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 way for its participants, faceless men with unfamiliar names, to pass the time while waiting for the issues to be settled in the East.” In spite of his Mississippi origins, Foote also attempts to keep an even hand in giving North and South their due measure of praise and blame. Yet somehow a bit more adrenalin goes into his accounts of campaigns west of the mountains; there is more dash in a cavalry charge of Forrest’s than in one of Sheridan’s, and the heroes in gray were a bit more heroic than those in blue. And maybe that was the way it was.
It is the last year of the war—from the Red River Campaign in Louisiana in April, 1864, to Appomattox in April, 1865—that is covered in this volume. The conventional view is that by this time the Rebels had lost their will to win and that the action was essentially reduced to mopping-up operations. It did not seem that way to General Sherman, who was in a position to know. At the beginning of that last year he wrote his wife that “no amount of poverty or adversity seems to shake their faith,…niggers gone, wealth and luxury gone, money worthless, starvation in view,…yet I see no sign of let up—some few deserters, plenty tired of war, but the masses determined to fight it out.” They needed more persuasion, and he was prepared to give them all that was required, and more. “All that has gone before is mere skirmishing,” he told his wife as he set forth on the task—his knock-out blow to Georgia and his rape of South Carolina.
General Grant opened his Virginia campaign of that horrible last year with the same relentless savagery. Within one month after it crossed the Rapidan River the Army of the Potomac under Grant had lost no less than half as many men as it had lost in the previous three years of bloody fighting in Virginia. “For thirty days it has been one funeral procession past me,” protested one of Grant’s generals, “and it has been too much.” Yet it was only the beginning. By the time he had crossed the James and besieged Petersburg, Grant’s losses came to nearly 75,000 men—more than Lee and Beau-regard had had in both their armies at the start of the campaign a month and a half before. In one charge before Petersburg a Maine regiment of 850 lost 632 men, more than 74 percent, in less than half an hour. Casualties among the graybacks were nearly always much smaller in numbers but larger in proportion to their available manpower and therefore more costly in military terms. With that fateful knowledge, Grant ruthlessly swapped casualties on unequal terms and never abandoned his meat-grinder tactics, pouring black meat after the white into the grinder.
While he is willing to admit that there is “a good deal more to war than killing and maiming,” Foote has little space for the other aspects. We are admitted to a few of Lincoln’s cabinet meetings and some of the president’s public speeches and private conversations. We are taken backstage occasionally in the Richmond theater of politics. We are permitted a passing glance at an election, a diplomatic exchange, and (particularly in the South) an economic crisis that had immediate military consequences. The politics of command in both armies—personal rivalries, political animosities, and power plays among the brass—are adequately kept before the reader. But always the main matter before us is the “killing and maiming.”
To the predominantly analytical historians of the schools, this flood of action provides little of what they call “insight.” That means clues to mass motivation, keys to puzzles of grand strategy and policy, and answers to large questions of “why”—why the North won and the South lost, for example. I suppose the narrative historian’s answer might be that there is something to be said for knowing how a cataclysm was experienced as well as explaining why it happened. Problems of motive and explanation acquire a new dimension in the presence of surviving veterans of the battle of Spotsylvania. They
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.
The intimacy of combat in that age of warfare lends itself to Shelby Foote’s impressive narrative gifts and to his dramatic purposes. In World War II, battleships opened fire at a range of thirteen miles or more—beyond sight of their targets. In the Battle of Mobile Bay the opposing flagships rammed each other head-on, and the Tennessee’s guns were so close to the Hartford that the powder blackened her side. In the latter ship, Admiral Farragut had himself lashed to her rigging the better to command, and his opponent and friend Admiral Buchanan attacked Farragut’s fleet of seventeen vessels with his one surviving ship outgunned twenty to one. Rebel taste for histrionics supplies embarrassing riches of color. The duel between the Alabama and the Kearsarge in the English Channel is right out of Scott, with Admiral Semmes flinging his glittering sword into the sea as his ship sinks. Jeb Stuart whirls through cavalry actions in red-lined cape, bright yellow sash, black ostrich plume, and golden spurs—no less dangerous for it all.
Where possible, however, Foote tends to let his beloved Army of Tennessee upstage the easterners. The western spirit of desperate improvisation best typified the expiring rebellion. General Joe Johnston, the Virginian, whom Sherman described as “a sensible man who only did sensible things,” yielded command to General Hood, the Texan, an unsensible man who did desperate and unsensible things. One leg missing, one arm paralyzed, strapped to his saddle, he led his army of barefoot scarecrows to their doom. Three regiments that started the war with an average of 1,250 effective troops fought on with sixty-five, fifty, and sixty-four present for duty. In five weeks Hood lost 20,000 veterans in casualties, including sixteen generals. He was loyally supported by that genius of improvisation, General Forrest, whose engineers constructed bridges out of grapevines—literally.
For all this “the butcher’s bill” was a North-South total of 623,026 dead from all causes and 471,427 wounded, or a total of 1,094,453 for both sides, in and out of more than 10,000 military actions. Another historian, Eric McKitrick, has calculated that a casualty rate in World War II comparable to Union deaths in the Civil War would have required nearly 2.5 million deaths as against actual losses of 384,000. Southern losses in dead or incapacitated were fewer in number but greater in proportion to the number available for service—one out of four (including noncombatant Negroes) as against one out of ten in the North. Of generals the Unions lost one out of twelve killed in action, the Confederates one out of five.
But what has all this to teach our “psychohistorians,” our “cliometricians,” and our crypto-analysts busy with their neat models, parameters, and hypotheses? It is hard to say for sure. It is possible, however, that the 1,100 pages of this raw narrative, bereft as it is of “insight,” might serve to expose them to the terrifying chaos and mystery of their intractable subject and disabuse them of some of their illusions of mastery.
March 6, 1975