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.