A friend on Facebook indicated that he had recently acquired three new books, one of them being the first volume of Shelby Foote’s three-volume magnum opus, The Civil War: A Narrative. A mutual friend implied that it wasn’t worth reading. Of course I disagreed:
Foote remains controversial due to what the modern world considers his patriarchal attitudes about the South, slavery, and the Lost Cause. I’ve always thought he spent too much time idolizing Jefferson Davis and too little time analyzing Davis’s descent into madness, although it wasn’t really possible to hide it; Davis’s own actions spoke loudly for a diagnosis of “the King is nuts, but he’s the King, so we can’t contradict him”, even right up to the end when he was captured trying to escape the invading Union troops. I just can’t take away any other opinion of Davis, especially (and paradoxically) after reading Foote.
But I also think the work is important, and needs to be read alongside the other giants of 20th Century Civil War history. I have long subscribed to Paul Fussell’s dictum that “Understanding the past requires pretending that you don’t know the present. It requires feeling its own pressure on your pulses without any ex post facto illumination.”
Plus, his prose in and of itself is simply delightful.
And then I was going to add, but decided to let it go:
My one main annoyance with Foote is right in the middle of volume two, where he implies that Lew Armistead died on Cemetery Ridge with his hand on a Union cannon. It is at any rate the last we hear of Armistead, one of the great tragic figures of the war. That may have been Foote’s idea of artistic license, and perhaps he couldn’t bring himself to write candidly about Armistead’s death, but leaving it there did the man a great disservice; Armistead did get past the wall, did lay his hand on a Union gun (and was calling for his men to turn the guns around when he was shot), was carried from the field alive as a prisoner, and died in a Union field hospital two days later. His great friend and Masonic brother Winfield Scott Hancock had been on the other side of the battle, and was also wounded, completing the tragic circle repeated so many times during that war of brother fighting brother.
A hundred and fifty-five years later, we’re still talking and arguing about the whole thing. Amazing.