Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Civil War: A Narrative, Volume 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville by Shelby Foote

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 2,968-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. Book One will be reviewed today, Book Two tomorrow, and Book Three the following day.

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 tend to be brushed over with the simple reference to their being fought.

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.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Killer Angels by Michael Sharra

If you have the slightest interest in the Civil War, don't fail to read the late Michael Shaara's book The Killer Angels. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1974. It was number one on the New York Times bestseller list in 1993. For some reason this book had never crossed my path. It wasn't until Father's Day 2008 that I was even aware of its existence. My then 27 year old son gave me a DVD that had both Gods and Generals and Gettysburg on it. In reading the jacket of the DVD I saw the movie was based on this book. After watching the movie, I headed off to the library. I was not disappointed.

This volume shows both the courage and determination of the Union and Confederate soldiers. It examines the story from both viewpoints. You are told the story through the key leadership of the battle. You will read about Robert E. Lee. You will learn what his decisions were based on. You will see why he was so beloved by his army. The book allows you to be present as Lee struggles with decision after decision from his headquarters. 

You can feel the frustration of Longstreet as he tries to convince Lee that defense is a better choice. You will get a picture of the flamboyant Pickett. You will feel Lee's and Longstreet's frustration with J.E.B. Stuart. 

I met a new hero in the book - Joshua Lawrence Chamberlin as I read about the 20th Maine Regiment and Chamberlain who with a bayonet charge on Little Big Top held the end of the Union line. Another new hero I encountered was General John Buford. You will experience his anguish as he decides to engage Rebel forces. He knows that he was seriously outnumbered. He is determined to save the only high ground in the area.

I was emotionally involved in the book from the beginning to the end. This is the book that blurs the line between historical fiction and creative non-fiction. It is simply great reading. While the movie was good, the book is great. Michael Shaara had the vision, did the research, and wrote one of the best books ever. Thank you! Read and reviewed by Jimmie A. Kepler.

Monday, April 27, 2015

A Life in a Year: The American Infantryman in Vietnam, 1965-1972 by James R. Ebert

This review contains spoilers.

Wisconsin high school teacher James R. Ebert does a masterful job as he combines interviews and printed primary sources in this remarkable telling of the infantryman's experience during the Vietnam War. Ebert tells the story of the US Army and a few US Marine infantrymen during the Vietnam War. 

He takes the infantryman's story from induction into the service through basic and advanced individual training, arrival in Vietnam, their first combat experiences, the first killed in action they experience, in some cases the soldier's death, and the freedom birds that take them back to the world. Ebert points out while infantryman accounted for less than 10% of the American troops in Vietnam, the infantry suffered more than 80% of the losses.

Ebert uses an interesting technique starting every chapter with a letter by Leonard Dutcher to his parents. Dutcher just wanted to do his part for God and country and go home at the end of his 12-month tour (13 for Marines). In the last chapter, we find out that Dutcher was killed. It caught me off guard and really added to the impact of the book. Ebert takes many of the soldiers and Marines experiences word for word from the individual himself through interviews or letters. It is a collective look at similarities of the many infantry soldiers and Marines in the war. It is a very personal account from many points of view.

This is an important book in Vietnam War literature. This is what the grunts really went through. I was left with somewhat of feeling of guilt from reading the book. Why? I graduated high school in 1971. Some of my high classmates went to Vietnam and fought. Everett Maxwell was killed in action. I thought of him recently as his mother passed away just this month at the age of 87. I went to college and was ultimately commissioned a second lieutenant in the infantry, went through airborne school and served three years active duty. My becoming an officer deferred my entry on active duty from 1971 to 1975. This is the reason for my reflective thoughts.