on 4 December 2002
This is volume 2 of Shelby Foote's massive three-volume history of the American Civil War. I am reviewing the trilogy as a whole, and while the boxed set is hard to get in the UK it is particularly recommended.
I have yet to finish reading Foote's marathon work, but I can honestly say that so far it has been the greatest work of historical literature that I have ever read.
Firstly, the author shows an encyclopaedic grasp of the facts of history together with an intuitive and almost uncanny sense of their significance in relation to the unfolding story.
Secondly, his literary skills give even his vast factual knowledge a run for their money. This is no mere recitative of dry facts, but a perfectly paced and dramatically structured narrative, in which different literary genres such as biography and story-telling are seamlessly interwoven.
Thirdly, he has a rare gift for being judgmental without being partisan. He is not afraid to find good and bad on either side of the conflict; in fact he is not even afraid to find a cocktail of good and bad in individuals whom history slots
entirely into one moral category or the other.
Fourthly (and this is more subjective), this is so enjoyable as a read. The author’s own exuberant fascination with the period, and the intensity of his admiration or scorn for the various personages involved on either side of the conflict, are communicated to the reader.
If you know nothing at all about the Civil War, you could find this sheer size of this work a bit daunting; more seriously, you could lose the bigger picture in the sheer wealth of fascinating detail. In that case, James McPherson’s extraordinarily brilliant single-volume overview (“The Battle Cry of Freedom”) could be a better place to start. However, if you want something really substantial to keep you engrossed on that coast-to-coast wagon-train journey, this is unreservedly recommended for beginner or Civil War enthusiast alike.