I remember about a dozen years or so ago, I watched competing Civil War series on History and TLC (back when TLC was interesting and not the faux celebrity trainwreck it is now). While one of the shows tried to inject a little drama into its discussion of the various battles, the technologies, and the personalities involved, both shows ultimately reduced this deadliest of American wars to a bunch of dry dates and casualty lists. Oh, and Lincoln and Davis were presidents. In case you forgot.
Around the same time, I first read this classic Civil War text by historian Shelby Foote, who attempts to bring the era to life. Men like Lee and Grant, Lincoln and Davis are more than statues or frozen Matthew Brady photos. We get to see the foibles and ideals that clashed and made the Civil War inevitable. The two men you feel sorriest for in all this are Lincoln and Davis, presidents of the Union and Confederacy respectively. Lincoln, while a shrewd politician who skillfully secured the Republican nomination for himself, found himself in the unenviable position of not only rescuing the Union, but unifying the fractious remaining states, dealing with hot-headed demagogues who edited the newspapers of the day, and mollifying both wings of the Republican Party in the war’s prosecution. Davis? He didn’t even want the job, wanting to go into the field where his real talents lie. Instead, he was drafted to head the provisional Confederate government and then elected (without really declaring his candidacy) president under the new constitution.
This book covers the Civil War from its prelude to late 1862, when both sides kept telling themselves this would be a short war. (Hey! That sounds like 2004!) A lot is made of McClellan’s timidity and his successor Pope’s arrogance, but in them, Foote demonstrates a human side of these men. Pope simply had no social skills to speak of, the Sheldon Cooper of Union generals. McClellan could unite and inspire the troops, and if he ordered them into certain suicide, his men likely would charge before he finished giving the order. But McClellan had such an overwhelming fear of failure that it ultimately crippled him. Nonetheless, for all McClellan’s inertia, Robert E. Lee would later say he was the most capable general he faced in the Civil War.
This phase of the war is dominated by several generals with Napoleon complexes. Pope is a notable case, having to be relieved when his hubris nearly cost him his army at Second Manassas. John Fremont, “The Pathfinder,” squandered resources and personnel in taking Missouri from the Confederates, living in luxury and keeping a large number of troops for his personal protection. Fremont would not only get a second chance, but he would find his military career abruptly ended by an increasingly impatient Lincoln. In the South, early gains were reversed by PGT Beauregard’s own Napoleonic complex. At one point, the Creole general ditched his command for a few days R&R only to find it taken away from him. Like Fremont, Beauregard would burn up his own president’s patience. Like Fremont, he would get a second chance. Unlike Fremont, he would remain in the army until the end of the war.
Perhaps most telling in this volume is the depiction of the war’s most famous generals, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. Lee is not seen as the dashing, fatherly figure most people see him as today, nor does anyone in 1861 seem to anticipate Lee’s role in reconciling the two sides after the war. Grant is not only seen as a failure – no doubt an image fostered by his spectacular business ineptitude – but is constantly fighting rumors of drunkenness and dereliction of duty. By October of 1862, Grant replaces his former commander, new General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, but many in Washington still see Grant as worse than the pompous glory hogs he now commands or has replaced (most notably, Don Carlos Buell.) Yet Lincoln notices that, even when he fails, he does something generals on both sides seem to have trouble doing. “He fights,” says Lincoln.
Perhaps the most frightening man on either side of the war is Stonewall Jackson. A religious zealot with a mercurial personality, Jackson is perfectly content to send as many of the enemy to their graves as possible and gets upset when someone expresses admiration or sympathy for the fallen blue coats after a battle. He strikes me as the prototype for the mad, blood thirsty general so common in modern fiction. You could easily see Jackson strolling through the jungles of Vietnam during battle and saying, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” This is not a man I would want in a position of civilian power.
The Civil War: A Narrative describes the war in human terms. Foote depicts Yankees and Rebels alternately taunting each other, often in anger, and using the truce to swap news of the other side. The sight of dead and wounded sickens many of the generals, particularly Lee and Ambrose Burnside. Foote shows the war was not a cold list of battle sites, casualty lists, and dates. It’s an epic about human beings who find themselves thrust into a confusing and tragic conflict that bewilders even the leaders of both sides.