Review of "The Civil War: A Narrative (Vol. III)" by Shelby Foote

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                “Democracies are prone to war, and war consumes them.” – William H. Seward

I reviewed the first two book s in this series here and here.  This post will be a review of the third book in the series.  I am not going to be able to contain myself to the third volume in this review.  The first reviews were placeholders for this review, which will be a review of the third book – in part – but also a review of the whole, magnificent work.

It may be worth reading the brief summary of the work here, but I found the summary of the author much more interesting.

This work is a work of history.  Mr Foote has some strong, some would say pro-Southern, views about the War and its aftermath (I have done my own separate reading about the period following the War, and I agree with Mr Foote completely – see my reviews of some of the books that I read here, here and here).  Mr Foote discusses his views on Reconstruction, briefly, here:

The [Confederate] flag is a symbol my great grandfather fought under and in defense of. I am for flying it anywhere anybody wants to fly it. I do know perfectly well what pain it causes my black friends, but I think that pain is not necessary if they would read the confederate constitution and knew what the confederacy really stood for. This country has two grievous sins on its hands. One of them is slavery – whether we'll ever be cured of it, I don't know. The other one is emancipation – they told 4 million people, you're free, hit the road, and they drifted back into a form of peonage that in some ways is worse than slavery. These things have got to be understood before they're condemned. They're condemned on the face of it because they take that flag to represent what those yahoos represent as – in their protest against civil rights things. But the people who knew what that flag really stood for should have stopped those yahoos from using it as a symbol of what they stood for. But we didn't – and now you had this problem of the confederate flag being identified as sort of a roughneck thing, which it is not. . . .

I don't object to any individual hiding from history, but I do object to their hiding history from me. And that's what seems to me to be going on here. There are a lot of terrible things that happened in American history, but we don't wipe 'em out of the history books; we don't destroy their symbols; we don't forget they ever happened; we don't resent anybody bringing it up. The confederate flag has been placed in that position that's unique with an American symbol. I've never known one to be so despised.

Despite these strong views, The Civil War is a history.  I kept waiting (longing) for Mr Foote to give us his views and thoughts on Reconstruction – they never came.  He stuck to events.  The book continues past the end of the actual hostilities only to chronicle the last days of Confederate leaders, especially Jefferson Davis, with whom the series began and ended.

Perhaps some great wars get a great historian to tell their story.  One of the blurbs or reviews I read of Mr Foote’s work compared it The Iliad – the American Iliad, I think.  I thought that statement was ridiculous.  It wasn’t.  During some of the passages in the book, one cannot help but think of Homer or Thucydides.  I am generally not interested in the movements of specific divisions, for example, but in Mr Foote’s writing, the bits that would seem boring come alive.

The length of the work seems to serve a purpose.  The Wikipedia entry on Mr Foote mentions that during his interviews for Ken Burns’s special, Mr Foote spoke about the War as if it were still going on.  When one reads 1.2 million words on the Civil War, in Mr Foote’s style, one gets a sense of what it meant to fight the war at the time.  One gets in the head of the major players.  Ones sympathies are pushed and pulled in both directions.  One learns how terrible the fighting was, and how intense the feelings on both sides must have been.  Perhaps most importantly, one gets a sense of the destruction.  The destruction was so complete, that it’s nearly impossible to understand.  The length of this work helps one to understand.

I read this book before reading Mr Foote’s.  In it, Mr Winik said that he believed Mr Foote identified Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest as the major geniuses of the War.  I would add William Tecumseh Sherman to that list.  Perhaps everyone who reads this work would identify strongly with one of the major players.  Perhaps for most people it would either be Lincoln or Forrest.  For me it was Sherman.  It is with Sherman that I will focus in the remainder of the review, though the review could be lengthened to include many others.

Going into the War, it seems that Sherman was the only one who really understood what the War meant.  It was not going to end quickly.  Defeating the South was going to force the North to do things that were unthinkable, prior to the War.  For holding these beliefs, Sherman was considered crazy – perhaps the lesson is that no one would have supported going to war if they had known the costs beforehand.  Sherman of course was redeemed.  In the acknowledgements to the third book, Mr Foote claims that he hopes to have broadened peoples’ view of the War away from Virginia.  Of course the fighting there was important, but he believes that the fighting everywhere else may have been more important.  It was Sherman who ended the fighting outside Virginia.  He ended it in such a way that there was negligible guerilla fighting after the official end of hostilities.  This seemingly impossible feat was accomplished because of the character of the Southern leaders (Lee and Forrest come to mind), the way Sherman fought and the destruction he wrought on the South (which has historically been the only way to put down a people completely), and the way Sherman, Grant and Lincoln – before he died – wished to achieve peace – namely by being conciliatory to Southerners.

Sherman in fact proposed his own peace terms to Johnston.   Sherman’s terms were of course rejected as crazy by the radical leaders in Washington.  We’ll never know what would have happened if we followed Sherman’s proposals.  What we do know is that if Sherman’s path would have proved wrong, it would have been the only time Sherman was wrong and the collective wisdom of everyone else was right.

I do not mean to gloss over the atrocities committed by Sherman’s armies.  The devastation wrought on the South was unbelievable (another aspect which becomes more believable as one is immersed in Mr Foote’s writing).  But a rebellion needed to be put down. As Mr Foote quotes Sherman:


“No amount of poverty or adversity seems to shake their faith . . . niggers gone, wealth and luxury gone, money worthless, starvation in view . . . yet I see no sign of let up – some few deserters, plenty tired of war, but the masses determined to fight on.”  What they needed was more violent persuasion, he believed, and was prepared to give it in full measure.  “All that has gone before is mere skirmishing.”


“If the people raise a howl against my barbarity or cruelty, I will answer that war is war and not popularity seeking.”

Or later:

                “Let us destroy Atlanta and make it a desolation.”

And so he did.  There has only been one way to put down rebellions successfully.  The same tactics were adopted by other great leaders (I could not help thinking of Caesar) – be harsh, very harsh, in war and magnanimous, incredibly, unbelievably magnanimous in peace.  It doesn’t hurt that Sherman was also loyal and funny.  When asked about being promoted such that his rank would equal Grant’s, he declined saying:

Grant is a great general.  I know him well.  He stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk.  And now, sir, we stand by each other always.  [The question was asked by the press, whom Sherman disliked.]

I’m not a military historian.  The topics most interesting to me are: 1) why Southerners did not lick their wounds, regroup and fight a guerilla campaign against the North; and 2) the path of Reconstruction – what would have happened if we had pursued the Lincoln/Grant/Sherman approach instead of the approach followed by the Radical Republicans in Congress who wanted to punish the South.  I think I’ve already given my answers to these questions.  Mr Foote does not deal with these questions (at least not directly), though the topics are too big to be entirely avoidable.

One cannot help but agree that two different cultures and different ways of living collided and only one could survive.  As a Northern said of Southerners after a surprising defeat:

These rebels are not half-starved . . . A more sinewy, tawny, formidable-looking set of men could not be.  In education they are certainly inferior to our native-born people, but they are usually very quick-witted, and they know enough to handle weapons with terrible effect.  Their great characteristic is their stoical manliness.  They never beg or whimper or complain, but look you straight in the face with as little animosity as if they had never heard a gun fire.

The same can be seen during a meeting with Lee before he surrendered, when Alexander suggested:


That the troops take to the woods, individually and in small groups . . . Lee heard the young brigadier out, then replied in measured tones to his plan.  “We must consider its effect on the country as a whole,” he told him.  “Already it is demoralized by the four years of war.  If I took your advice, the men would be without rations and under control of no officers.  They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live.  They would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many sections they may never have occasion to visit.  We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.  And as for myself, you young fellows might go bushwacking, but the only dignified course for me would be to go to General Grant and surrender myself and take the consequences of my acts.”  Alexander was silenced, then and down the years.  “I had not a single word to say in reply,” he wrote long afterwards.  “He had answered my suggestion from a plane so far above it that I was ashamed of having made it.”

What sufficed for Alexander sufficed for others, including Forrest.  In that way, the continued union of our country owes a debt of gratitude to Lee and his sense of honor.

Perhaps in tracing Jefferson Davis’s story to the end, Mr Foote explains his view of Reconstruction in a better way than would be possible by breaking the narrative and giving his own opinions.  Jefferson Davis was not well-liked in the South at the end of the War.  Yet because of his cruel treatment at the hands of his captors, the denial of trial by radical members of Lincoln’s cabinet and President Johnson, and the radical’s refusal to let him go when it became clear that he should be, Davis ended up being revered by the people who had hated him so recently.  The world is poorer for not having a history of Reconstruction written by Mr Foote.  These last few pages on Jefferson Davis and Lincoln’s thoughts, speeches and writings on what he would have done if he had not been tragically killed will have to suffice.

5 Responses to Review of "The Civil War: A Narrative (Vol. III)" by Shelby Foote

  1. […] Shelby Foote said about Reconstruction (link may not be great due to transition from Blogger to […]

  2. […] so it proved to be. One can’t help but be reminded of Reconstruction, as Shelby Foote said: This country has two grievous sins on its hands. One of them is slavery – whether we’ll […]

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