The Civil War Isn't Tragic, Cont.

More

Here is a rebuttal to my two posts, and something much more--a piece of deeply enjoyable blogging by J.L. Wall, who is reading Shelby Foote's three volume history of the Civil War:


By the end of Gettysburg, as I have mentioned, exhilaration has given way to frustration, disgust, and tragedy. Rather than a misguided quest for glory, Jeb Stuart's meandering during the first days of that battle are depicted as a lost child's desperate search for his father. The scales begin to fall and the South's "great" men are revealed to be self-serving (Bragg; the Hills; Hood; Stuart; etc.), blindered (Lee), or brutalizers of questionable sanity (Forrest; Quantrill). Longstreet, perhaps, has a measure of redemption in him--but while he, shaking his head at Gettysburg, is the only one who can see the reality of their military efforts, he is merely resigned by honor of some sort to stick around for the ride. Davis is compared from the outset to Lucifer; the image reappears near the end of Volume II as the Rebellion itself, for a moment, takes on the trappings of that angel's against God. 

The comparison is introduced through a letter written by William Tecumseh Sherman, himself a brutal warrior once relieved of duty on account of questionable sanity. Yet he comes in (so far, at least; his march to the sea is not for some hundreds of pages) for less condemnation than his colleagues on the Southern side. The reason is tied to the type of tragedy the narrator sees in the war at this point--and, I think, to the kind most who read of it sense: not that it had to be fought at all, but that it continues without an end at hand while terrain, technology, and the incompetence and "honor"* of the so-called great-men lead to increasing casualty rolls. Sherman's goal, clearly stated, is a faster end to the war; the narrator knows he will help to bring it. 

Thus we have Grant, condemned by some as a butcher, as the hero of the Narrative. Foote, in his letters to Walker Percy, refers to the Union general several times as such; his treatment in the Narrative itself confirms this independently. His ascent to this role has dual causes: he fights, unlike his colleagues on either side, who dilly-dally, blundering into and through battle and prolonging the war, and he fights for the Union. For all the narrator's fascination with Lee's and Jackson's underdog role in the first volume, by the end of the second, the South has condemned itself, militarily and morally. 

Here, the sense of the tragic in Foote's Narrative returns again to TNC's case that there was nothing tragic about the war. As the combat lulls in the winter of 1863-4 and the seasons inch toward spring and a resumption of full-scale campaigning, Pat Cleburne, a Southern Irishman with, we are told, little faith in the institution of slavery, proposes that the South emancipate its slaves and enlist them in its armies. Not merely a response to the manpower shortage, it would change the moral rubric of the war, demonstrating, Cleburne said, that the South fought not for economic self-interest but truly for principled liberty. The proposal is not merely dismissed by the colleagues to whom he floats it, but they, in indignation, forward it on to higher authorities with the intent and result that this proposal is never spoken of again and that Cleburne's ascent up the ranks is permanently halted. To free and enlist the slaves, as the famous response had it, would undermine their whole theory of slavery--that is, the stated basis of the revolution itself.

I think those of us who were somewhat annoyed with Foote's presence in the Ken Burns documentary, shouldn't conflate that with Foote's work. I listened, via audiobook, to the first half of the first volume, before deciding to wait for the time when I could just read the trilogy. Now I'm considering going back to the audiobook. I very much enjoyed what I heard. Foote is detailed, and has surprising eye for humor and irony.

His work is open to all the usual--and credible--critiques. I found his desire to focus on combat, and put slavery on the back-burner to be familiar and self-serving. But I also found, long ago, that I didn't really have the luxury of disregarding original work because of its shortcoming. The faults should be noted and critiqued. But I never subscribed to the anti-Dead White Men school. I love Dead White Men--almost as much as I love Dead Black Women. I kid, but the point is that, I really don't have the privilege of avoiding Mencken or Bellow. I have to take as much as I can get.

Check out the rest of J.L.'s post. It's good stuff.
Jump to comments
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

From This Author

Just In