Recently—very recently, about an hour ago—I completed a year-long siege comparable to that of General Grant’s 1863 campaign against Vicksburg: finishing Shelby Foote’s landmark trilogy, The Civil War: A Narrative, before the author’s 100th birthday on November 17, 2017. Wedging even slender books into a reviewer’s free time is difficult, and this was 3,000 tiny-print, small-margin, often indent-free pages.
Why I would do this to myself is a fair question. The undertaking had a peculiar origin. It began with my friend Mike, who, for many years, has been an avid wargamer. Think Risk, only much, much more elaborate. I know less than a sliver of what Mike knows about history (or board games), but since writing my two-volume novel, The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, I’ve experienced a late-blooming passion for American history. It was a section of my book dealing with the WWI battle of Belleau Wood that got me searching for an obscure game on the battle so that I could better understand it, and that led to meeting Mike.
Since then, I’ve pushed my share of cardboard across tables, as gamers say. I’ve willingly let Mike destroy me in such battles ranging from pre-Alexandrian era to Napoleonic to the Age of Sail to WWII. These are not “games” so much as historical exercises; winning or losing takes a backseat to appreciating the overall experience; they take weeks, if not months, to complete; the rulebooks are commonly upward of 50 pages; there can be thousands of tiny pieces; and the maps can fill an entire room (if you have a cat, you’re in trouble). Exhibit A: photos of both Market Garden and D-Day at Normandy battles:
Last year, Mike acquired the imaginatively titled The U.S. Civil War (part of the charm of wargames is their straightfaced earnestness) and I committed myself to prosecuting the war as the Confederates against Mike’s well-funded Federals. It’s hugely helpful to have some background in the scenario you’re about to simulate, but as my own novels were set post–Civil War, I asked Mike which book was the best choice for getting myself oriented.
There were countless options, Mike said, though none surpassed Shelby Foote’s towering, 20-years-in-the-making trilogy, published in 1958, 1963, and 1974, which former Washington Post publisher Don Graham called “the greatest telling of our greatest story, perhaps the single best work of American history.” But surely I didn’t want to read all that. That would be overkill. That would take forever.
I blame the same urge that made me want to write a 1,500-page epic (and probably the same urge that compels me to get routinely annihilated by Mike in games roughly the complexity of the U.S. tax code). The very next day, I dared read Foote’s first page and haven’t quit since:
“It was a Monday in Washington, January 21; Jefferson Davis rose from his seat in the Senate. South Carolina had left the Union a month before, followed by Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama, which seceded at the rate of one a day during the second week of the new year. Georgia went out eight days later; Louisiana and Texas were poised to go; few doubted that they would, along with others.”
As Foote liked to tell people, he was a novelist, not a historian; the subtitle to his trilogy was, pointedly, “A Narrative.” But to read the above passage is to know that this bears little resemblance to a novel. It is straight-arrow military history that focuses on your Grants, Lees, Shermans, et al, with only a smattering of politics and barely a dash of common-man relatability; if you want to read about what it was like to be a hardtack-eating grunt, or a woman, or a slave, this is not your book. (Adroit criticisms of Foote’s handling, or lack thereof, of slavery abound; I suggest Jon Meacham’s essay collection American Homer if you can find it, for Michael Eric Dyson’s convincing critique.)
Still, Foote’s undeterred focus on the war’s leaders is much of what differentiates the trilogy from today’s narrative nonfiction. Foote doesn’t try to “get inside the heads” of his subjects.” He doesn’t try to “make them human.” He simply tells you what they did, point by point by point, leaving you to judge what these acts have to say about humanity.
Make no mistake: if you aren’t an ardent student of the Civil War, even Foote’s frequent, hand-drawn battle maps won’t keep you oriented as each battle’s belligerents enact complicated and abstract movements across the field. It took me a good 1,000 pages before I happened upon M. David Detweiler’s The Civil War: The Story of the War with Maps. This resource ought to come packaged with Foote’s trilogy; it’s utterly indispensable. Confused about the terrain in Virginia’s Wilderness? Wondering where the hell Jeb Stuart’s cavalry trotted off to? A quick glance at a page, and you’ll be set right.
Overstuffed cast, supplementary texts—I know these sound like reasons to give the trilogy a wide berth. But it was easily one of the top reading experiences of my life. Plenty of teenagers are still being shown Ken Burns’ The Civil War in school, and the delightfully grim, white-bearded Foote remains the show’s breakout star (as opposed to its capital offender, Garrison Keillor, whose indulgent, actorly croakings of era poetry drowns viewers in mawkish sap). Nevertheless, Foote is fading from the American consciousness, and this is a shame, because, as a literary experience, his trilogy is overwhelming.
Part of the reason for this exists outside the plotlines of the book; that is, the very existence of such a massive work feels like an impossibility. What if Foote had listened to Random House editors who, encouraged by his novel Shiloh, asked Foote to write a “short history” of the Civil War? Yes, there are a million other books on the topic, and one tends to think we’d be well taken care of in a Foote-less alternate reality, but it’s not unreasonable to think that many of these later (and, most likely, increasingly accurate) books were directly inspired by Foote’s work, even if in rebuttal. If Foote could do such heavy lifting on the war at a macro level, no doubt other writers began to believe that they could replicate some of that effort by zooming in individual characters and single campaigns.
The main reason to read it, of course, is the ineffable rapture one feels during those few times in life—less than a dozen, in my own experience—when one encounters perfect prose. Foote’s writing is both the most solid of rocks (no stylistic tap-dancing, no cliff-hanger chapters, major characters die unceremoniously in the middle of paragraphs) and downright peculiar (his use of punctuation, particularly colons, semicolons, and dashes, is idiosyncratic at best, plain weird at worse). It is simultaneously bloodless (like a soldier who’s seen too much, Foote won’t get emotional about anything), blood-boiled (the very patience of the trilogy belies a furious passion), and just outright bloody (by maintaining even keel, his gory accounts of war are all the more shocking). See how all three come together in his description of the carnage at Spotslyvania:
“Veterans who had survived the worst this war afforded, up to now, went through the motions of combat after the manner of blank-faced automatons, as if what they were involved in had driven them beyond madness into imbecility; they fought by the numbers, unrecognizant of comrades in the ultimate loneliness of a horror as profoundly isolating in its effect as bone pain, nausea or prolonged orgasm, their vacant eyes unlighted by anger or even dulled by fear.”
While I was still in the throes of the war’s middle period, Mike went on a trip to check off a few Civil War sites he’d never visited. He was driving past Memphis when he fuzzily recalled that Foote was buried there. I received a text-message photo of modest husband-and-wife gravestones along with Mike’s message, “Paying our respects in Memphis.” Foote’s voice was so heavily with me then—both in the book I was reading, and my re-watch of Burns’ miniseries—that the photo caught me by surprise. Until that moment, Foote hadn’t been dead to me at all; he’d been vibrantly alive, sitting in the next room, cigar and whiskey at hand, ready to drawl and chuckle through further unbelievable tales of courage and disrepute.
Today, the trilogy freshly finished on his 100th birthday, I’m reminded of a letter by Foote’s close friend, the writer Walker Percy, who, upon finishing the proofs of the third volume, wrote to Foote, “Yes, it’s as good as you think. I’ve no doubt it will survive; might even be read in the ruins.”