In posting the bald phrase “A Narrative” as the subtitle of his history, The Civil War, Shelby Foote, previously known as a novelist, advanced a claim for literary sensibility and art in a field where the palms were going to analysis and schemes of quantification. His challenge to the preferences of academic historians is the greater in that he wrote what is often deprecated as “mere” military history. The academics, C. Vann Woodward observed in a review of Foote’s book, not only honor “the analytical urge” while tending to dismiss “the narrative impulse”; they ignore “the strictly martial, guns-and-battle aspect of war, the most essential aspect.” During Foote’s Gibbonian labor of 20 years, however, a number of theorists of historiography, notably Leo Braudy, W. B. Gallie, and Morton White, argued the intellectual validity of historical narrative. John Keegan, moreover, must see in Foote’s work a vindication of his demands for liquidation of the 19th-century tradition of the sentimental “battle piece” and correction of the institutional military historian’s urge “to generalize and dissect.” Keegan would require him rather “to qualify and particularize and above all to combine analysis with narrative—the most difficult of all the historian’s arts.” Woodward, at any rate, has suggested that the brilliance of Foote’s work ought to moderate the prejudice of academic historians who think narratives of battle yield no “insight” or “clues to mass motivation, keys to puzzles of grand strategy and policy, and answers to large questions of “why.”
Foote, confident of his capacities as “a serious writer,” has commented that most academic historians never become serious about writing but skip “the sweatshop apprenticeship” through which alone they might obtain “command of language” and “a way of looking at the world: Proust called it ‘a quality of vision.’ “This implies the necessity for mature sensibility in the writer of history no less than in the writer of fiction or verse, for the reader must sense behind the work a credible author and find in his pages an artistically constructed point of view. Credibility depends in part on the reader’s confidence in the author’s scholarship; but, that taken for granted, as one may with Foote on the basis of the bibliographical notes appended to each of the three volumes of The Civil War, one accords belief as a result of what Foote calls “narrative quality.” The hallmark of this, in his opinion, is the reader’s feeling that he “is not so much reading a book as sharing an experience.” What Braudy has said of Gibbon may be applied to Foote: taking written history “as preeminently a construction, a literary work with aesthetic rather than systematic order and coherence,” Foote, too, has controlled “the rush of time’s multiplicity” by relying upon “the firmness of his own point of view and an almost Virgilian sense of the existence of a geographic site through time.”
The reader does not doubt Foote’s assertion, “Nothing is included here, either within or without quotation marks, without the authority of documentary evidence which I consider sound”; and the “evidenced” narrative (to borrow a term from Gallic) is never diverted in the service of bias, Foote’s decision to omit footnotes in order to enhance narrative quality is aesthetically right and intellectually acceptable because he earns, by the particularity, amplitude, and balance of his presentation, the reader’s confidence that authenticity was no less a consideration than vividness in the telling. Foote says that nowhere does he argue a thesis, for he “never saw one yet that couldn’t be “proved” . . .to the satisfaction of the writer who advanced it.” He acknowledges, however, that he wished “to restore the balance” of emphasis on campaigns in the East and West which he found lacking in most sources. The effect of his “western-mindedness” is only to project the whole war and make us appreciate, among many examples of the Tightness of his emphasis, the emergence of U. S. Grant in the West as the general-in-chief Lincoln had sought so long who could “face the arithmetic” of the war and arrive at the grim sum of victory in the East.
Foote took as his task what he asserts is the task of any novelist, any historian, the presentation of “how it was.” He hoped to have said of him what Hobbes said of Thucydides, that he was “one who, though he never digress to read a Lecture, moral or political, upon his own Text, nor enter into men’s hearts, further than the Actions themselves evidently guide him . . .filleth his narrations with that choice of matter, and orderth them with that Judgment, and with such perspicuity and efficacy expresseth himself that (as Plutarch saith) he maketh his Auditor a Spectator.” So well has Foote served his noble ambition that he has made his readers not merely spectators but participants in the epic, folk-shaping events of the Civil War.
The vision that shapes the narrative can be described as “Modern”—the informed, disabused vision of the writer who approaches his work as a craft to which, far from pretending to impossible detachment, he brings the accidents of his own breeding as part of his materials. We find in Foote’s book the formalism—attention to structure and design, balance, symmetry, proportion—which distinguishes the great moderns and is a first tenet of modern criticism. The narrator is balanced, generous, seeing many sides from many angles, and from a late position within a long tradition—one almost says Christian-humanist—with a Southern quality, involving piety real but rueful and pervasive irony. Foote’s complex irony bears family resemblance to that of major writers of “the Southern Renaissance” and beyond them to that of other artists and critics usually associated with literary modernism.
The distinguishing marks of the Southern in Foote’s history certainly do not include vulgar chauvinism.The Civil War examplifies, preeminently, the “sense of place” in its economical, functional use of concrete details, the sensory effects that anchor the narrative, the human story, to “the world’s body.” Years ago, in attesting the authenticity of various details in his fictional narrative of Shiloh (1952), Foote said he hoped that in that novel “the weather is accurate too.” In The Civil War, he has again and again rendered the particulars of place, season, and weather so as to discriminate in the reader’s apprehension one engagement from another in the long sequence. We are given the theatrical lifting of the fog at Fredericksburg, the surrealistic atmosphere of the Wilderness, the band music on the eve of Stones River “carrying sweet and clear on the windless winter air.” In the account of the U. S. Navy’s river campaign in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, Foote’s native region, he rises to sustained comedy in rendering the Yankees’ stunned encounter with that intractable climate and all it had bred in the way of impossible geography and intransigent men, black and white.
A Southern relish for the humorous or absurd aspects of the situations narrated, especially the quiddities of persons and places, has dictated the choice of much of the matter and colored much more. Although epic in magnitude, seriousness, and scope and tragic in impact, the book conveys much of the human quality of events through humor. Foote appreciates and features Confederate humor, shares it, and develops it by the special touches of the literary man. Whether there was actually less Yankee humor, we cannot say; where it was to be had, as in Lincoln, Foote shows impartial relish in rendering it. In spite of destruction, carnage, and pain—unforgettably rendered, as in the account of Sharpsburg, where the wounded crept into hayricks for shelter only to be burned when fire swept the field—Foote blends humor into whole sections. That devoted to the Red River campaign in central Louisiana, with its scenes of U. S.ships caught in shallows above the rapids at Alexandria and being taught by a clever engineering officer to lurch back downstream like disoriented salmon, is as richly amusing as the tales of the Yazoo. The section on “the fiasco of The Crater”—in which Union forces under the slightly comic Ambrose E. Burnside, tagged with his Homeric epithet as “the ruff-whiskered general,” mined and blew up a Confederate fort with an unheard of quantity of explosives—is laced with the humor of “mismanagement at or near the top” and Rube Goldberg ingenuity. The humor only enriches and gives hysterical edge to the presentation of an incident which Foote uses as a forward allusion to the better managed explosion at Hiroshima and as a symbol of the lasting effects of the war: the Crater, he says, “in time would green over and lose its jagged look, but would never really heal.”
Humor glints in the development of many personages, for example, the sloppy fanatical Stonewall Jackson and his tatterdemalion men when they were doing their famous worst against Union troops overpaid, overfed, possibly oversexed, and in any case “down here.” He cites the reaction of a Northern reporter wounded near Harpers Ferry and captured who, on learning that the redoubtable Jackson was passing, asked to be raised from his stretcher, took one look, and cried, “O my God! lay me down.” Foote repeatedly thereafter invites in the reader what he calls the “O-my-God-lay-me-down” reaction to extreme types and situations. Humor pervades the handling of the feisty, as for example Earl Van Dorn, or the political, such as Benjamin F. Butler, or the grandiose such as Pierre G. T. Beauregard and John Charles Fremont.
Foote’s vision is Southern, too, in its alertness to the historical and literary traditions he has sought to reflect in his book. Both in bibliographical notes and by allusion, quotation, and parallel in the text he acknowledges admiration for Thucydides, Tacitus, and Gibbon among other historians. The reader is frequently put in mind also of Homer, Tolstoy, and Proust. Foote has referred to his book as “my iliad,” and the epic is undoubtedly the ground note against which he plays the obbligato of modern irony. Even in formal outline, The Civil War alludes to the epic. It celebrates the heroic individual exploit, though it may also point up its anachronistic quality; it mourns the deaths of heroes. It deploys the stylistic features of epithet and simile and relieves battle scenes with those of council and the domestic hearth.
Eschewing the novelist’s license to render psychological time and the play of memory upon his personages’ present experience, Foote has used his own position in after time to provide perspectives on Civil War events which lend them consequence and meaning. He has repeatedly shifted from the past tense to an anterior perspective as well, writing of a vividly rendered “now” in a present-participial, future-conditional mode which invests often-rehearsed events with a developmental, contingent aspect. He has further retrieved the problematical sense of historical events in the making by approaching them from a variety of contemporary points of view, thus reviving the forces which played for or against the determinations we take retrospectively for granted as “the facts.”
Foote has avoided the looseness of mere chronicle by shuttling back and forth between component narratives of campaigns East and West, political effects North and South, actions on land and sea, and background developments in government and diplomacy. He takes one forward to a high point of suspense, a deferred or suspended resolution, in a given campaign, only to turn and develop more or less simultaneous actions to their heights and the mutual influences on eventual conclusions. There may be a lapse of weeks or months as between the several perspectives on the given action, so that the reader, though he knows the outcome, is alive to the anxieties felt by participants and observers. A temporal dialectic results which gives progression. Foote manages the transitions with constant regard for the cumulative effect of the whole, and a “plot” emerges in which momentum mounts from climax to climax and finally to the scene at Appomattox and a gathering of all the scattered parts.
Imbued with the sense of place, the sense of history, the sense of literary tradition, The Civil War is most profoundly Southern in projecting the sense of tragedy. This has, of course, been attested to by the major critics of Southern literature as a defining characteristic imposed by Southern history. C. Vann Woodward has declared, “The experience of evil and the experience of tragedy are parts of the Southern heritage that are as difficult to reconcile with the American legend of innocence and social felicity as the experience of poverty and defeat are to reconcile with the legends of abundance and success.” Without intending paradox, we suggest that insofar as Foote’s vision of the Civil War is Southern by virtue of the ironic and the tragic, it transcends the parochial and may prove to be the version for all Americans.
Its chief competitor in the professionally approved analytical and ostensibly objective kind, Allan Nevins’s War for the Union, advertises in its title the victors’ bias and evasion of the difficulty of reconciling the losers’ experience with the later American legends and complacency. Although Nevins observed in his preface that any writer on the war itself must give “equal emphasis to the Southern and the Northern story,” he explained that, because his work covered a period longer than the war years, its emphasis “falls on what is permanent in the life of the nation. From this standpoint much of the Confederate effort appears too transitory to require detailed treatment.” He was prepared to leave “tactical military operations” and “the Confederate story” to others in order to deal with “political, administrative, economic, and social history”—as this was influenced and, after the war, dominatedy the victor. But it was a civil war, so intimately and protractedly fought that honor—one of Shelby Foote’s concerns—attached as much to the loser as to the victor; and the heirs of either side delude themselves if they imagine that the effect of what was lost—nothing less than “the Second American Revolution”—has been less permanent in the life of the nation than what was gained. Foote skimps neither side in narrating the tactical military operations, for these were the fires in which the modern American nation was forged.
Through the encompassing narrator’s voice, with its intricate shifts, varying of pace, and adjustments of tone, the voice of Shelby Foote tactfully breaks from time to time. We take it as expressive of him at his best, consciously representing the best of contemporary Southern culture and sensibility. It is a humane, variously bitter, humorous, ironic, or poetic voice which the reader is pleased to hear for its own sake as well as for what it conveys or chooses to emphasize, without ever suggesting that another writer might not deploy other and equally acceptable emphases. The most frequent sort of authorial intervention is the brief aside, usually between dashes, serving to tie the action being narrated to others, to comment, to draw a literary or historical parallel, to provide perspective. More extended authorial interventions come in the form, for example, of judgments or acknowledgments that judgment must remain moot on individuals and events. Repeatedly, the author’s voice sounds at the end of a battle narrative, however excitedly it may have been told, to tot up “the butcher’s bill” and compare the appalling totals increasing from battle to battle as the Civil War turned into “the Thing,” that is, industrialized total war. Thus in a chapter headed “The Thing Gets Under Way,” we are given Shiloh as “the first great modern battle” and the shock of it even to the professionals. Beforehand, the author gives us Albert Sidney Johnston, who had husbanded his meager forces and bluffed as long as he could: “He was faced now with the actual bloody thing”; afterward he gives us Grant, soberly realizing that nothing short of absolute conquest was going to settle matters.
Stemming no doubt from Shelby Foote’s predilections as a serious writer, love of language is everywhere evident both as a quality of the authorial voice and as a selective factor determining which facts the narrative voice relates or stresses. It would be possible to write a respectable history of the Civil War without featuring the articulateness, so surprising in contrast to the banal expression of 20th-century Americans, of the participants. Foote savors even the overblown rhetoric of some of the 19th-century figures though he is also quick to deflate it by juxtaposing, for example, General John Pope’s grandiloquent dispatches dated from his “Headquarters in the Saddle” to the private soldiers’ “jibe that he had his headquarters where his hindquarters ought to be.”
It was love of language that dictated the development of a minor figure, the Union General Samuel R. Curtis, in a memorable passage in which he is proved a commander of language as well as of men and valuable on both counts in Foote’s view. Curtis, a homely, unromantic, but uxorious man who loved the natural world and the singing of birds, is presented after the battle of Elkhorn Tavern through and partly for the sake of a letter to his wife. He “moved his headquarters off a ways” under Pea Ridge, Foote tells us, because of the taint of decay rising from the dead on the field of which he was victor. Foote writes: “”Silent and sad” were the words he used to describe the present scene of recent conflict. “The vulture and the wolf have now communion, and the dead, friends and foes, sleep in the same lonely grave.” So he wrote, this highly practical and methodical engineer. Looking up at the tree-fledged ridge with its gray outcroppings of granite, he added that it would serve hereafter as a monument to perpetuate the memory of those who had fallen at its base.”
This passage illustrates the many controlled “poetic” compositions which enrich The Civil War, sometimes using the words of participants, sometimes Foote’s own, and often, as above, skillfully blending them. Such passages are often only a quick touch, as when Foote presents Stonewall Jackson’s men “following the railroad into the sunrise, blood red, at first, then fiery in the broad notch of Thoroughfare Gap.” Place— and again the weather, outer often suggesting inner—is frequently the subject of the poetry, as in the evocation of the summer’s day on which the fierce and fatal engagement was fought at Seminary Ridge near Gettysburg.”Lee rose by starlight,” we are told—phrasing poetic but factual and echoing and prefiguring many symbolic uses of stars throughout in such chapter titles, for example, as “The Stars in Their Courses” (many felt that they fought against Lee in Pennsylvania) and “Lucifer in Starlight.” The reader is kept alive to the beauty of the morning as Foote plays it against the tension between Lee and his subordinates over the wisdom of his orders. The Confederate troops, wanting to cheer Lee but keeping still so as not to alert the enemy, “took off their hats in silent salute”; mounted on Traveller, Lee is presented doubling the line, “the sunlight in his gray hair making a glory about his head.” How bold this is, what command of language against charges, only to be expected, of sentimentality; for it works. There was truth in the poetry as well as in the butcher’s bill soon to be presented by Foote as the most disastrous ever placed to Lee’s account.
For all its amplitude and concreteness, the narrative is firmly organized into three volumes and each of these into three books, the whole comprising in effect an epic prologue and 24 chapters. The first chapter of Volume I is a prologue, and the last section of the final chapter of Volume III serves as an epilogue. The work comes to well over 1,500,000 words.
Foote has erected in symbolic proportions the figures of Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln, stationing them at the beginning and end and reverting to them frequently throughout. “All men were to be weighed in this time,” he tells us early on, “and especially these two.” Beginning with Davis’s farewell speech to the U. S. Senate on Jan.21, 1861, the prologue moves to Lincoln’s furtive entrance into Washington after election to the presidency. Volume I closes with the preparations of Davis, now President of the Confederate States, for his trip to “the troubled western theater” to rally his people as they began to apprehend the seriousness of the war. Foote follows this with an evocation of “the Lincoln music” in an account of the message to Congress in December 1862, in which the Union heard itself eulogized, jug-jug to Confederate ears, as “the last best hope of earth.” We hardly need add that Foote, with his love of language, does all justice to the Lincoln music.
Volume II opens with Davis’s trip west, which gives Foote an occasion to develop his Western-mindedness, not as a contribution to the sometimes tendentious debate as to the relative importance of Virginia and the rest of the South, but as a presentation of the whole Confederacy and its sense of a distinct manifest destiny in the Southwest and Latin America. He had memorably struck this note in the first volume with a bravura narrative of Henry H. Sibley’s horrendous march on Albuquerque and Santa Fe, which Jefferson Davis, chief mover of the Gadsden Purchase, cheered against the odds. The second volume closes on a Confederacy, not only cut off from fantasies of expansion to the Pacific, but severed at the Mississippi River, and on William T. Sherman’s articulation of the doctrine of total war, which he had already tested in the devastation of central Mississippi after the fall of Vicksburg— “to the petulant and persistent secessionists, why, death is mercy . . . .” The whole immense work is brought to a climax in the Cincinnati conference between Sherman and Grant, the latter finally recognized by Lincoln as the general who faced the arithmetic, as they concert the Western and Eastern strategies to bring the war to an end by waging it totally. Foote sets the two figures earnestly talking in a Cincinnati hotel room against the chiaroscuro of the Confederates’ liquidating their pretensions to wage a Second American Revolution. They have had to enact conscription some time back, feeling that they thus sacrificed the classic rights to the necessities of “the Thing.” Now they must extend it to all white males from 17 to 50, and Jefferson Davis mourns the necessity “to grind the seed corn of the nation.”
The final volume, after moving inexorably with sustained narrative skill to the laying down of arms on all fronts, comes to a quiet and thoughtful epilogue, a look into the future. The ghost of the murdered Lincoln is summoned, and Foote employs Lincoln’s words to suggest his own motivation in writing Civil War history: “What has occurred in this case must ever recur in similar cases. Human nature does 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.” Foote, we suspect, would approve the amendment of this by the addition of a phrase—”. . .or as complacencies to be defended.” He goes on to quote Davis, the worn and hounded survivor, though acknowledging that he “could never match that [Lincoln] music, or perhaps even catch its tone,” as he asserts at the end his love of America. The reader supplies, “All passion spent.”
Within the grand epic design, Foote has been unflaggingly ingenious in weaving, stitching, and binding the parts by recurrent themes and characters, meant to function, he has said, like the armature within a sculpture. The most pervasive theme, already alluded to, is the one Foote has said comes as near as he gets to a thesis, the redressing of the balance between the East and West theaters. He develops Western actions as fully as Eastern ones and makes mutual influences clear. Thus he narrates the events at “Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek, near opposite ends of the thousand-mile-long fighting line” and takes his opportunities to show the reader how a twitch at either end was felt the length of the line. He gives added coherence to the book by maintaining in the reader’s eye, with the aid of numerous maps and images, the whole of the Confederacy as this becomes one enormous battleground and then is contracted under the pressure of Winfield Scott’s Anaconda strategy, in time split down the Mississippi, and dismembered as the Sherman-Grant strategy and tactics take over.
A related theme is the changing character of the war, begun, especially by the Confederates, under romantic illusions about individual honor only to develop into the prototype of modern mass technological warfare. At First Manassas and repeatedly thereafter, there were exploits by mounted heroes with plumes in their bonnets. Foote does justice to these, often ironically but also with affection, admiration, and tears as he follows, for example, the superbly mounted and plumed Jeb Stuart to his Homeric death scene. He brings us on grimly to Cold Harbor and there gives us a glimpse of Colonel Lawrence Keitt of South Carolina thinking to take his chance for glory by leading a green but dashingly uniformed brigade into the fray.”Long on rank but short on combat experience,” Foote comments, “he went into his first attack in the gallant style of 1861, leading the way on a spirited gray charger; only to be killed by the first rattling clatter of semiautomatic fire
Foote makes themes illuminate one another often, again, with ironic effect. It is obvious that in narrating the changes in the character of the war he would have repeated occasion to illuminate another major theme, that of the searches by the presidents for generals competent to understand modern war and prosecute it effectually. It is less obvious that, in giving thematic prominence to the contrast between Northern plenty and Southern poverty, he should have clarified certain tactical issues faced by the presidents and their generals. There is powerful human interest in repeated scenes of hungry, tattered Confederates falling ravenously upon abandoned Yankee supply dumps or stripping Yankee dead, not in Homeric lust for trophies but to obtain food to eat, shoes for bleeding feet, and guns to fire. Cumulatively, such scenes help the reader to understand in concrete fashion that in certain circumstances what Foote terms their “philosophy of abundance” was a tactical drawback for the Yankees while the Confederates necessarily traveling light arrived at stunning victories under officers such as Jackson and Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Lincoln’s long frustration in getting one general after another to move south of the Potomac was caused in part by the generals’ preoccupation with the development and defense of immense commissaries which they believed had to follow the armies. Foote prepares the reader to recognize an important development when U. S. Grant finds in December 1862, after Earl Van Dorn has destroyed his quartermaster stores at Holly Springs, that he could subsist his troops on the countryside deep in enemy territory. Foote quotes Grant’s remark, “This taught me a lesson”—and the reader grasps, before Lincoln can, that in his ability to learn this lesson Grant was proving himself to be the long-sought general-in-chief.
Foote’s human sympathies are so inclusive and skill in characterization so great that he brings historical personages hauntingly alive. Their presence is felt even when off-stage, with the result that they function as ligaments binding and articulating the narrative. As figures appear and reappear, Foote develops them in terms of their responses to successive crises and engagements. He never presumes to judge absolutely but is only fascinated to observe men of whom he declares, “It was their good fortune, or else their misery, to belong to a generation in which every individual would be given a chance to discover and expose his worth, down to the final ounce of strength and nerve.” His discretion is constant; if he admires a Forrest or a McClellan or dislikes a Joseph E. Johnston or a Phil Sheridan, the reader must infer the fact from characterizations fairly developed until the weight of evidence tells.
In characterizing historical figures, Foote generally uses their own words, supplementing them with those of contemporaries and his own, varying tone and language to suit his man. He may provide a brief background or a glimpse of a postwar career to suggest, at least, the rounding for which he cannot halt his narrative. He uses parallel and contrast, for example in developing the “immovables,” McClellan on the Union side and Joseph E. Johnston on the Confederate, or in pitting the rash, mercurial Van Dorn against the stolid Curtis at Elkhorn Tavern. He enlivens history by exhibiting the interplay of personalities, as in narrating the rise of Grant against the prejudice of Henry Halleck or the frustration of Beauregard’s Napoleonic strategies by the realism of Jefferson Davis colored by the incompatibility of WASP and Creole. The play of personality is nowhere more effectively used than in the narration of the battle of Nashville. Foote shows us Halleck and Grant prodding the commander in the field, “Slow Trot” Thomas, and follows Thomas, who like Kutuzov sometimes fell asleep in councils, on his deliberate way to his apotheosis in victory over John Bell Hood. Foote multiplies varieties of “single combat,” sometimes between champions on the same side, as in the encounter between Huger and Longstreet at Seven Pines, or between prewar friends or enemies now on opposing sides, as when Hood faces his old West Point roommate John M. Schofield in the final battles for Middle Tennessee.
Foote touches to life not only figures with pervasive roles but many whom he brings forward on account of some one signal action or speech. Often he accords the cameo treatment to men responsible for technological advances, thus crosslighting the theme of modernizing warfare. An example is the treatment of Charles Ellet, Jr., who developed with U. S. Navy backing and proved the effectiveness of rams as naval weapons on the Mississippi, his numerous sons commanding them. Another, more exquisite instance is Foote’s introducing handsome Major Roberdeau Wheat of Louisiana into the account of First Manassas where, wounded and told by a doctor his wound was mortal, the young man said, “I don’t feel like dying yet.” The doctor insisted, “There is no instance on record of recovery from such a wound.” “Well then,” replied Wheat, “I will put my case on record.” He did so, and Foote notices him again the next spring at New Market and then records his death two months later at Turkey Hill. Again a participant’s language has commanded space in the narrative, and the narrative profited. The reader remembers with a pang Roberdeau Wheat putting his case at last on record and that pang helps discriminate and memorialize these battles as human experience.
The handling of John Bell Hood is an admirable instance of Foote’s use of a major figure, not to bootleg suggestions of historical causation, but to unify and humanize his long narrative without retarding the pace with biographical digression. Brought on casually at the age of 30 in 1862, Hood is impressed upon the reader as an exciting aggressive type, six feet two, blond-bearded—”a Wagnerian hero” in the eyes of Mrs. Chesnut. In an incremental presentation, Foote shows Hood through his men’s enthusiastic responses, his interaction with military superiors and peers, and the reactions of society women in Columbia and Richmond; shows him also in the height of the action at repeated engagements, receiving wounds—the maiming of an arm, the loss of a leg—but returning fierily to the field. By the time Hood is given command of the Army of Tennessee following the loss of Atlanta and dismissal of Joseph E. Johnston, Foote has provided so many views of him that the reader understands, without being instructed, why Hood was the choice for the high command and equally why it was a desperate choice.
Hood was ambivalent himself, and Foote affectingly renders his agony of self-knowledge so that we are the more impressed—and alarmed—by Hood’s ability to reassert his aggressiveness, reinvigorate his demoralized army, and attempt to return to the enemy’s frontiers in the Lee-Jackson style of 1862.When he has led the army to fearful destruction successively at Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville, Foote is unsparing in assessing responsibility yet still presents Hood in all the ambiguity of his human character and in the light of all the long narrative of the war. He failed, but the threat he mounted was real, as Foote makes us realize through the alarmed communications between Washington and Slow Trot Thomas, who might have been the Rock of Chickamauga but was by no means certain yet of his third sobriquet, the Sledge of Nashville.
Shelby Foote exhibits in this book undeviating interest in human character and enjoyment of human experience. He knows that there is always a mixture of qualities in men, that heroism is not exclusive. There are heroes here, however, North and South, no matter how ironic Foote’s view may be and no matter how unfashionable the idea of the hero may be in our day of psychoanalytical reductionism and impertinent revisionism. There is magnanimity for the men who break or fail, such as Hood or the Union General William S. Rosecrans, who abandoned the field at Chickamauga; for the tests they had to meet are rendered in all their formidableness. So the reader is prepared to credit the virtual apotheosis of Robert E. Lee when, after Chancellorsville, Foote presents “the jubilant Confederates, recognizing the gray-bearded author of their victory” and tending him “the wildest demonstration of their lives.” The reader is prepared to credit yet more when Foote, discreetly avoiding authorial assertion, quotes one of Lee’s staff: “I thought that it must have been from such a scene that men in ancient times rose to the dignity of gods.” We think it probable that the passion which powers The Civil War, informs the narration with novelistic life, and makes it history rather than analysis or essay is Foote’s fascination with men as they are proved in such scenes. He is something more and other than the expert sportscaster, excitedly guiding the reader and enhancing his appreciation of a complex sequence of actions, to whom Gallic compares the historian in one of his functions. He is an aficionado, not necessarily of war, but of the testing of men under extreme pressure; for he has faith that some, at least, will rise to the occasion and set a standard while others, if they fail, earn understanding or pity. Although on reflection he may be appalled, Foote pays steady attention to the organized carnage, feels in it ritualistic value, and conveys the supra-sexual male transport of battle as ritual played out to actual death. This is the fuel of the narrative vigor of his hour-by-hour rendering, for example, of the terrible suicidal scenes at Gettysburg or Cold Harbor. And it is vigor generated in such scenes which, throttled by considerations of art, guarantees the steady pace of the dominant narrative voice, through which the author’s personal tones, humane, ironic, sometimes freely excited, break with effect also artistic.