Saturday, 6 November 2010

3,000 Pages of Shelby Foote

Most of what I know about the Civil War, I learned in college. I studied history under some top-notch professors, but I also read everything I could get my hands on. I spent hours picking books from UNC’s library, and many of my cafeteria lunches were accompanied by the new issue of America’s Civil War magazine. And yet, somehow, I made it through University without ever reading a cover-to-cover account of the entire war.
In the dozen years since I graduated, I’ve never completely lost touch with the Civil War, but it became just one interest among many. That changed earlier this year. All of a sudden, I noticed that several of my hobbies seemed to be drawing me back to this great conflict. My interests in military history, family history, and wargaming, all seemed to be guiding me... back home, in a way.
Now eight months ago, writing a blog never even occurred to me, but I knew that I wanted to do something to embrace the Civil War again. Something that would say to myself, I’m into this in a big way. Then it struck me, something I had always secretly wanted to do, but never quite had the guts. I would read The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote.  If you think that reading a book isn’t much of a declaration of intent, then I can only assume you are not familiar with the work. Shelby Foote’s trilogy tells the story of the war from beginning to end, on land, on sea, and in the offices of the two presidents. The first tome covers Fort Sumter to Perryville in just over 800 pages. The second goes from Fredericksburg to Meridian in 960 pages. The final volume covers Red River to Appomattox and needs well over a 1,000 pages. Put another way, these three paperback books together weigh almost exactly five pounds.
So, it has been about eight months since I began my reading project, and I have just finished volume two! I may not be the world’s fastest reader, but I devote a lot of time to the pursuit. The books are really just that big. They are also really that good! Shelby Foote has done a masterful job of presenting a highly complex war in an accessible and enjoyable narrative, packed historical information, interesting stories, and more than a little bit of wit.
I’m taking a little break before I begin volume three, but it won’t be long. I already find myself missing the narrative. Over the coming months, I don’t doubt I’ll be sharing a lot of thoughts that have occurred to me while reading Mr. Foote.


  1. That's a really massive undertaking! Kind of like a college course in three huge volumes

  2. Hee Joe,

    What make these books so great?

  3. I think what makes these books really special, and really stand out from the masses of great literature about the war, is their narrative style. I think Shelby Foote was concern first and foremost with telling a good story. That's not to say this isn't top-notch history, but in many ways it reads more like an a great epic poem, a story meant to be told and retold. He does a fantastic job of weaving it all together, no battle stands in isolation, but is part of the greatest drama that America ever witnessed.