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Telling How It Was

June 2024
6min read

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.

He is always on the side of the ordinary soldier, never loses sight of the fact that it was he who had actually to carry out the grandiose battle plans drawn up by generals and politicians, North and South. But the Big Picture is never neglected; Foote explains clearly just what those huge blue and gray armies were trying to do and includes persuasive portraits of all the important leaders, some of them surprising. He clearly admires both of the South’s most unrelenting conquerors, Grant and Sherman, for example, while managing to make at least this unreconstructed Northerner more sympathetic to the problems faced by Jefferson Davis and more admiring of the dash and generalship even of Nathan Bedford Forrest than I would have ever thought possible.

At the same time, he is unblinking about the dark side of the Confederacy and blessedly unromantic about the Lost Cause. His second volume was first published in 1963, in the midst of the struggle for civil rights that neither the Civil War nor Reconstruction had managed to secure. In his acknowledgments to that volume he includes a tribute to “the governors of my native state and the adjoining states of Arkansas and Alabama for helping to lessen my sectional bias by reproducing, in their actions during several of the years that went into the writing of this volume, much that was least admirable in the position my forebears occupied when they stood up to Lincoln. I suppose, or in any case fervently hope, it is true that history never repeats itself, but I know from watching these three gentlemen that it can be terrifying in its approximations, even when the reproduction—deriving, as it does, its scale from the performers—is in miniature.”

At $15.95 a book (and $50.00 for a boxed set of all three volumes), The Civil War: A Narrative is a spectacular bargain; I can’t imagine a more rewarding Christmas gift for anyone interested in a masterful retelling of the best story Americans know.

Slavery was at the center of the Civil War, of course, yet that war’s great unwritten story remains that of the slaves themselves. They left few records, may have spoken frankly about slavery only to one another, and, once freed, understandably did their best to put its horrors behind them.

In Beloved (published by Knopf), an extraordinary new work of creative imagination, the novelist Toni Morrison— The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon —attempts to re-create the world of the slave and the ex-slave from the inside.

I hesitate to call Beloved a “historical novel” because of the unfortunate connotations that phrase inevitably conjures up. No bodices are ripped here; no research is paraded to fill pages; there isn’t a moment of easy pageantry. Beloved isn’t about slavery in any pedantic or political sense; it contains no stereotypes, racial or otherwise.

I can’t imagine a better gift for anyone interested in a masterful retelling of the best story Americans know.

Rather, it is about the interior life of human beings—a grandmother, a mother, offspring, old friends, and total strangers—all of whom happen to have been shaped by having once been slaves and who are living in Ohio eight years after the war’s end, when the book begins.

There is a kernel of hard historical fact at its core. While compiling The Black Book , a sort of scrapbook of snippets of black history back in 1973, Morrison came across a white Cincinnati clergyman’s 1856 account of his visit to Margaret Garner, an imprisoned runaway who, before the slavers that hunted her down could stop her, slit the throat of one of her four children and tried to kill the rest rather than have any of them returned to bondage. She seemed eerily calm sitting there in her cell, the sympathetic but baffled preacher reported. “I was as cool as I am now,” she told him, “and would much rather kill them at once, and thus end their sufferings than have them be taken back to slavery and be murdered by piece-meal.”

But the novel’s protagonist shares only the awful fact of her infant’s murder with the authentic Margaret Garner; her personality and the wholly persuasive world the author has built around it are entirely Morrison’s own creation. I will not spoil the pleasure of the plot by giving away what happens, even in broad outline, but I think it fair to say that few books, fiction or nonfiction, have ever succeeded so well in conveying what it was to have been someone else’s property, to know, as one former slave says toward the end, “that anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind.”

Beloved also raises a more general question that must trouble anyone interested in history and its impact: How would any of us measure up, it asks, if, like its haunted central character, we were given a second chance, an opportunity to right wrongs we’d done.

In a note at the end of the first volume of his massive narrative, Shelby Foote asserts that “the novelist and the historian are seeking the same thing: the truth—not a different truth: the same truth—only they reach it, or try to reach it, by different routes. Whether the event took place in a world now gone to dust, preserved by documents and evaluated by scholarship, or in the imagination, preserved by memory and distilled by the creative process, they both want to tell us how it was : to re-create it, by their separate methods, and make it live again in the world around them.”

In The Civil War and Beloved , Shelby Foote and Toni Morrison have each succeeded brilliantly in doing that most difficult thing.

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