Telling How It Was

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Shortly after noon on the third day at Gettysburg, Confederate troops were still massed in the woods below Cemetery Ridge. While they waited for the artillery to open up and George Pickett to give the order to charge, Shelby Foote writes in the second volume of his monumental trilogy The Civil War: A Narrative , a Tennessee sergeant “walked forward to the edge of the woods, looked across the wide open valley at the bluecoats standing toylike in the distance on their ridge, and was so startled by the realization of what was about to be required of him that he spoke aloud, asking himself the question: ‘June Kimble, are you going to do your duty?’ The answer, too, was audible. ‘I’ll do it, so help me God.’”

That sort of small, shrewdly observed detail, so easily overlooked in the rush of titanic events, so evocative of the sort of men who met on that battlefield that day, is what helps set Shelby Foote’s books apart from most writing about the Civil War, what helps make his trilogy, I believe, a modern classic.

Multivolume works of history, written over long periods of time and published in series, rarely receive the attention they deserve. The editors of book reviews, faced with tight deadlines and crowded menus of brand-new books to assess, all too often put off major treatment until the last volume appears. And if something else seems more timely when that day does finally come, the whole project gets slighted.

It is a special pleasure, then, that The Civil War , which took Foote twenty years to write, is at last available in paperback from Random House. Its three fat volumes comprise nearly three thousand crowded pages, yet when I had finished them, I was sorry there weren’t more.

Foote’s kind of history is out of academic fashion these days. It tells a compelling story, for one thing, which alone is enough to make a good many pedants suspicious. It is a work of what scholars dismiss as “consensus,” because it is based upon published works by hundreds of earlier writers rather than research among original documents. And most damning of all, the author is not a tenured professor but a novelist .

For all these sins, Foote is unrepentant. He is almost courtly about acknowledging his debt to those who have been over this ground before him, especially Allan Nevins and Bruce Catton. In fact, he writes better than or as well as either of them, and it is precisely his skills as a novelist that make the reader feel that he or she has somehow shared the experience of the war rather than merely read about it.

His early novel Shiloh (now back in print) is an unforgettable evocation of what it must have been like to find oneself in the thick of the fighting for the first time. He knows, as fine novelists always know, that life, as he has said elsewhere, “has a plot,” that large truths are best conveyed through small details, that ordinary people speaking everyday English often manage to convey more than the most exalted statesmen.

In writing his trilogy he “accepted the historian’s standards without his paraphernalia,” he explains, “…employed the novelist’s methods without his license”; facts were facts to him, and whenever “the choice lay between soundness and ‘color,’ soundness had it every time.” The result is a narrative that convinces as it compels, filled with vivid scenes:

-In the midst of a gunboat duel near Vicksburg, a Confederate sailor, ordered to heave overboard the headless body of a comrade because it threatens morale, gently refuses: “Oh, I can’t do it, sir! It’s my brother.”

-On the eve of the Wilderness, a Union veteran kicks at a half-buried skull on the old Chancellorsville battlefield. “This is what you are all coming to,” he tells the green troops, “and some of you will start toward it tomorrow.”

-Asked to give the Rebel yell at a United Daughters of the Confederacy luncheon, an elderly Rebel demurs, explaining that it is “worse than folly to try to imitate it with a stomach full of food and a mouth full of false teeth.”

Foote set out to prove no thesis, though along the way he does manage to redress an old imbalance, demonstrating that it is wrong to believe that “the War was fought in Virginia, while elsewhere—in an admittedly large but also rather empty region known vaguely as ‘the West’—a sort of running skirmish wobbled back and forth, presumably as a way for its participants, faceless men with unfamiliar names, to pass the time while waiting for the issue to be settled in the East. I do not claim that the opposite is true, but I do claim that it is perhaps a little closer to the truth.…”

Foote writes as a proud Mississippian, out of unabashed admiration for the courage and independent spirit of his ancestors, and if the book has a hero, it is the ordinary Confederate soldier with no personal stake in slavery who was nonetheless willing to dare everything, despite great odds, to defend his home. But he is also fair to the Northerners who came south to fight on the soil his ancestors considered theirs alone.