Civil War: A Narrative - 3 Volume Set

Civil War: A Narrative - 3 Volume Set

by Shelby Foote
Publisher: Vintage Classics
1st Vintage Books Ed, ©1986, ISBN: 9780394749136
Trade Paperback
Price: $88.00

The way the word "epic" has been abused by today's youth (and increasingly, their elders) is criminal. Originally, the word denoted something that was heroic, majestic, or great; today, it refers to things that were formerly just "cool," "rad," or "neat." It has lost its nobility, and with its nobility its meaning.

So when we say that Shelby Foote's 3-volume The Civil War: A Narrative is epic, we mean that modifier in its original sense. And not only because of the work's immensity or inherent literary value—Foote has chosen as his subject the central event of United States history, and arguably the one which has most inspired subsequent generations of historians and novelists.

An acknowledged expert on the War Between the States, Foote was also a brilliant novelist (and a close friend of Walker Percy, with whom he carried on a long and fascinating correspondence). These twin roles suited him perfectly for writing The Civil War in the way he intended, as history and as story.

There have been other attempts at telling the story of the Civil War in this way (like Bruce Catton's Army of the Potomac trilogy), but no others approach the scope of this one. Foote's masterpiece is equal parts military history, multiple-biography, cultural history, and profile of the common people caught up in the most deadly American conflict.

Foote begins with Fort Sumter and ends with Appomattox, though that's not entirely right because it gives the impression that he writes only about armed conflict. Far from it: he looks closely at the details surrounding secession, the slavery issue, expansionism and the West, life on the home front, states's rights, and everything else that mattered in the conflict.

Lest you think this makes for a dry read, however, be assured Intrepid Reader. There's no list of facts here, no names-and-dates approach that will leave you gasping for breath like a beached fish. At many points this reads more like a vast novel, bringing to life not only the big players but the people you've never heard of, the people who experienced the war at point blank range.

Though there's much more than these, the battle scenes are of particular interest. We get a sense of the characters of the two armies, the men who led them, and the ideas that drove them forward. The narrative is full of anecdotes, like one of Nathan Bedford Forrest who fought his way out of a Union ambush despite being shot in the ribs.

Men like Forrest are seen more clearly than in other histories. Foote posits there were two true geniuses to emerge from the conflict; one was Forrest, and the other was Abraham Lincoln. Opinions like these are often seemingly contradictory, but add a fascinating element to the books, and much fodder for reflection.

It's not too much to say that The Civil War: A Narrative is one of the great American literary achievements. In fact, it's probably not saying enough. Immensely readable, always fascinating, frequently provocative, and painstakingly thorough, this should be on everyone's reading list, even if it takes you the length of the actual Civil War to finish it.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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Exodus Rating
FLAWS: Civil War violence, mostly mild language
Summary: In what can only be called an achievement, Foote gives us the story of the American Civil War with the flair of a novelist and the meticulousness of a historian.

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