Carl Brush's Reviews > The Civil War: A Narrative

The Civil War by Shelby Foote
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May 15, 12

Read in October, 2010

It’s finally over. I turned the last page of Shelby Foote’s (You may remember Foote as the gentlemanly, professorial presence in Ken Burns PBS series.)
monster “narration” of the civil war. Close to 3000 pages detailing every military and political battle in those horrendous four-plus years of slaughter that stand as a monument to human obstinacy and idiocy. Why I needed to do this, when I’ve already read so much about all this over the years, I can’t possibly explain. Probably a 12-step program would help, but like I said it’s over now and not worth the further pain recovery would take.

I did learn a lot, and maybe I’ll be able to remember some of it. Of all the things I could write about, though, from military to political maneuvers, I think I’ll choose names and construction.

One thing about a piece so full of information is this—you get a full account of all the players, big and small. So there are many more characters running through these pages than Grant, Sherman, Lee and Lincoln.

After a while, I began to see repeats. On the southern side, this seemed easily explainable. It was a stratified, aristocratic society in many ways, and the officers tended to come from the upper class,which meant merging and crossing family lines. There were sons and nephews under the command of fathers. So you’d read, for example, of a General Ewell on one page and an Lieutenant Ewell a few pages later. There was a cavalry officer by the name of R.H. Lee. Nephew. Or of a father burying a son after a battle. But then there were other duplicate names that were not family, apparently, as if the population lacked surname imagination. There were two prominent confederate Johnstons. A a couple of Johnsons. Confusing repeats. And to take the whole thing farther, how did General Butler get from Virginia to Texas, and why is he a confederate now? And is there really a Union officer named Jefferson Davis? Answer to that question is “yes.”

And not all the officers were even military guys, at least not originally. The union’s General Butler was a congressman who wanted to be president and thought being a war hero would be a good way to get himself some creds. Same with General Banks. Didn’t work out for either of them.

A trivia question: Which side had the most amputee generals? Answer to this one: the south. Hood and Ewell both had to be strapped into their saddles because Hood was minus a leg, Ewell an arm and a leg. Both lost their limbs early in the war, then came back fighting. Talk about idiocy and obstinacy.

And, finally, there’s Jefferson Davis himself—the president, not the union officer. I knew he was captured in the final days, but I knew nothing of what happened after. Turns out he worked his way out of prison after a few years, then became an insurance executive in North (or was it South?) Carolina. He was then offered refuge on the plantation of a Louisiana lady much smitten with his cause and his charms. He took her up on it, completed his memoirs in her cottage. There may have been much more to it than simple admiration. His wife refused to join him during this time, and despite his professions of devotion to home and hearth, he chose to stay there anyhow. She did come on down when the benefactress died and left him not only the cottage, but the whole plantation and a couple of more besides.

He lived to a ripe old age (eighty something), unrepentant and unbowed. He never signed the loyalty oath necessary to enfranchise himself. But he did talk in his later years about how given the present circumstances, seeing to the good of the union was the best course for everyone.

Going on to construction: An army’s purpose is to kill people and destroy things. So if your opponent depends on a railroad for supplies, it’s a good idea to destroy the railroad. This, both sides accomplished over and over. Thing is, it didn’t seem to take long to fix a railroad, even if the rails were not only torn up but heated and bent around trees. They could get a hundred miles of rail back in shape in a couple of weeks. Same with bridges. If someone’s chasing you, you want to burn your bridges to slow them down. But a bridge can, apparently, be made ready to cross 5000 troops and a bunch of cannon virtually overnight. Might have to tear down someone’s house for the materials, but this is war and your purpose is to destroy things. Furthermore, if the road is muddy and you need some traction and there are some trees in the vicinity, you set troops to chopping. Before long you have a “corduroy” for your men, animals, and guns. Of course if there are no trees, you are SOL, which happened to both sides a lot.

I could go on and on, but I’m not Shelby nor was meant to be, and god as my witness, ain’t gonna study war no more in 2010. If I break the pledge, it’s rehab here I come.
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