The Great American Butchery

The Civil War: A Narrative Vol. 3, Red River to Appomattox

by Shelby Foote
Random House, 1,106 pp., $20.00

Professionals do well to apply the term “amateur” with caution to the historian outside their ranks. The word does have deprecatory and patronizing connotations that occasionally backfire. This is especially true of narrative history, which nonprofessionals have all but taken over. The gradual withering of the narrative impulse in favor of the analytical urge among professional academic historians has resulted in a virtual abdication of the oldest and most honored role of the historian, that of storyteller. Having abdicated—save in the diminishing proportion of biographies in which analysis does not swamp narrative—the professional is in a poor position to patronize amateurs who fulfill the needed function he has abandoned.

In no field is the abdication of the professionals more evident than in military history, the strictly martial, guns-and-battle aspect of war, the most essential aspect. The burden of this kind of history has to be borne by narrative. The academic professionals are prolific with books on the political, diplomatic, economic, ideological, and psychological history of wars, but not on the purely military history. The leading chroniclers of the most important American military experience, that of the Civil War, have been Douglas Southall Freeman, Bruce Catton, Kenneth P. Williams, and Shelby Foote—none of them trained academicians. Allan Nevins did become a professor, but he was jealous of his amateur standing as a military historian.

Shelby Foote is the author of five novels, yet most of his writing has gone into his huge history of the Civil War, which he unabashedly describes as “A Narrative.” This is the third, the largest, and the final volume of a work that has been twenty years in the writing. Like his predecessors named above (with the exception of Nevins) his subject has been military history in the strictest sense. Within these limits, however, he has attempted a more comprehensive treatment than the others. Freeman viewed the war from the standpoint of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and was concerned primarily with the eastern theater. Catton treated the western theater as well as the eastern, but from the standpoint of the Union Army. Williams also covered both theaters, but from the outlook of the Union command. When one of these writers calls a chapter “A Season of Reverses,” you know whose reverses he is talking about. Save for river gunboat actions, they do their fighting ashore.

Foote undertakes to cover it all, all the military history—Union and Confederate, east and west, afloat and ashore. As narrator he is omnipresent, shifting from Grant’s headquarters to Lee’s, from Sherman’s to Johnston’s, from the eastern theater to the western and back again, and from dry land to blue water. Disavowing any “thesis to argue or maintain,” he does profess a desire “to restore a balance,” lacking in previous accounts, between the eastern and western theaters, and to correct the impression of the war in the West as “a sort of running skirmish [that] wobbled back and forth, presumably as a …

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