Richard's Reviews > The Civil War, Vol. 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville

The Civil War, Vol. 1 by Shelby Foote
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's review
Feb 08, 2009

it was amazing

Shelby Foote would be considered by many Civil War readers to be the greatest writer on the subject. He considered himself to be a historian but not an academic, and his extremely detailed knowledge of the Civil War coupled with his straight-forward writing style have produced works which have fascinated readers for decades.

This book is part of a trilogy of books that Foote wrote over a period of about 20 years. He came about the project originally after publication of his novel "Shiloh" in the fifties. It was a work of historical fiction which caught the attention of Bennett Cerf of Random House, who was looking for an author who could write a concise history of the Civil War in anticipation of its centennial. The agreed-on project did not happen as planned, after Foote began writing and determined that the amount of subject material would be better suited to a multi-volume set. Accordingly, the first two volumes were completed before the centennial celebration was over, in 1958 and 1963, while the third volume took ten additional years to complete.

These volumes were no doubt favorably reviewed at time of issue but they did not make Shelby Foote rich until he became famous as a raconteur of Civil War stories on the landmark Ken Burns series "The Civil War" in 1990. Foote was one of several knowledgeable talkers enlisted to add color to Burns' story; however, his agreeable Mississippi drawl and ability to fascinate with his erudition of facts led to much more on-air time than originally planned for Foote. He became America's most popular Civil War authority and his books started selling in the millions.

"Fort Sumter to Perryville" covers the first year-and-a-half of the Civil War, ending in November 1862. Foote starts with a Prologue, to explain the immediate events leading up to the firing of first shots at Fort Sumpter. A native Southener, Foote does not take sides in his historical recounting. He does not describe the war as a gallant effort to preserve quaint Southern social institutions. Despite decades of attempts at political compromise in Washington, the political rift between the states depending on a slave-holding economy and those that did not, was deepening. I enjoyed the way that Foote described the similar situations facing the newly-elected United States President, Abraham Lincoln, and his eventual counterpart in the united Confederate States of America Jefferson Davis. In some respects, they were forced to react to the same problems from opposite positions. Lincoln, in his Inaugural Address in Washington D.C., specifically stated that he had no intention to use his presidency to interfere with the institution of slavery, in places where it then existed. Davis, speaking in his Inauguration in Montgomery, Alabama (the original capitol of the Confederacy) two weeks earlier, made no mention of slavery. They were both parsing their words so that residents of the Border States (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri)(later West Virginia) would not feel threatened, and join the other cause.

The bulk of the book is, of course, devoted to the military actions that took place in 1861-1862. After the Southern fire-breathers and the Northern militant abolitionists finally had their way, the war started. Foote, naturally, describes the various battles from Sumter to Bull Run, Shiloh, Seven Days, Second Bull Run, Antietam and numerous others with characteristic detail and clarity, but he delivers much more. He uses his considerable novelist's skills and powers of character understanding to give the reader detailed verbal pictures of all of the many military participants on each side of the conflict. The chess-set battle scenarios of some histories are rejected in favor of the knowledge that the outcome of battles is dependent on the efforts of leaders who must apply their talents, good or bad, to the situations they face. That explains, in part, why the ground war in the main theater of operation covered in this first volume (mostly in Virginia and Maryland) resulted in the Southern forces gaining and retaining the initiative. Foote's character insights are used to good effect to show how the audacity and nerve of Robert E. Lee trumped the plans of the Federal war effort, led by the over-cautious George McClellan.

The most interesting character in this volume, if not one of the most interesting in all United States military history, was Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson. My favorite part of the book describes the story of how Jackson, already approaching legendary status for previous service in the Confederate Army, answered the call of a desperate Lee who was trying to save Richmond from falling in 1862. Jackson's "Valley Campaign," where he out-marched and out-generaled superior-numbered Federal forces under Generals Banks and McDowell and kept them from reinforcing the Federal forces threatening to roll over Lee's army, was truly the stuff of legend.

This book is somewhat long, but it covers a lot of ground from the Eastern theater of operations, to the Tennessee, the Coastal, and the Trans-Mississippi conflicts. Foote's organization of facts and narrative style make this an enjoyable read. If you have any interest in American Civil War history, you owe it to yourself to read this book.

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