"The conflict is behind me now": Shelby Foote writes the Civil War

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Date: Fall 2003
From: The Southern Literary Journal(Vol. 36, Issue 1)
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 10,144 words

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About this Person
Born: November 17, 1916 in Greenville, Mississippi, United States
Died: June 27, 2005 in Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Historian
Other Names: Foote, Shelby Dade, Jr.
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Shelby Foote began his address to the Southern Historical Association on "The Novelist's View of History" in 1955 by quoting D.H. Lawrence: "Being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet. The novel is the one bright book of life." With this opening salvo, Foote, already well into the work on the first volume of his narrative of the Civil War at the time, proceeds to establish that the ground of his authority is that of the artist, not the amateur historian. In the years since, however, he has in fact gained a historical authority, both with the general public and professional historians. His show-stopping performance in the Ken Burns' Civil War documentary on PBS created a permanent identification of the slow-talking, weathered Mississippian with the war and history. More important, The Civil War: A Narrative is one of the great non-fiction works of the twentieth century and certainly the work for which Foote will be remembered. But Foote to this day insists that he is a novelist, not a historian, and that his novels and short fiction occupy a place in his canon equal to that of his mammoth three-volume narrative of the Civil War. His view has been borne out by increasing interest in his novels among scholars and the public, although it took the immense popularity of the The Civil War to bring those novels back into print.

Leaving the question of the relative merits of fiction and history aside, my purpose is to seek the deeper truth of Foote's claim by exploring the impact of his art and his view of the artist on the history. He does not merely create a more vivid historical account by adding a few novelistic techniques to what remains essentially an amateur historian's account; rather, through his own art he reinvisions the war as itself a matter of art (of widely varying qualities), of triumphs and failures of human imagination. This reinvisioning creates a common currency between the past events and the words on the page--what was becomes what is in the present of Foote's text, and the past experience of the war becomes the present experience of artist and reader. In its total effect, the narrative elevates the artist above the historical specialist among the arbiters of history. In place of argument, it provides the "quality of vision" necessary to give the work the force of lived experience.

Foote gained a sense of himself as set apart for a life's work as an artist early on. The groundwork was laid in the literary household of William Alexander Percy in Foote's hometown of Greenville, Mississippi, the leading town of the Delta. Percy opened a new possibility for Foote, as he did for Foote's boyhood companion and lifelong friend Walker Percy: the life of a writer. Here was a practicing, well-received lawyer-poet and man of letters, whose house was one of the necessary stopping points on any literary pilgrimage of the South. In addition to other prominent Greenville intellectuals and artist, any number of writers, northern and southern alike, came by the house to pay their respects, among them William Faulkner, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, and Stark Young. Perhaps William Alexander Percy's greatest contribution to the two young men--both by his own example and the literary household he maintained--was the sense that one could be a writer, wholly and unapologetically. Walker Percy identifies his debt to his elder cousin: "I know what I gained: a vocation and in a real sense a second self; that is, the work and the self which, for better or worse, would not otherwise have been open to me" (Signposts 55). In Foote's case, this sense of vocation would run much deeper than for either of the Percys, never being diluted by an aborted medical career or philosophical interests, as with Walker, or local politics, landholding, and the law, as with the elder Percy. Writing for Foote would be a religion, followed according to the rule of the great modern masters of the order.

Foote's calling was as a priest, not of the order of Melchezidek, but of Flaubert, Joyce, Faulkner, Lawrence, and Proust. When he encountered David Copperfield at age twelve, Foote "suddenly got aware that there was a world, if anything, more real than the real world" and he would feel himself a citizen of that world from his high school days on, after encountering the great Modernists (Carter 156). His mother gave him a set Of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past when he was seventeen, and Foote recalls that he paid little attention in school afterward, at least in the classroom; Robert Phillips notes that by his senior year he was able to comment perceptively on the work of Eliot, Cummings, Sandburg, and Frost, among others (8). After he followed Walker to the University of North Carolina, his time at Chapel Hill amounted to a private education through reading in the library stacks, supplemented by the occasional course in literature and history; he continued writing critical pieces there and began a novel after withdrawing and returning to Greenville in the late 1930s, where he worked odd-jobs and wrote for Hodding Carter's Delta Democrat Times. He drafted his first novel, Tournament, in 1939 and submitted it to Knopf, only to have it rejected, albeit with praise, as overly influenced by Joyce and Wolfe. Upon his return from service in World War II, Foote succeeded in publishing his first story, "Flood Burial," in The Saturday Evening Post and began to make enough money from publishing to devote himself to writing full time, resulting in the publication of Tournament in 1949 and a draft of his second novel, Follow Me Down, the same year. (1)

Foote's letters to Percy during this period reveal his sense of vocation and utter devotion to art, perhaps heightened a bit to contrast with his friend's Catholicism. Writing of artists as the "outriders for the saints; we go beyond (where they won't go)," Foote makes it clear that art for him is a form of piety, but of a peculiarly Promethean sort: "If we burn for that, we'll take pride in our burning, our pain; the triumph wont be God's" (Tolson 21). Art is "an act of devotion beyond prayer," and it serves its own purposes, not those of the moralist, preacher, or social reformer. Foote's artistic ideals are those of the modernists: attention to form, with art as the "organization of experience"; the communication of sensation rather than the delivery of a message; and, above all, Proust's "quality of vision." As he wrote to Percy in 1950, "I think I know at last what it is that I really want. I want to teach people how to see. I want to impart to them a 'quality of vision' (Proust's definition of style)" (Tolson 39). In contrast to the Fugitive-Agrarians in the 1920s and 1930s, Foote's view of the artist and his place in a later generation served to distance him from the need to attack or defend the South (though the turmoil of the Civil Rights Era would soon catch his attention) and to strengthen his belief that his highest purpose was served simply by writing fiction, not by turning aside for a role more in the public forum. "The novel is the one bright book of life," and Foote saw no need to step down from that higher strata of experience either to defend the South or to reform it.

The writing of Shiloh proved something of a watershed for Foote. His research had taken him deep into the primary documents concerning the battle, as well as the historical scholarship. He had visited the battlefield several times and consulted park historians to get a better feel for the terrain, climate, and actual locations of events on the landscape. Foote began to establish himself not simply as a litterateur dabbling in historical subject-matter, but as an historical authority in his own right; the province of the writer extended to historiography as well as fiction, provided one put in the necessary hours of research, and the awareness of this fact would lead him to challenge the separation of the spheres insisted on by many professional historians (and some professional writers, for that matter). In "The Novelist's View of History" Foote asserts the traditional prerogative of the writer as man of letters, one that recalls the words of Foote's predecessors of the Romantic period:

   Both [the honest novelist and the honest historian] are seeking the
   same thing: the truth--not a different truth: the same truth--only
   they reach it, or try to reach it, by different routes. Whether the
   event took place in a world now gone to dust, preserved by documents
   to be evaluated by scholarship, or in the imagination, preserved
   by memory to be distilled by the creative process, they both
   want to tell us how it was: to recreate it, by their separate
   methods, and to make it live again in the world around them. (220)

There is a "basic difference" in method, of course: "the historian attempts this by communicating facts, whereas the novelist would communicate sensation. The one stresses action, the other re-action. And yet the two are not hermetically sealed off from one another." But Foote insists the advantage adheres to the creative writer, particularly on the basic matter of style and handling dramatic structure, provided he does not use artistic license to violate the facts; most important, the novelist is disciplined to showing rather than telling.

The turning point of Foote's career came in the early 1950s, when he left the novel and committed himself to the two-decade project of writing the Civil War. He had completed his three-book apprenticeship phase with Love in a Dry Season and embarked on an experimental period with the publication of Shiloh and work on Child By Fever. (2) His confidence reached titanic proportions. By 1951, he was laying plans for his "big book" Two Gates to the City and feeling his powers, proclaiming to Percy in 1952: "Stand by: I'll tell you true--I'm going to be one of the greatest writers who ever lived" (Tolson 65, 82). But the next month would see Foote in a crisis, following on the heels of his second divorce; he sensed, in Phillips' words, that "the pattern for his life would not fit." Foote wrote at the time, "I touched absolute bottom; then I came back up. Man, it's dark down there" (Tolson 87). Following one of his models, Dostoevsky, he learned the value of suffering to the artist, and continued to write his great, "black" novel, but fate would intervene and open a distinctly different path to greatness than that followed by the modern novelists. Preparations for the Civil War Centennial were gearing up, and publishers were preparing to feed the public appetite with hundreds of books concerning the conflict. J. Bennett Cerf of Random House, on the historical strength of Shiloh, offered Foote a contract for a short history of the Civil War aimed at the mass market. Foote agreed, but quickly found that the scope of the projected work well-outran the length proposed; he was able to outline three volumes, and made Cerf the offer of a multi-volume history, which was accepted. Here was the self-proclaimed heir of Flaubert, Joyce, and Proust voluntarily abandoning his privileged position as artist to commit a significant portion of his career to a history, placing himself between the Scylla of the academic historians and the Charybdis of the fickle public. As novelist George Garrett points out in a review of the final volume, "The chances for loss, the risks involved, were staggering" (86).

Foote's title, The Civil War: A Narrative, reflects his decision to write from his strength--narrative--rather than from the foreign ground of professional history. Several of the professional historians reviewing the first volume noted Foote's failure to provide the scholarly apparatus of extensive attribution and footnotes, and Foote, anticipating such a reaction, takes pains in his "Bibliographic Note" at the end of the volume to justify his methods. He provides an overview of the primary sources used and the secondary sources he relied on most extensively, but stands his ground: "I have left out footnotes, believing that they would detract from the book's narrative quality by intermittently shattering the illusion that the observer is not so much reading a book as sharing an experience" (1:815). Foote's methods in the narrative ran squarely athwart the dominant vein of American historiography; the academic historians had long since won the field and history had shifted, as Oscar Handlin writes, from "loose discursive narrative to the heavily footnoted monograph" (61). By the 1940s and 50s, this tendency had been strengthened by the rise of quantitative methods and the view of history as a social science; the new keepers of the gate were the "cliometricians" and "psychohistorians" C. Van Woodward identified in defending Foote's work against some attacks on it by academic historians. (3) White and Sugg point out the boldness of Foote's project: "In baldly posting A Narrative as the subtitle of his imposing history, The Civil War, Shelby Foote advanced a claim for literary sensibility and art in a field where the palms were going to analysis and schemes of quantification and narrative had come to be regarded as intellectually suspect" (84). Foote's is a narrative rather than scholarly authority, sustained by the command of the narrative voice and the structural mastery of the form; as Rubin writes, the history is "given its authority by the assertion of the stylist-historian rather than by the meticulous citation of sources" (181). All of the constituent elements--official records, memoirs, letters, diaries, historical accounts, photographs--are dissolved and merged into a flow controlled by a single narrative consciousness. Foote's object is not to provide an objective recounting with authorial judgment, but to impart a quality of vision to the reader and create a massive simulacrum of the war that is not commentary, but experience.

All that Foote learned as a novelist contributes to a narrative voice that is no less distinctive and compelling than Foote's spoken voice would be in the Ken Burns PBS mini-series on the Civil War years later. It is at once that of the teller of a several-nights' tale and a sensorium responsive to the innumerable voices speaking from the documents. Foote repeatedly cites Gibbon as one of his primary influences and, as White and Sugg point out, Gibbon's great lesson for him was his authoritative narrative voice, the creation of "a narrative voice which is essentially his own" (91). Phillips puts his finger on the primary quality of Foote's voice, saying that "he tells his story with a dignified informality" (184). Foote makes liberal use of colloquialisms, as when he asks about such a sacred document as the Emancipation Proclamation, "What sort of document was this anyhow?" (1:708), or says that a bridge was built in "jig time." Foote uses a more latinate diction sparingly--on the dead at Sharpsburg, "the effluvium of the bloodiest day of the war" (1:702)--as he builds outward from his core without tending toward abstract language. This demotic style, which Foote praised in an early review of Faulkner, provides the bedrock base of Foote's writing, but the work as a whole encompasses a staggering register.

It is a voice that gains its authority by alternating between the modes argued for by Foote's characters in Shiloh: we see the war from the inside--"what each of us saw in our own little corner"--while maintaining a broader perspective that allows the reader a command of the whole--"looking out of that big Eye in the sky, playing God" (164). Part of the mastery of Foote's narrative is to maintain consistently a dual vision of each battle, contrasting the broader perspective of the commanders with the more immediate, close-up view of the men involved. We see the developments from a more abstract tactical standpoint--movements and counter-movements, assaults that succeed or fail, enfilade and defilade, bombardments of various positions--but Foote frequently shifts our focus to the human experience of these actions on the ground. During his treatment of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, Foote writes of a strange phenomenon: the men step from deep shade to bright sunlight and "the result was not only dazzling to the eyes but also added a feeling of elation and release. 'Before us lay bright field and fair landscape,' one among them would recall" (1:553). But this effect lasts only until their pupils contract and the enormity of their task dawns upon them. Dilation and contraction serve as an apt metaphor for Foote's method throughout the history; we see the broad sweep and large-scale movement of men and arms, but then the close-up gives us the concrete experience of which these consist--the "gritty sense of participation." At Missionary Ridge, near Chattanooga, Foote begins a paragraph on the Union assault with a Union colonel's perspective from Grant's command post, as he watches the "gallant rivalry" of the colors progressing up the ridge and compares them to a "flock of migratory birds" but then shifts: "That was how it looked in small from Orchard Knob. Up close, there was the gritty sense of participation, the rasp of heavy breathing, the drum and clatter of boots on rocky ground, and always the sickening thwack of bullets entering flesh and striking bone" (2:855). Fredericksburg provides the clearest example of this contrast between the abstract and the concrete. He writes of it as one of the "grandest as a spectacle" of the war's major battles: "Staged as it was, with a curtain of fog that lifted, under the influence of a genial sun, upon a sort of natural amphitheater ... it quite fulfilled the volunteers' early-abandoned notion of combat as a picture-book affair" (2:20). In addition to the perfect view of the display from the respective heights, Burnside's observation balloons render a scene of "war reduced to miniature" which Foote sets in contrast to the reality encountered by the soldiers and the burial details, the "nearer view of the carnage": "No one assigned to the burial details ever forgot the horror of what he saw; for here, close-up and life-size, was an effective antidote to the long-range, miniature pageantry of Saturday's battle as it had been viewed from the opposing heights. Up close, you heard the groans and smelled the blood. You saw the dead" (2:43). Foote strengthens the sense of concrete immediacy by shifting to the second person here before going on to give grisly details of the men's descriptions.

The primary strength of the narrative form is that it allows events to unfold according to the logic of narrative flow rather than the demands of historical analysis. Foote's history is filled with a sense of historical contingencies that impinge on human actions and in large measure determine whether they are effective or not, worthy of praise or blame, courageous or foolhardy, and so forth. With a subject so completely known as the Civil War, it becomes easy to forget that the participants could not know the many things that seem obvious in retrospect. The narrative form rehumanizes history by recapturing the context of human action, as White and Sugg write: "Knowing what the human experience felt like involves imagining past events as developing process, replete with contingencies, and requires, therefore, the narrative form. The monograph is an account of past events as accomplished facts, winnowed from the contingencies, and requires the form of exposition" (95). In each section, Foote almost always limits himself to what was known to the participants themselves and uses alternate centers of consciousness for his narrative voice. For example, when describing Lee's plans for his first invasion of the North, and then McClellan's subsequent counter-offensive after finding Special Orders 191, the same formula is repeated, "The war would be over--won"; both plans, of course, go awry and hopes for a one-stroke end to the war fade by the end of the first volume. Most important, when dealing with the opening phases of the battles, Foote approaches each contest from the point of view of the commander who knows the least before turning to give the detailed background from another perspective. When dealing with Second Manassas, we have the early movements--Lee's division of his forces and Pope's futile attempt to destroy Jackson's detachment--but before the armies engage, Foote shifts our view away from the scene to follow McClellan as he tries to hurry reinforcements and follow developments at a distance: "Then Tuesday night the line went dead. All was silent beyond Manassas Junction, where there had been some sort of explosion" (1:614). Earlier, after dealing with the Confederate preparations for the Shiloh offensive, Foote moves to the complacency of the Union commanders and gives us the opening from Grant's perspective: "Next morning he heard a distant thunder from the south. The guns of Shiloh were jarring the earth" (1:332). We find the same use of a limited perspective in the experience of the soldiers as well as commanders, as when, at the opening of the Seven Days, Longstreet's men are sent forward to assault an unknown position from which A. P. Hill's troops had just been repelled:

   Again that sudden clatter erupted, now with the boom of guns
   mixed in, and again the men came stumbling back, as wild-eyed as

   Penetrating deeper into the swampy woods, they had come face
   to face with the death-producing thing itself: three separate lines
   of Federal infantry, dug one above another into the face of a long,
   convex hill crowned with guns. (1:486)

Only then does Foote give us a description of the Federal position and set the stage for the battle of Gaines' Mill. Here as elsewhere we enter into the experience as the men themselves--blind--and only slowly grasp the true nature of the situation.

Creating a sense of "how it was" for Foote involves the conjunction of memory and sensation. In the most literal sense, here is where Foote combines the historian's purpose of communicating facts and the novelist's of communicating sensation. He says of the artist's aim: "with luck and talent, then, a man can show another man something; that is, he can make him see and hear and maybe even feel and smell it" ("Novelist's View" 225); and his history is charged with the full range of these sensations. He gives us the smell of burning bacon filling the air when Johnston burns a meat-packing plant during his withdrawal to the Rappahannock (1:239); we see a "blue-flame river of bourbon" and smell the "burnt liquor, roasting coffee beans, and frizzled bacon, wafting... through the reek of gunsmoke" during Forrest's raid on Johnsonville (3:620); and are tortured along with the Union sailors stranded in the Red River by a southern belle whose pet squirrel runs into her bodice (3:66). Cannonfire in rain had "a metallic ring in the saturated air" (1:411); small-arms fire the sound of tearing canvas; and a Union column moving past a Confederate position at Sharpsburg "struck sparks, like a file being raked across a grindstone" (1:685). These descriptions certainly help to bring the narrative alive, but they serve a deeper purpose for Foote: drawing on his lessons from Proust, he creates a link to the past through the connection of memory and sensation. In a letter to Percy on August 5,1970, he encloses a long passage from Proust:

   An hour is not merely an hour, it is a vase of scents and sounds
   and projects and climates, and what we call reality is a certain
   connection between these immediate sensations and the memories which
   envelop us simultaneously with them--a connection that is suppressed
   in a simple cinematographic vision ... a unique connection
   which the writer has to rediscover in order to link forever in his
   phrase the two sets of phenomena which reality joins together. He
   can describe a scene by describing one after another the innumerable
   objects which at a given moment are present at a particular
   place, but the truth will be attained by him only when he takes two
   different objects, states the connection between them ... encloses
   them in the necessary links of a well-wrought style; truth--and life
   too--can be attained by us only when, by comparing a quality common
   to two sensations, we succeed in extracting their common
   essence and in reuniting them to each other, liberated from the
   contingencies of time and place, within a metaphor. (Tolson 150)

This "common essence" provides a concrete substrate--a link between sense and memory--that allows us to experience the war through Foote's narrative in a much more immediate way that a recounting of fact and event. It links the distant memory of the war with our personal pasts and so recaptures the complex tissue of event, the web of associations that link our present with past event, or self and past selves.

Foote's prose does not simply describe experience, it recreates it through rhythm and syntax. Here, in addition to his skill at characterization, managing plot, and structuring the work, we find his greatest advantage as a novelist. In an interview with William Thomas, Foote described this attention to crafting the smallest portions of his work: "I'm working with a very large canvas, but at the same time I'm trying to do each paragraph the way you'd write a sonnet" (Carter 104). The comparison to poetry is fitting, since Foote goes far beyond mere description to a use of language that makes the prose an experience in itself. When treating First Manassas, for example, he writes of the death of General Bee--"Bee fell, shot as he rallied his men, who leaderless gave back before the cheering ranks of the Federal attackers" (1:79)--and the phrase "who leaderless gave back" mirrors the regressive movement of the troops (compare "who retreated"). In the same section, when treating the devolution of the struggle to the level of individuals, he writes, "There, while the battle raged on the forward slope--disintegrated by now into a strung-out, seemingly disconnected series of hand-to-hand skirmishes by knots of men clustered about their shot-ripped flags, each man fighting as if the outcome of the battle depended on himself alone--Beauregard used them to strengthen the line" (1:79; emphasis mine). In the inserted description of the battle here, Foote captures the fragmented scene of the battle through the use of monosyllabic words in clusters loosely joined by a string of prepositions. Rather than relying on extended description to make the narrative vivid, Foote compresses his description into lines that carry the force of his vision. At times, his style simply allows us to see a detail which otherwise would have been missed, as in the description of the Union charge on the Confederate entrenchments before Kennesaw Mountain: "a long, low cloud of smoke boiled up and out, billowing as it grew, righted from within by the pinkish yellow blink and stab of muzzle flashes" (3:349-350). Foote's prose captures the things present to consciousness in the moment of action. At some points, the reader becomes the astonished witness; treating the doomed Union charges at Fredericksburg, Foote writes of the bluecoats falling as if they had struck a trip wire, but then, "Again they rose. Again, incredibly, they charged" (2:35). At others, Foote uses juxtaposition to carry the force of aspects of experience held in tension, such as when he deals with the abrupt shift from conception to confused violence during the Union charge at Spotsylvania, when General Warren "went forward, around 4 o'clock; into chaos" (3:207). The casual insertion of the time here serves as more than documentation; it carries the sense of moving from the battle plans, when time seems precise, to the world of the battle, in which the mundane bounds of time are stretched and distorted and so prepares the way for the greatest distortion of time in the hours-long close-quarters fighting in the Mule Shoe. Through Foote's simulacrum of the war, the reader does not simply read description, he or she shares experience; "how it was" becomes "how it is" in the reader's present.

Foote's narrative is fundamentally a war of words. Language, for Foote, is not simply a reflection of reality, but a medium in which human reality can be shaped and given meaning and direction (this capacity is not infinite in his perspective, to be sure--Foote is no Emerson). As an artist he claims for the great forms of literature only a higher order of a claim for all human language, and he pays particular attention to the use of language by the participants in the struggle he records and measures them accordingly. Much as Allen Tate saw the demise of the Old South as a failure of mind, Foote sees the failures in the war as failures of imagination; those who succeed, as the war unfolds, are those--like Foote's artist--who are able to bring genius to fruition through labor and whose imagination is sufficiently powerful that they see into events deeply enough to divine the suitable form for action.

Foote casts the primary struggle between Lincoln and Davis as that between a great artist and a lesser. Davis is largely limited to received forms of language and thought and, while he does respond to contingencies, he does so belatedly and insufficiently; Lincoln, on the other hand, uses a more flexible, organic language and freely responds pragmatically to events as they develop. He sees into the essential nature of events and is able to use language to shape their course. Foote repeatedly contrasts the presidential addresses of Davis and Lincoln, as both seek to define the conflict to their own advantage, and Lincoln gets the better of the rhetorical struggle. In their crucial presidential addresses to the legislatures late in 1862, Lincoln successfully marks a new phase of the war and shifts the focus to slavery and Union, making Davis's rhetoric of states' rights seem "destructive of world democracy" ("the last best hope of earth"). Foote draws the moral: "Davis in time, like other men before or since, found what it meant to become involved with an adversary whose various talents included those of a craftsman in the use of words" (1:806). Foote casts Lincoln as the true artist, toiling in his workshop and gaining his effects by hard labor; his style--the "Lincoln music" that Foote marks again and again--is an American voice, something his numerous critics fail to understand: "That there was such a thing as the American language, available for literary purposes, had scarcely begun to be suspected by the more genteel" (1:804). We see Lincoln choosing his words almost as often as his generals, and in fact his actions often take the form of words. He writes letters never intended to be mailed to clarify his thoughts, others in sealed envelopes to enforce the allegiance of his cabinet, makes calculated use of the Emancipation Proclamation, and creates the great epitome of the war in his address at Gettysburg. He shapes his words and so shapes his war; his adversary, on the other hand, speaks in the high mode of southern oratory in language that is polished but divorced from life. Perhaps no more damning anecdote concerning Davis appears in the work than that in which we see him weeping over passages in a sentimental novel he has asked his wife to read to him. In fact, Foote places this section within a few pages of the most extensive treatment of Lincoln as artist. Although Davis does have moments such as his well-known letter refusing Lee's resignation after Gettysburg, he normally speaks according to the world he knew--or rather according to an abstract conception of it--instead of the world as it comes into being over the course of the war. Little changes in Davis's rhetoric over the course of the war, so that by the late stages it seems something akin to dementia, as when he speaks in an 1864 address of the "smiling face of our land and the teeming evidences of plenty which everywhere greet the eye" (3:609). Or, more tellingly, while on his flight from Richmond, with a rapidly diminishing cabinet and Lee's army defeated, he speaks to his remaining generals of strategic options "like a dreamy madman" (3:967). So important to Foote is the difference between the antagonists on this score that he devotes the final page--after Davis has spent his declining years playing the living martyr to Lincoln's dead one and attempting his apologia in prose and speech--to a comparison not of their politics or principles, but of their style, from which all the rest might be inferred.

The various commanders are judged as artists as well, sometimes on their actual language and sometimes on a broader faculty of imagination. They fall roughly into groups of artists and unsuccessful imitators. The greatest of the former are those like Sherman and Lee whose vision, like Lincoln's, is powerful enough that they envision a reality greater than the everyday world--"a world" as Foote said of his early reading, "more real than the real world"; through their innovation, they shape the course of battle rather than merely responding according to developments. We see them at moments of inspiration borne of labor, such as when Sherman realizes how he can securely flank Johnston out of a strong position and "experienced a surge of joy not unlike that of a poet revising the rejected draft of a poem he now perceives will become the jewel of his collection" (3:322); or when Lee, standing atop Clark's Mountain with his lieutenants, prophetically extends a "gauntleted hand" to prophesy the routes of Grant's invasion to begin the Forty Days. His prophecy is fulfilled, as is his greater one concerning the three components of Grant's overall strategy, and Foote remarks on this seeming "mind reading" or how he could "become that man [his adversary]": "Like artists in other kinds of endeavor, Lee produced by hard labor, midnight oil, and infinite pains what seemed possible only by uncluttered inspiration" (3:144). These are men whose style is of a piece with their vision of the world, and whose respective genius produces different kinds of innovation. We hear Lee's grand understated assurance of manner that belies a supreme command of men and events and witness an audacity--such as his repeated division of his forces in the front of a superior enemy--which never becomes rashness (except perhaps at Gettysburg). Apart from his success on the field, Lee achieves a greater triumph of style in defeat as the joint-work authored by himself and Grant at Appomattox becomes the great image of the war's closure, and Foote focuses our attention on the craftsmanship behind this event by spending a fair amount of time dealing with Lee's editing of his secretary's drafts of the acceptance of terms and the address to his troops. With Sherman, his more abrupt, jagged style--"War is cruelty. You cannot refine it"--bespeaks his grasp of a new kind of total war, and his great work, the march to the sea, is more a work of imagination than tactics; the tactical victory achieved over Johnston and Hood in turn, Sherman reaches for the grand gesture capable of altering the people's perception of the war, North and South. Sherman envisions a role for himself and his army during his time in the West, that of avenging angel, and proceeds to fashion word and act suited to the role: pines burning by the roadsides along the route of march, his troops singing "John Brown's Body" and Sherman writing, "Read to them this letter ... and let them use it so as to prepare for my coming" (2:940). These artists are joined by those commanders such as Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest--who fights all his battles "by ear" without ever reading a tactics manual--and U. S. Grant, who is "tone deaf" in many respects, but who envisions the Grand Strategy that ends the war. (4)

The failed commanders are the unsuccessful artists, the imitators who lack the vision of their greater counterparts. Unlike the artists, they prove to be incapable of penetrating the surface of events and discovering new forms. Frequently we see this failure accompanied by a high rhetoric, and the imaginative categories such rhetoric implies, which separates them from the flow of events and so blinds them to contingency. Early on, Foote recounts the ill-advised and badly executed Union assault on Ball's Bluff and the conflict between romantic preconceptions of the war and the brutal reality. Col. Edward Baker, a war-hawking former U. S. Senator and friend of Lincoln, takes command of the field quoting Scott and oblivious to strategic concerns: "then, by way of climax, he who had called for sudden, bold, forward, determined war received it in the form of a bullet through the brain, which left him not even time for a dying quotation" (1:106). This split between rhetoric and reality is reinforced repeatedly on both sides via the examples of Pope, Morgan, Bragg, and a great many others, and at certain points Foote makes clear that this is an artistic failure, a failure of imagination. Most pointedly, we see this failure in the efforts of first Bragg and then Hood to emulate Jackson's exploits, with effects ranging from insufficiency to disaster. After Bragg's failed invasion of Kentucky, when he has abandoned the aggressive Jacksonian rhetoric in favor of a defensive account of his gains, Foote claims a trouble "deep inside Bragg himself" and remarks:

   For all his audacity of conception, for all his boldness through the
   preliminaries, once the crucial instant was at hand he simply could
   not screw his nerves up to the sticking point. It was strange, this
   sudden abandonment of Jackson as his model. It was as if a lesser
   poet should set out to imitate Shakespeare or Milton. With luck and
   skill, he might ape the manner, the superficial arrangement of words
   and even sentences; but the Shakespearean or Miltonic essence would
   be missing. He lacked the essence. (1:660)

Hood's failing in the third volume corresponds to Bragg's in the first (even to the precise location in the volumes), but with far bloodier consequences. His lack is not one of nerve but of perception. From Atlanta to Nashville, he blindly carries out his imitation of Jackson and Lee with no regard to the change in conditions and without stopping "to consider what he asked of them in designing still another of those swift Jacksonian movements that had worked so well two years ago in Virginia; whereas the fact was, not even Lee's army was 'Lee's army' any longer; let alone Hood's" (3:661-662). Phillips gives extensive treatment to the measure of artistry in Foote's work and he comments on the sources of various generals' ineptitude: "Among the sources that seem particularly important to Foote's history are the rhetorical posturing, ambition, and inflexibility, all of which inhibit contact with the more basic rhythms of history and a spontaneous response to them" (203). Though the second of these might need qualification (witness the examples of Sherman or Jackson, hardly men free of ambition), Phillips' larger point about the connection between imagination and success through the trial of war is certainly a valid one. Art for Foote is not mere window-dressing for the "real" events of history, but the stuff of history itself--the vision necessary to penetrate the surface of event and act meaningfully in the world.

The presence of artists in the narrative extends far beyond the participants and the narrator himself; in the background, evoked through pervasive allusion, are those great masters who have shaped our understanding of humanity and human action. At times, the allusions are simply a matter of subtle word choice and diction, as when Foote writes of an attack that "exploded out of the darkling woods" at Chickamauga, recalling both Keats and Hardy, or describes Forrest's angry parting with the commanders at Fort Donelson with "Bedford Forrest stood up in his wrath" evoking the image of Achilles. Elsewhere, the allusions are more explicit, describing a situation in a sort of literary shorthand. He compares Grant to Byron's Childe Roland as he moves toward Chattanooga and describes Pope's exile in the West using a line from Othello. In the most extended instance, Foote captures Hooker's failure of moral courage at Chancellorsville using Hemingway's bullfight terms. Hooker becomes the "morally frightened" bullfighter Gallo, surrendering authority (and responsibility) to his subordinates when facing Lee and saying, in effect, "You take him, Paco.... I don't like the way he looks at me" (2:280 ff.). The allusions are not simply a matter of Foote providing a literary gloss on his material; the participants themselves draw on literary sources to understand their own experiences. One soldier at Fredericksburg recalls a passage from Goethe about the landscape turning red when he is under the stress of battle. Lincoln draws metaphors from humorists such as Bill Arp to reduce a situation to its essentials and shortly before his assassination senses a dark prophecy of his own fate in that of Duncan in Shakespeare's Macbeth. Underlying the dense fabric of allusions in Foote's work is the implicit claim that art is not a decorative epiphenomenon standing apart from the events of history; but a vital force that enters into the making of history and our understanding of it.

Part of the effect of Foote's making his Civil War a war of words is to elevate the status of the artist in relation to the accepted arbiters of history. As a self-conscious modernist devoted to art as the highest calling, Foote, like his great forebears Joyce, Proust, and Eliot, sees the corruption of language as the corruption of civilization itself; and the role of the artist as the restoration (in fact the remaking) of order through words. As Lewis E Simpson writes of the work of the Fugitive-Agrarians a generation earlier: "[their inspiration] came from their struggle to imagine the authoritative role of the modern Southern writer in the attempted restoration of a politics of the Word or polity of letters" (Man of Letters 230). He continues,

   In the years following the First World War they reaffirmed the
   notion of representing the literary existence as one of the orders
   of Western society--to support, that is to say, the faith that the
   "spirit of letters" represents a separate realm of being and the
   belief that this realm offers the possibility of walling us against
   the abyss and of bringing order out of chaos. (231)

Although the Agrarians asserted the authority of the literary through an expansion of their activity to encompass a broader cultural critique (much of it accomplished through polemic), Foote's implicit claim to cultural authority in his narrative is at once subtler and more radical: he renders the war in words and treats art and imagination as fundamental issues in the work, placing himself--the master narrator and artist--in the authoritative position superior to that of the professional historian. In "A Novelist's View of History" and in various interviews, as we have seen, Foote makes a claim for the common aim of historians and novelists, but the narrative itself establishes a more profound commonality between the participants in the war and the narrative that recreates it. Seen in this light, a curious parallel between Foote and one of his subjects, Jefferson Davis, which might otherwise be taken as merely an inside joke, takes on a deeper significance. After being released from Fortress Monroe, Davis set out in Memphis to write a three-volume history of the war and Foote, who of course is completing his own three-volume history in the same city, remarks: "Bustling Memphis, hot in summer, cold in winter ... seemed unconducive to the peace he believed he needed for such work. Who could write anything there, let alone a full-fledged three-volume history of the war?" (3:1052). A relatively insignificant instance, to be sure, but when combined with the pervasive concern with art and imagination throughout the work--the recurrent metaphors of poets revising or writers in their workshops, the attention to style and craftsmanship (or lack of it) in the participants' prose--we see a deeper claim emerge: Foote's Civil War is of a piece with its great subject.

With Foote as the master-narrator in this war of words, meaning resides not in event, but in the form given the event by the hand of art. Unlike meaning in the work of the professional historian, based on objective judgment of facts and sound generalizations from them, meaning here is rendered through artistic vision and sensed by the reader through the dynamic experience of the work's structure. Foote renders experience, rather than judgment, but it is experience distilled and shaped by art--drama. On this question, as on others, he yields no ground to the historian: "Drama is meaning, just as character is action, provided it is clear" (Tolson 111). Art for Foote is the process of discerning the hidden form beneath the surface of event and rendering it visible, and he uses a striking metaphor to distinguish this idea from art conceived as idea (or history conceived as statement):

   [the artist] can be fascinated by the shape of his own hand,
   watching it by lamplight hold the pen; for him 'understanding'
   is merely description--that is enough. Your wise-man says 'There
   is my hand; all right; lets get on to important things. How about
   the relation of God to man?' But the artist, I believe,
   concentrating on the hand itself, without even a thought of God,
   comes closer to finding the meaning simply by observing how the
   hand, held between his eye and the lamp, becomes semi-transparent,
   showing the skeleton hand beneath. (Tolson 61)

Whereas this metaphor makes it sound as though the structure is inherent, Foote combines a romantic notion of form with a classical one that holds form as a matter of models of order inherited from tradition; adapting Wordsworth, form is what we half-perceive and half-create. Foote seems to hold a conception of form inhering in experience, but his high-modernist sensibility recognizes the formulations of order the artist--and the culture at large--inherits; as Phillips notes, "while form in art, just as the form of the bones in the artist's hand, may have its origins in what lies beyond time, it is equally important that form has its evolution in history and time" (165). Writing of the novel, Foote tells Percy in a letter, "What the novel needs is a sense of proceeding from generations of knowledge" (Tolson 71). When Foote assesses his debts to his artistic forebears, we see that the phrase "generations of knowledge" has a very real meaning; he learned his lessons on form not in classes on historical methodology, but from Proust, Gibbon, Thucydides, Aeschylus, and Homer.

The structure of Foote's history reflects his insistence on an artistic prerogative. One of his lessons from Gibbon, as White and Sugg point out, was the use of a "frankly provisional structure" for his history; as with the narrative voice, the effect here is to lessen the claim to the historical authority of the specialist, but heighten the narrative authority of the author. Even a cursory glance at Foote's table of contents for the entire narrative reveals a structure too perfectly balanced to even pretend to represent the war "as it was" in some positivistic sense. (5) We see the same love of tripartite divisions that guided much of Foote's other work, particularly Jordan County and Follow Me Down; the three volumes are divided into three parts each, and each of these parts is divided into three chapters, with the exception of Part 2 in Volumes I and III (which have two chapters each). The exception proves the rule, here, just as a metrical variation in Milton or Browning achieves a desired effect on the reader because of the regularity, of the other lines. The missing chapters in those second parts highlight the three-chapter second part of Volume II; they create a center of the work to be occupied by Gettysburg, the "keystone of the arch," in Phillips' phrase. On the most basic level, this structure creates the classic dramatic trajectory of rising action, climax, and falling action, and Foote reinforces this symmetry both in the number of chapters (as we saw above) and in the heightening of parallels between the first half of the narrative and last.

These parallels reflect the changing reality of the war as it progresses and reinforce the sense of the war as an entity in itself much greater than the forces that try to direct it. The cases of Bragg and Hood as unsuccessful imitators of Jackson in the West, cited above, both highlight failure to adapt to very different contexts of action, early and late, and Foote reinforces the parallel by setting them in precisely the same position in their respective volumes; but where Bragg's failure of nerve allows the offensive potential of the early campaigns to go unfulfilled, Hood's rashness leads to catastrophe because that offensive potential is no longer there. The war changes--early impetus no longer provides sufficient cause and the means of warfare change radically. The contrast between two of what Foote calls the "great marches of all time"--Henry Sibley's doomed expedition to the far West in Volume I and Sherman's March to the Sea in Volume III--set a profound contrast between competing visions. Sibley's march represents the once-powerful dream, familiar from the heady days of southern nationalism in the 1850s, of a grand Confederate empire stretching down into Latin America--an alternate vision of the great modern nation. As the survivors struggle simply to survive long enough to return to Texas, we have the first ending in the work, that of the war in the Far West. Already the Confederacy is drawn inward. Sherman's is a march to the sea as well, but the Atlantic rather than the Pacific, and it represents a victory of the northern vision of empire over the southern, a vision that would lead to the so-called Second American Republic. Sherman is the great visionary of modern warfare, and Foote emphasizes the link between the transition to modern warfare and the transition to modernity. The two "short" parts in Volumes I and III have corresponding titles; the two chapters of each part draw their titles from an epigram produced by two of the great artists of warfare--Forrest and Sherman. In the first volume, Foote uses one of Forrest's dicta--"War Means Fighting" (Chapter 4) and "Fighting means Killing" (Chapter 5)--to head chapters in which, with Shiloh and Seven Pines, the chaotic nature and price of the continental war becomes clear; Forrest, having no received notions of the conduct of war, freely improvises and adapts successfully, but in his savagery and common origins, he is far-removed from Chevalier Bayard or Jeb Stuart. The implication: success in this war could come only at the cost of the South's idea of itself. Whereas Forrest, fighting by instinct and "ear" was far from concerned with any larger implications, Sherman always kept one eye on the larger view, the grand implications of his acts. He is the one Foote presents as first grasping what victory over the South would entail, and his grand gesture of total war, the march to the sea, takes place in chapters in Volume III headed with one of his dicta: "War is Cruelty..." (Chapter 4) and "You Cannot Refine It" (Chapter 5). Sherman grasps better than anyone, even Grant and Lincoln, the changing demands of the war, and he willingly authors the work of "total war" that would be one of the Civil War's great legacies to the coming century. Through these kinds of structural parallels, Foote brings us to feel the force of changes in the war--to experience them through the form--in a far more immediate (if not always conscious) way than that allowed by commentary.

We feel the tragedy of the war through the structure of the narrative. On one level, the war is an epic story, and Foote indicates as much both in the sweep of the work and, as White and Sugg note, by modeling the work on the Iliad with twenty-four chapters and an epic prologue (III). As epic, it is an Iliad rather than an Aeneid, concerned with character, event, and fate rather than the founding of the new empire. But the tragic vision predominates and pervades the structure; and, following C. Vann Woodward's assessment of the tragic vision of southerners in The Burden of Southern History, we see this tragic sense as most clearly marking Foote's vision as southern. Not tragic in the superficial sense of ruefully tallying the better than half a million men who died on both sides, the cost in blood and treasure, or speculating on how the war might have been avoided, but tragic in the more profound sense of seeing limitations on human knowledge, of the mixture of motives in any act and the unintended consequences following from it--in a phrase, of having always to act in the realm of innumerable contingencies. As Woodward wrote in his review of Foote, however much Foote's artistic brilliance might seem irrelevant to the concerns of professional historians, it "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" (12).

Fate plays a large role on Foote's stage; if God is dead in the bleak wasteland of the modernist vision, Foote makes clear that Fate is not. The individual's confrontation with fate pervades the narrative, as in the repeated motif of stars in the work marking the ineffable forces operative beyond human control or even knowledge. We see the stars of individuals rising and falling, stars impassive above the troubled landscape, and stars as emblems of fate governing events, most notably when Foote uses the Biblical words to describe Lee's failure in Pennsylvania: "the stars in their courses had fought against him" Careers are made and unmade at the crossing of ways, as with Longstreet refusing to yield the right-of-way to Huger at Seven Pines--"the making of one career and the wrecking of another" (1:446)--or Garfield and Rosecrans taking different roads in different directions after Chickamauga, one to the White House and the other to obscurity. Fate bespeaks the significance of action hidden from the actors in the present, and the deeper currents running beneath the surface of event, as Foote speaks of the "trembling instant when the battle scales of Fortune signal change" when Longstreet strikes at Second Manassas and Pope's flank crumbles. At times, certain characters--Banks, Early, Pope among them--display a hubris that invites their downfall, but Foote is more concerned, as Aeschylus was, with the human response to the web of contingency than drawing moral lessons. Many of the great images in his narrative are images of pathos: such as Lee bedridden in his tent, unable to spring his trap for Grant on the North Anna, "'We must strike them a blow!' Betrayed from within, he raged against fate ..." (3:273); Hood returned east after the destruction of his army, staring into the firelight and, in the words of an observer, "going through in his own mind the torture of the damned" (3:760); and, greatest of all, Lincoln with his recurrent dreams of his own death. Fate begins to play the largest role in the third volume as the participants begin to sense events working themselves toward a conclusion. After heightening the uncertainty of the first two volumes, Foote begins to foreshadow the end as the events play out like actions in a preordained drama.

The tragic element in the narrative is significant because Foote does not comment on tragedy; he enacts it, and so brings the reader to the catharsis of pity and fear as part of the audience. Through its immediacy, the sense of a progressive unfolding, and the artistic shaping of form, the reader becomes witness to the massive event. What Robert Penn Warren, in the mature vision of his Legacy of the Civil War and essays such as "The Use of the Past," merely prescribes, Foote accomplishes in prose. In "The Use of the Past" Warren cites Melville's hope that the war might teach us pity and fear and offers his own hope that in its scope and nature, the Civil War might restore to us something of the tragic sense beyond the "Great Alibi" (for the South) or the "Treasury of Virtue" (for the North):

   It is the story of a crime of monstrous inhumanity, into which
   almost innocently men stumbled; of consequences which could not
   be trammeled up, and of men who entangled themselves more and
   more vindictively and desperately until the powers of reason were
   twisted and their very virtues perverted; of a climax drenched with
   blood but with nobility gleaming ironically, and redeemingly,
   through the murk; of a conclusion in which, for the participants at
   least, there is a reconciliation by human recognition. (308)

But such a response cannot come about for the mass of Americans through documents, reflection, or history as it is normally written; it can come through experience, through Foote's simulacrum of the war in words. Rubin writes that "Shelby Foote was not himself involved in fighting the war over," but in a crucial sense that is precisely what he was doing (191). It is why he gave himself, and his art, over to the writing of a three-thousand page narrative that would consume twenty years of his career. Foote gives the reader a means to relive the war and so achieve the perspective that Warren hoped for, "beyond pride and self-pity." Only then can Foote say, as he does in the final words of the closing note to the final volume, "the conflict is behind me now, as it is for you and it was a hundred-odd years ago for them" (3:1065).

Such is the triumph of Foote's magisterial narrative: by reliving "what was" through "what is" in the text, he effectively forecloses the "might have been" that haunted southern letters through mid-century. Foote's form is a closed form, a grand completed action of such massiveness that the experience of it, by its very extent and duration, forces us beyond the settled ways of understanding the war we bring to the text. Earlier southern writers, such as William Gilmore Simms, turned to the Revolution as the great originary moment with confidence that it provided the ground for a unified national narrative, but were forced to yield that ground when competing narratives came into play, and finally into bloody conflict. Foote turned to the Civil War as the ground of our nationhood, but not one providing a unified idea; instead, it is the ground of tragedy, one that forces the recognition of human flaws and limitations on knowledge, of acts determined by innumerable contingencies. Such a perspective--such an experience--breeds humility in the face of history and a recognition that an event such as the Civil War takes us beyond the narrow view of the partisan and the use of history for ideological ends. Foote's view is a long one, as we see in the opening words of his epilogue:

   All things end, and by ending not only find continuance in the
   whole, but also assure continuance by contributing their droplets,
   clear or murky, to the stream of history. Anaximander said it best,
   some 2500 years ago: 'It is necessary that things should pass away
   into that from which they were born. For things must pay one another
   the penalty and compensation for their injustice according to
   the ordinance of time.' So it was with the Confederacy, and so one
   day will it be for the other nations of the earth, if not for earth
   itself. (3:1040)

Foote makes clear that our sense of nationhood emerged from the war, from a common ordeal, but the meaning and ultimate fate of that nation is hidden from us; we, as the war's participants, cannot know the "ordinance of time," and Foote drives this point home in the narrative's final line. He chooses the words of Davis toward the end of his life, given to a journalist who had asked what words he had for future generations: "Tell them.... Tell the world that I only loved America" (3:1060). Percy objected to the ambiguity of Foote's focus on Davis and the "sense of nationhood" he describes in his epilogue: "It is not clear whether the 'sense of nationhood' you mention means in USA with a Solid South, or the USA for northern vets or SS [Southern States] for Southerners, or both. Finally, it appears you mean both." Foote replied that "it was intended to be [ambiguous] in just the way it struck you.... Just so--a gradual dawning, a gradual realization that it is both I mean," and added in a note that the realization is "for the reader, as it was for them [the participants]" (Tolson 188-189). He insists on holding competing visions in tension, and resists the temptation to overwrite them with a single narrative to make the war's meaning "clear." In so doing, he moves us "beyond pride and self-pity" and forces us into a deeper confrontation with the war, our nationhood, and ourselves.


(1.) Foote's war record is one of frustration. He served with a national guard artillery unit that was mobilized and sent to Ireland, only to be discharged for the minor offense of barely exceeding a fifty-mile limit to visit his girlfriend and soon to be wife in Belfast. After returning to the States, he made another attempt to find his way to the battlefield by enlisting in the Marine Corps, but the war ended before his deployment in the Pacific. See interview with John Griffin Jones (Carter 169).

(2.) Child By Fever became the 150-page centerpiece of Jordan County: A Landscape with Figures (New York: Dial Press, 1954).

(3.) Woodward, "The Great American Butchery," rev. of The Civil War: A Narrative, vol. 3, New York Review of Booker, 6 Mar. 1975: 12. For one of the earlier negative assessments, see James I. Robertson, Jr., rev. of The Civil War: A Narrative, vol. 2, American Historical Review 69 (April 1964): 790-91. Marking the positive shift in historians' view of the work, see Robertson's later review of the entire work in Civil War History 21 (June 1975): 172-75; and Robert Hartje, rev. of vol. 3, American Historical Review 81 (October 1976): 975-76.

(4.) Foote claims in an interview that the two geniuses developed over the course of the war were Forrest and Lincoln. Interview with John Griffin Jones (Carter 173).

(5.) In each volume of the Vintage paperback edition of the work, Foote includes a "Comprehensive Table of Contents." This table is not merely a finding aid for the reader (there was already a comprehensive index), but a testament to Foote's emphasis on structure. Essentially, he is giving the reader a glimpse of the structure he mapped out before writing the history.


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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A111982121