Thoughts after the First Volume of Foote’s Civil War
September 2, 2010
1) Did you know there was a small and brief theater of battle in New Mexico? Neither did I. It’s eerie, and reads almost like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s imagination—the Confederate retreat, through miles of dry desert, might well have been pulled from Blood Meridian.
2) Yes, Jackson was brilliant in the Valley Campaign, but between then and Antietam he comes across as so incompetent that one really wonders why Lee stuck by him so strongly. If all of Foote’s anecdotes are to be believed, Stonewall had a remarkable penchant—and ability—to nap in the middle of battle.
3) The telling of Antietam is something marvelous, as terrible as the day was. For one thing, I hadn’t realized quite how elegant Lee’s intercepted plans were—but once Foote gets into the battle itself, it’s something else. It left me, despite knowing how it would end, breathless and exhilarated. If you read nothing else of Foote’s, read this section. (I may amend this by the time I’m done with the whole Narrative—but that probably won’t be for a few more months.)
4) The naval campaigns are just as interesting as the land ones. This surprised me—but it’s on the rivers and sea that there’s a real arms race, and the inventiveness of engineers and captains on both sides is fascinating.
5) I can only hope that by the time Volume Two was published, either Foote or his editor had gotten sick of the phrase “baptism of fire.” Yes, we get it, there’s religious symbolism there. But it’s also a cliché—or was by the time Foote was done with it. The only reason I haven’t taken to striking it out every time I see it is because this book has somehow become my Shabbat afternoon reading.
6) Before reading, just go ahead and look up “defilade” and “enfilade” in your dictionary.
7) If Leonidas Polk weren’t so damned incompetent, the entire Western Theater might have gone significantly better for the South. Then again, that alone wouldn’t have made up for the fact that Grant and Sherman were in the West.
8) This isn’t Shelby Foote, but it is the Civil War: these two posts on Robert E. Lee and slavery, by Ta-Nehisi Coates and his guest blogger Andy Hall, respectively, are well worth reading if you’re into this kind of thing.