that we will do it in our own time and in our own way; that it makes no difference whether it be in one year, or two, or ten, or twenty; that we will remove and destroy every obstacle, if need be, take every life, every acre of land, every particle of property, everything that to us seems proper; that we will not cease till the end is attained; that all who do not aid us are enemies, and that we will not account to them for our acts.” . . . “I would not coax them, or even meet them half way, but make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it . . . The only government now needed or deserved by the States of Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi now exists in Grant’s army.”

Anyway, those were some random thoughts. I’m eagerly waiting to dive into the third book.


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