John's Reviews > The Civil War: A Narrative

The Civil War by Shelby Foote
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Aug 31, 14

it was amazing
bookshelves: united-states-history
Read from November 28, 2010 to August 30, 2014

May 3, 2011
3 volumes, 1000 pages each; this is going to take a while. But I've just finished Volume 1 - Fort Sumpter to Perryville and -- since at this rate I won't finish the whole thing for another year -- I thought I'd make some initial notes. Basically -- this is glorious. I'm not a Civil War buff, and I'm certainly not interested in getting down into the weeds of whether Foote gets this or that detail exactly right, or is fair or unfair to this or that general. The things that impress here are (1) the sheer scope of the enterprise, and (2) the fact that Foote can take something of the size and complexity of the Civil War and render it intelligible, and in prose that always pleases and sometimes sings. He also does that thing that I think is too rarely seen is histories (and is one of the reasons I so liked Brand's biography of Ben Franklin): he renders historical figures as fully human rather than as a collection of waxworks dummies on display. You really can make a case for these books being our Iliad, or at the very least our History of the Peloponnesian War; it's a shame they're not more widely read, the intimidating length notwithstanding. That's how I feel about it now, anyway. See you in 4-6 months!

October 25, 2013
Well, that was longer than 4-6 months, but I've now got Volume 2 (Fredericksburg to Meridian) under my belt, and continue to be impressed by Foote's erudition and delighted by his storytelling. The stand-out in this volume is, unsurprisingly, Gettysburg; I've never understood either the nature or significance of the battle the way I do now that I've read Foote's account. But in some ways Gettysburg is marginal to the great theme of the volume: the search for a winning Union general, and the Union's salvation in Grant. This is a story masterfully told, and I'm eager to begin Volume 3, which will open with Grant's elevation to overall Union commander.

August 30, 2014
It is accomplished. All told, it took only slightly longer to fight the Civil War than it did for me to read Foote's account of it, but my opinion remains unchanged: this is an absolute masterpiece. There's much that's worth praising in the third volume: the balanced assessments of Grant and Sherman, the dignity of Lee, the blind stubbornness (verging on monomania) of Jefferson Davis in defeat. But the greatest praise must go to the overall impact; I feel like I truly understand the War now in ways I never have, in spite of a lifetime spent reading American history. My only quibble is that the reader hasn't lived with this material the way Foote did, and so it's a bit hard to keep up when Foote tosses off a casual reference to something that happened 2500 pages ago. But that's a minor quibble with this major work, both of history and of storytelling.
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