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The Civil War: A Narrative (Three Volumes – 2974 pages)

This magnificently written trilogy of books on the American Civil War is not only a piece of first-rate history, but also an excellent work of literature. The late Shelby Foote brings an accomplished novelist’s descriptive power to this grand epic. This immense three-volume set should be on the bookshelf of any Civil War buff. It is the definitive example of narrative history and creative non-fiction.

I started reading this 2,934-page trilogy on June 6, 2007 and have completed it in September 2008. This is not a reading assignment to tackle in a single season. I read 27 other books while reading through this great work. I will review each book of the trilogy separately. I have since read the series again. I also purchased the audio book from Audible.com. It takes over 150 hours to listen to the three book set.

The Civil War: A Narrative–Fort Sumter to Perryville, Volume One. The book covers the beginning of the war through December 1862. The late Shelby Foote writes with a down home, comfortable style that is like he is sitting beside you telling a story. Make no mistake, he is a southern and tells the story from a southern point of view. The book is a work of creative non-fiction. It is a first class narrative. It is the example of how to write history.

Many students of the Civil War are limited in their knowledge of the war to the major battles of Fort Sumter, Bull Run, Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Corinth, Iuka, Antietam (Sharpsburg), etc. (battles in 1861 -1862) or the generals. Foote covers all the battles. And he covers what takes place in between the battles though with minor battles that tend to be brushed over with the simple reference to their being fought buy others.

I admit some parts of the book were a struggle for me to get through. The time between the campaigns and battles, the endless maneuvers and debates were challenging. Once he moved on to the next battle or fight, the action and pace of the book picked up. Foote shared enough strategy and tactics as well as some of the intellectual processes the key players used to help us understand what leadership on both sides will do under such situations. At times it was like reading the strategy behind a chess game. The back stories of the political considerations were actually enjoyable at times and problematic to boring at others.

I recommend The Civil War: A Narrative–Fort Sumter to Perryville, Volume One to any American or person with an interest in American history. Yes, the battles may seem to be repetitious. Yes, the politics and maneuvers do at times get somewhat dry. They must be included to tell the entire story. We need know the story well to know who we are as a people.

I wish the editor had placed better divisions in the book. Even knowing the history of the civil war well, I had trouble at times with where we were at what battle. Many of the battles are referred to by their southern name, usually the nearest town e.g. Sharpsburg instead of their northern name e.g., Antietam, usually the nearest body of water.

The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian covers from December 1862 and the Fredericksburg Battle to the Meridian , Mississippi campaign and the US Grant’s promotion to Lieutenant General. The late Shelby Foote continues writing in a down home, comfortable style that is like he is sitting beside you telling a story. Again, I point out as in the review of volume one, make no mistake; he is a southern and tells the story from a southern point of view. The book is a work of creative non-fiction. It is a first class narrative. It is the example of how to write history.

Foote covers all the battles. And he covers what takes place in between the battles though with minor battles tend to be brushed over with the simple reference to their being fought.

As in volume one I admit some parts of the book were a great struggle for me to get through. At times between the battles it was boring. The time from Fredericksburg to Vicksburg and Gettysburg took forever to cover. Foote occasionally repeated himself and would chase rabbits. The time between the campaigns and battles, the endless maneuvers and debates were challenging. Once he moved on to the next battle or fight, the action and pace of the book picked up. Foote shared enough strategy and tactics as well as some of the intellectual processes the key players used to help us understand what leadership on both sides will do under such situations. At times it was like reading the strategy behind a chess game. The back stories of the political considerations were actually enjoyable at times and problematic to boring at others.

I recommend this to any American or person with an interest in American history. Yes, the battles may seem to be repetitious. Yes, the politics and maneuvers do at times get somewhat dry. They must be included to tell the entire story. We need know the story well to know who we are as a people.

Again, I wish the editor had placed better divisions in the book.

The Civil War: A Narrative, Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox. Shelby Foote takes the Civil War and scrutinizes it in a writing style that feels as if you are hearing news from the front in an ongoing war. This book is not for the mildly curious, you will get bored and overwhelmed by the dates, names and places. This volume is longer than either of the first two volumes. But to military history, history, or civil war buffs, it is as detailed and factual as you could want. This is truly a definitive work on the War Between the States.

The book handles personalities of both individuals and cultures and their effects on the war. The reading can be slow going at times as armies march toward each other and the order of battle becomes established with the commanders’ names and stations, but the battle details seem incredibly well researched and the accounts of soldiers/officers bring home this conflict.

This book is well worth the effort to read, it imparts a sense of what the United States has survived and clarifies many historical perceptions of the era and the people involved in this massive conflict.

Once more I wish the editor had placed better divisions in the book.

A last thought – I have never read a better, more vivid, more understandable account of the savage battling between Grant’s and Lee’s armies. Shelby Foote stays with the human discord and distress, and unlike most Southern commentators, he does not take sides. In objectivity, in range, in mastery of detail in beauty of language and feeling for the people involved, this work surpasses anything else on the subject. It stands along the work of the best of them. These three books are my all time favorite books/book series.


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