157 of 159 people found the following review helpful
on May 21, 2001
I originally read Volume 1 and its sequels about 9 years ago, my interest having being sparked by Mr. Foote's memorable appearance in the classic PBS series "The Civil War". My honest opinion back then was that the trilogy was a literary gem. Having just reread Volume 1, I hold this opinion even more strongly, jaded cynic though I am. The author combines a diligent and scholarly search for the truth--employing to this end, the methods of both the historian and novelist--with a majestic prose which elegantly and vividly brings back to life events and characters from "a world now gone to dust". The narrative paints a broad panorama of the American Civil War during 1861-1862, but I would like to comment on just one aspect of the work. Volume 1 introduces us to the two main protagonists, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, and their struggles to keep their respective nations intact. Now I have heard and read yappings that the narrative is slanted toward a pro-South point of view, and suspect that this ill-founded charge is due in part to Mr. Foote's temerity in putting Davis (throughout the trilogy, in fact) on equal footing with the now sainted Lincoln. Jefferson Davis will probably always remain the most controversial of American historical figures (along with Aaron Burr), owing to the ugly principles--namely, aristocracy and slavery--for which his Confederacy fought de facto. As Mr. Foote put it, Lincoln had "tarred" Davis by masterfully characterizing his idea of self-government as anathema to democracy and freedom. "The tar would never wear off", and to this day, Davis remains to many a villain of the first rank. However, Mr. Foote implicitly makes a compelling case that there is much to admire in Jefferson Davis, who, like Lincoln, personifies the great American dream of achievement through hard work and merit, rising, before the War, from backwater obscurity to the Mississippi planter class and high Federal office (although admittedly with his older brother's help). His simple, western background stands in stark contrast to that of the "cream" of Virginian society; as President of the Confederacy, he is painfully aware of the condescension of the Virginian elites, as they "had become accustomed to looking down their noses at what they called the middle-class atmosphere of official Richmond". Moreover, notwithstanding his renowned inflexibility in dealing with subordinates, Davis' public and private behavior was utterly beyond reproach. In short, if one reads this book while keeping a view of Lincoln and Davis as truly "the men of the hour" during the Civil War, albeit with their inevitable flaws, he or she will be rewarded with a memorable and enduring experience. A final note: the book is best suited for an energetic reader. Aside from the great length of the book, the prose, while representing the best the English language has to offer, does require some effort to master (at least it did for me). The rewards, however, are well-worth the reader's commitment.
56 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2001
The PBS series "The Civil War" and Tony Horwitz's book "Confederates In the Attic" opened the door to my Civil War interest, and Shelby Foote's first volume of his narrative clinched it. I've heard many who've criticized his narrative style and some inaccuracies in the history, but I believe Foote does what brings history to life, he weaves a story and makes the characters live. I enjoyed all parts of this first volume, but especially two sections. The first was the battle of Pea Ridge, which I had never heard of, yet was analyzed brilliantly. The second was the Peninsula Campaign; I couldn't put the book down reading about that part. Stonewall Jackson sleeping under a tree when he was needed most, the "best men of the Confederacy" being sacrificed in frontal counter-attacks, McClellan's dilemmas (he was often painted here and by others as over-cautious and a brilliant retreater, yet Foote makes us sympathetic to his problems too), and the emergence of Robert E. Lee and the subsequent retreat of the federal troops. There is so much more to read in this book, Sharpsburg, Shiloh, and also the political situations in both capitals. I thank Shelby Foote for bringing this era to life for me, and I am halfway through volume 3 and I have not been disappointed with any of this massive undertaking.
47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on November 26, 2000
How can one man possibly know so much about such a large and complex historical event? The research required, the understanding of the political issues, and the insight into the motivations of the many key players involved boggles the mind. Foote somehow manages to get his hands completely around the enigmatic thing we know as the Civil War and deliver it to us in clear, complete and compelling fashion. This is the Ring Trilogy of historical military literature. Other worthy efforts such as The Killer Angels or, more recently, The Last Full Measure may delve deeper into one particular battle or limited campaign, but no other work provides such a comprehensive and detailed picture of the entire conflict.
The scope is so impressive. Foote does not focus solely on the battles, but rather drills down to the core political and moral issues so that we see the whole chess match. And his rendering of the characters? Words fail me. We follow Stonewall Jackson, or Robert E. Lee, or McClellan, or U.S. Grant for a hundred pages, mesmerized, and then cry out as he swings the scene to another theatre. But two pages later we don't care; we're sucked in again.
Foote captures the emotion of the time. His love of the subject is apparent. It is amazing to read the details of such a divisive and horrific event, to taste Lincoln's frustration over McClellan's waffling, to cheer the audacious achievements of Lee and Jackson, to wonder at Lee's tragic march toward Appomattox, and to empathize with both sides along the way. Shelby Foote has done justice to a defining moment in the history of our great union, leaving readers north and south proud to be Americans. --Christopher Bonn Jonnes, author of Wake Up Dead.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on September 30, 2001
Shelby Foote presents the Civil War and the events of the time in a highly readable format resembling a novel rather than a history book. The inclusion of numerous private exchanges between officers and soldiers help to bring the characters to life. The book does an excellent job of mixing infomation on the battles, with a look at how event transpired from the perspectives of both the North and the South, and the social transformations and political maneuvering that was taking place in the background.
The book begins with a strong background first of Lincoln, then of Davis, and proceeds to explain the state of the nnation early in 1861. Once the first shot at Sumter is described, however, the tone changes and the emphasis is more on the millitary campaigns. However, Foote continues to tie everything together by bringing the reader back to why the war was being fought from the perspectives of both sides.
While not for everyone (the three volumes together are more than 3000 pages), these volumes provide an excellent source for a perspective of event during the war. The only downside is an insufficient number of battle maps which, at times, makes it hard to picture events as they unfolded during certain campaigns.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on July 15, 1998
I had always assumed that the publisher's blurbs comparing Foote to Edward Gibbon were overblown.But now, having a good part of the 3 volume _Civil War_ under my belt, I'm not so sure. Foote is impossible to put down for all of the reasons that are usually mentioned-- his novelist's skill at unpacking the concealed drama in events, his sympathetic but measured assessment of the Southern cause. But I find his voice unique in yet another respect. Above all else, he is able to paint a convincing picture of the ambiguities of genius without lapsing into the typical smugness with which famous heroes are often cut down to size. Under Foote's guidance, we witness countless screw-ups and unsympathetic careerist maneuvers by the likes of Lincoln, Grant, Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. Nonetheless, something truly great about each of these figures emerges in a convincing way. The portrayal of Lincoln is especially remarkable: with the goody-goody storybook facade of Honest Abe stripp! ! ed away, the picture emerges of a more complicated risk-taker and a statesman equal to anyone in ancient Greece or Rome. Finally, Foote does an excellent job with transitions. There is a well-timed oscillation between the fronts of the East and West, and a nice balance between geopolitical events and the tiniest details of forgotten minor battles. His account of the Merrimack-Monitor ironclad battle turns a well-known piece of schoolchild trivia into one of the most chilling anecdotes in world history. The net result of reading these volumes is that I am far more fascinated than ever before by the idea of being an American.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 17, 2011
Oh how I wish I had this book back in High School! While textbooks may give one a dull skeletal framework of Civil War history, Shelby Foote takes it even further by fleshing it out with the little details that actually make the topic interesting--or more interesting, as the case may be.
"Truth is stranger than fiction," and I certainly did find this to be true as I started reading this book. In particular, I was surprised by the early personal problems suffered by Jefferson Davis and the slow rise to power of Abraham Lincoln. Further in are impressive accounts of land and sea battles gone awry and ironic quotations from commanders on the field.
Even more, the author makes it painfully clear that the Civil War was not as cookie-cutter as North and South, especially when one takes into consideration the states that could have swung either way. Add to this the Confederate hopes of European recognition and the situation becomes even more complicated. And as if that is not enough, Foote also goes into the details of when the Confederates turned their gaze westward towards the Pacific--something I was completely unaware of.
Though the book seems to dwell slightly more on the Confederate point-of-view, there is still ample coverage of what was being planned and done up in the North. While the book may not be purely objective, Foote lays out in detail the strengths and weaknesses on both sides. In fact, written out as they are, it almost makes you wonder how the South could have expected to win at all, considering their lack of industrial strength.
Another thing to like about this book are the maps that accompany the major battles. With so many key players all over the country--and often getting transferred from one field of operations to another--one could easily get confused. But thankfully the maps show the terrain, names of commanders and how they were positioned before their advance . . . or retreat.
Finally, it was interesting to see the numbers of (often overestimated) troop strengths and of those killed, wounded or missing in combat. In this day and age of trying to reduce collateral damage, it is hard to visualize once-peaceful fields carpeted so heavily with bodies that you could walk from one end to the other and never touch ground.
The Civil War is not something I usually show an interest in, but trips to Gettysburg and Shiloh did pique my interest and prompted me to explore further. And despite these battlefield visits and whatever I learned--and soon forgot--in History class, I still felt like my understanding of this conflict needed something to tie it all together. After reading this book, I finally feel like I'm starting to understand the real history behind the Civil War, something that no textbook could ever do.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on February 20, 2008
Okay, Shelby is great. No question. And his knowledge and grasp aren't just encyclopedic, they're unsurpassed. That having been said (deep breath) if you're coming to this from the PBS series because you fell in love with his voice and insight there, you're probably going to be disappointed. Ken Burns turned to Shelby for insight, for color commentary, for a sense of the soldier on the ground. And he supplied it, in spades, with that slow southern drawn and his dead-on sense of events. This books is strictly a "great man" summary of the war. You won't find much of the common soldier, and beyond body counts and the odd quote you won't learn much about how the man-in-the-field felt or experienced events. For that matter. you won't find much about what Shelby thinks or feels about it to. While he is encyclopedic, in a strange way, it actually crowds out his voice and sensitivity, so you learn a lot about events -- in great detail -- but very little Shelby's own evaluation or perspective about them. Which for this reader, was the real reason to pay the price of admission. I doubt I will move on to the other books in the series as I'd planned -- it's incredibly informative without having any particular narrative drive or being in any way really gripping. Think of it as the Encyclopedia Britannia coverage (rather than a book by one man whose mind and erudition you love) and you'll get some idea. Oh, and for those of you tempted to get the audio version, again, I'd think twice. I was looking forward to Shelby's quite, authoritative drawl in my ear, but they chose a Northerner (award-winning, actually, but nonetheless!) who to my ear has an annoying drawl and stopped his mic every few pages so he's continually coming back in slightly different sound and register. Sorry to write this, really, wanted to love this book and the whole series.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Unlike Thucydides, Shelby Foote did not witness the Civil War first hand. He only died in recent years. However, it is my opinion that Foote's work will stand up to the passage of time as well as Thucydides history of his great war. Someone has referred to these remarkable books as "our Illiad," comparing Foote with Homer. I agree with that assessment.
I read these volumes years ago, but recently picked them back up on Kindle, and am in the process of re-reading them one by one. They are even better the second time around! Some will point out the flaws with the work: Foote doesn't use footnotes for instance, writing as a narrative. This is a weakness, but it is a weakness easily rectified. It is time for a new edition of these classics, with accompanying notes and citations. Given how magesterial and complete these volumes are (and given the fact that there is room for interpretation and disagreement with Foote at times) it would seem that a new critical edition of this incredibly important text is called for.
Foote is a southerner, and a great writer, and thus he brings a humane touch to both sides of the conflict, giving a nuanced and thorough treatment of the conflict that demonizes none, but explains much. He thinks clearly and writes beautifully and deeply understands his subject matter. There is simply no better narrative of the conflict in my opinion.
Strongly recommended: and a plea to the publisher. PLEASE consider republishing these classics in a critical edition with footnotes and accompanying essays by respected scholars. It is time. Foote's work deserves it.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on June 26, 2011
The Civil War is not my favorite conflict to read about. I save WWI for that honor, and horror. Nor does the Civil War contain my favorite battle to study. The Battle of the Atlantic from WWII interests me most, although I admit Shiloh is a solid #2.
Therefore, though this war is not my favorite to study or read about, I must admit the sheer beauty of Shelby Foote's writing, and his mastery of language and narrative, brought this war alive to me in ways I never thought possible.
Foote is probably best known for his contribution to Ken Burns's Civil War documentary which aired a couple of decades ago on PBS. Fewer people know he penned (literally -- he used a dip pen on the philosophy he didn't want anything mechanical between him and the paper) a three volume, one million-word, narrative about the Civil War and its battles.
Good writing always carries me forward through any book, no matter what the subject or genre. There's a lot of good writing in this first volume. Foote makes the men and women of that time real. He helps us understand the thought processes and political decisions behind the principals not by viewing their lives through the lens of modern times, but by viewing their lives and challenges they faced through the philosophies and beliefs that governed populations at the time. This is a history that lives up to the breadth and scope of a national tragedy, showing it as a life-changing event for everyone who was involved in any capacity. It simply is one of the best history books I've ever read on any subject, ever.
Now that I've finished Volume 1 I am eager to begin the second. I have a few other things I have to finish reading first, but then I will start with unrestrained eagerness.
I think you should give this a peek. It is very well written and one of the best things I have read all year,
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
I've heard for years about the mini-miracle that Shelby Foote's Civil War trilogy represents. Plus, I've always been fascinated by the war and have simply wanted to see what Foote's writing is like, seeing as he was such close personal friends with my favorite novelist, Walker Percy. It was inevitable that I would get around to it at some point, and I jumped at the chance to acquire a sensibly priced audio version of Volume 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville.
What has followed has been almost thirty-eight hours of me being held in rapt attention as I am driving, walking, washing dishes, laying in bed, etc., and listening to the story. I love several things about it. The level of detail is astounding, especially for a set of books that intends to cover the entire war. The battles are each told in minute detail, and pretty well all but the most minor are addressed. Foote's use of sources is absolutely seamless. I found it pretty amazing how Foote could find just the right quotation, or just the right detail, to capture the character of the key military figure driving the action of the moment or to communicate the exact nature of that moment. It's a thorough treatment of the war.
Mainly, though, I just loved Foote's narrative touch. He is a fantastic writer, and you can appreciate the book simply for his skill, in addition to the content. His writing enriches the content, though. One moment at the end of this volume might illustrate the point. As Foote is describing the planning leading into Lee's Maryland campaign, he details the formulation of Lee's strategy--which seems brilliant, destined to end the war--through conversations with the subordinate generals. The strategy decided, Lee sends out the orders to his scattered generals. At this time, Foote takes the time to describe what Longstreet and Jackson each did upon receiving Lee's battle orders. They memorize the directives and destroy the paper. This sort of detail is the type, I think, that automatically alerts the reader, consciously or not, that the the story isn't over. It's good storytelling, foreshadowing to manipulate and tantalize the reader's story-sense. Sure enough, that's not the end of the story. Union Corporal Barton Mitchell soon after is sitting in a former rebel camp when he looks down to see an envelope and three cigars. Inside the envelope was Special Order 191, a lost copy of Lee's orders not so carefully destroyed by some Confederate, which McClellan was then able to use in order to stop Lee's Maryland campaign. Anyway, my point is that all of the book is told with such storyteller's skill. That's essentially what makes Foote's version of Civil War history worth reading; he makes this story of the Civil War both an informative and compelling read.
I would add one note on the audio version of the book. Grover Gardner narrates, and while at least one earlier reviewer complains about his voice, I couldn't disagree more, and looking around the internet, I think the much larger consensus is that he's excellent, with a perfect voice to match Foote's storytelling. Regardless, it's easy enough to head over to Audible and listen to a long sample of him reading the book for yourself.
All in all, this is a fantastic book and a compelling read. I'm going to take a small break before launching into the next two (nearly fifty-hour long) volumes, but I am looking forward to them.