Susan's Reviews > The Civil War: A Narrative

The Civil War by Shelby Foote
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's review
Apr 20, 2009

it was amazing
Read in March, 2009

I couldn't find a listing for just Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox which I finished this year. Last year I read the first two volumes.

This is the last volume which covered Grant arriving in Washington to take up duties as commander—and looking like a scruffy nonentity who was offered a room in the attic of Willard’s Hotel until the clerk saw his name—to the death of Jefferson Davis (Foote is a southerner after all). Really great work—it’s taken me a couple of years to read it.

There I think Foote focused on the South more, but not to the extent of being unfair. I was amazed that the death of Lincoln was treated relatively perfunctorily--but it may be that I was disappointed because I had been so wrapped up in the assassination details and the plot details (to kill Seward and Stanton too) in Goodwin's Team of Rivals, which I had just read, that this one seemed decidedly minimilist. And the book ended with Jefferson Davis going back to Mississippi--actually it ended with the death of Davis many years later as if only then was the war really over! I gathered there was considerable admiration for Davis on Foote's part. Me, I'd never considered Davis as a person at all. I had considered Alexander Stephens (partly because that was my husband's name). Something else I read awhile ago (possibly McPherson) detailed his friendship with Lincoln when they were both together in Congress many years before.

I'm not one for military details, but I found Foote's focus on "mistakes" of southern generals like Hood and Johnson (always forget whether it was Johnson or Johnston--I mean Joseph Johnson) interesting. They seemed to do little right while Sherman did everything right and I sense there was even some affection for him on Foote's part. And I was surprised that he didn't make as much as other histories I've read of the possibility of generals not surrendering and continuing a guerilla war for years. I thought he downplayed Nathan Bedford Forrest too, in that regard but also just as a Southern hero.

Still I'm no Civil War expert and no matter how hard I try, it's the people and the human events that engage me more than the battles and the strategy. Foote is very good at that. If Red River to Appomattox ended with the death of Jefferson Davis, it began with Grant's coming to Washington and being taken for a run-of-the-mill nonentity general when he asked for a room at Willard's hotel--until he signed his name. I'd not have persisted through all the battles if his dealing with people and his ability to conjure up memorable vignettes were not so good.
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