Saturday, May 30, 2015

College Adventures

I'm fifty-something and in college, chipping away at earning my bachelors degree. I thought I'd share one of my papers. I wrote the following for a  Civil War History class. The assignment was to select a book from a long list and write a review, such as we might read in a newspaper. As I recall, we were required to use a published review of the book we read as a source. 

Below is my attempt. Enjoy!

(Oh, and if you're wondering...I got on A!) 

The Civil War, Vol. 3: Red River to Appomattox

Civil War: A Narrative

Red River to Appomattox (Vol. 3)

By Shelby Foote

Author's Biography

Mr. Shelby Foote was born in 1916 in Greenville, Mississippi. He served in both the United States Army and the U.S. Marine Corps. A published novelist first, Mr. Foote researched and wrote his 3-volume series The Civil War: A Narrative over a twenty year span. 

Mr. Foote was considered a traditional Southern gentleman by most, although critics in the 1960s accused him of retreating into the past via his research and not focusing on the present issues of the South, such as segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. However, in a letter penned in 1963 to his longtime friend Walker Percy, Mr. Foote wrote,

“I feel death all in the air in Memphis, and I'm beginning to hate the one thing I really ever loved -- the South. No, that's wrong: not hate -- despise. Mostly I despise the leaders, the pussy-faced politicians, the soft-talking instruments of real evil” (Morris. 2003).

Along with his non-fictional Civil War series, Mr. Foote authored the following novels: Tournament (1949); Love in a Dry Season (1951); Shiloh (1952); Jordan County (1954); and September, September (1977). Additionally, Mr. Foote was a consultant to Ken Burns on the highly acclaimed Civil War series that aired on PBS in 1990 (and now available on DVD). When he died in 2005 at the age of 88, Mr. Foote was survived by his third wife, Gwyn, a daughter, and a son (Martin, 2005).

Aper├žu and Reader’s Commentary

Shelby Foote is a magnificent storyteller. In volume 3 of his Civil War series entitled Red River to Appomattox the reader can well-imagine herself, sitting in a rocking chair on a wide front porch on a humid night in Memphis, listening to this fiction-writer/historian weave accounts of this nation’s bloodiest wars fought on American soil. From “Another Grand Design” (Chapter 1) to “Lucifer in Starlight” (Chapter 8), the characters, both Union and Confederate, come alive off the pages.

This final installment in Mr. Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative opens with a scene in which General Ulysses S. Grant and his son are checking into Willard’s Hotel in Washington. It’s March 8, 1864. The scene is written from the hotel clerk’s viewpoint as he sums up the “short, round-shouldered man in a very tarnished major general’s uniform” who seemed to have “no gait, no station, no manner” (Foote. 1986). From there the book transitions to the omniscient point-of-view and the reader is soon whisked to a reception at the White House in which President Lincoln is in attendance. Again, General Grant is described. He “blushed like a schoolgirl, sweating heavily from embarrassment and the exertion of shaking the hands of those who managed to get nearest in the jam” (Foote 1986). The point of the chapter is Grant’s proposal to Lincoln for the capture of Richmond and bring an end to the war.

Mr. Foote habitually used the omniscient point-of-view, particularly to transition from one character to another. In Chapter 4, War is Cruelty, the reader is in Lee’s viewpoint and learns the Virginian hoped for another Cold Harbor when his Confederate general, Jubal Early had called at the gates of Washington. But instead of sending the entire Army of the Potomac after Early and his men, Grant dispatched two corps and they successfully discouraged the graybacks from capturing the Union capitol.

The battle of “The Crater” is also discussed as a Union debacle, after which the Yanks dug into trenches and began the long siege of Petersburg. Eventually, the campaign played a part in the surrender of both Lee’s and Johnston’s armies.

In the final chapter Lucifer In Starlight, the opening scene is one of celebration. In Washington, a crowd has gathered outside the White House. According to Mr. Foote’s narrative, several marching bands are on hand to heighten the mood. Union President Lincoln calls to them, saying, “I have always thought Dixie one of the best tunes I ever heard…it is now our lawful prize. I request the band to favor me with its performance” (Foote, 1986). The musicians oblige him.

Later, the reader has a front row seat as Lincoln reads a speech to the crowd from a balconied window of the White House. Mr. Foote sets it up for the reader, describing young Tad Lincoln crawling around the floor of the balcony, catching the pages of his father’s speech as the president drops them one by one after reading from them.

Fellow Citizens, we are met this evening not in sorrow but in gladness of heart. The evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond, and the surrender of the principal insurgent army, give hope of a righteous and speedy peace whose joyous expression cannot be restrained (Foote, 1986).

The moment was not without Lincoln’s dry sense of humor which author Shelby Foote didn’t fail to include. After the delivery, Lincoln turned to Noah Brooks, a young journalist who was expected to replace one of the president’s private secretaries. Brooks had been holding a candle for the president and stood behind a drape at the balcony window from which Lincoln spoke. Afterwards, Lincoln said to the younger man, “That was a pretty fair speech, I think, but you threw some light on it” (Foote, 1986).

Mr. Foote’s narrative goes on to recapture the pall that fell over Washington after Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday, April 14, 1865. Afterwards, the reader is transported to a scene with Jefferson Davis. The Confederate president is described by Zebulon Vance, a Confederate officer and later the governor of North Carolina, as “a man of imperfectly constituted genius… could absolutely blind himself to those things which his prejudices or hopes did not desire to see” (Foote, 1986). 

Mr. Foote goes on to describe the meeting between Davis and his cabinet taking place in a boxcar as they sought to escape capture by Union forces. Davis talked of “raising a large army by rounding up deserters and conscripting men who previously had escaped the draft” (Foote, 1986). Mr. Foote wrote that it must have been like “closeted with a dreamy madman” (1986), and the reader clearly gets the picture. President Davis was a man who could not accept defeat. Even years later, after he’d been incarcerated and chained in his cell, he refused to ask for a pardon. Davis was convinced that the South lost the war because many of its citizens weren’t determined enough to win. Quite the inflammatory speech during Reconstruction. Invariably, Davis remained, in his own words, “a man without a country” (Foote, 1986).

Not ironically, Mr. Foote’s Civil War narrative ends with the death of Kentuckian, Jeff Davis. The reader is left feeling, not celebratory because slavery had been abolished and freedom imparted, but glum and sad for the leader of the Rebellion – and the states that followed him and suffered in its aftermath.

Author’s Selection and Use of Sources

Because Mr. Foote’s book is a narrative, sources of specific facts and quotes aren’t readily apparent. However, in his Biographical Note at the end of the book, Mr. Foote acknowledges his debt to such works as Red River Campaign by Ludwell H. Johnson; Jubal’s Raid by Frank E. Vandiver; Sherman’s March Though the Carolinas by Jon G. Barrett; and Nine April Days by Burke Davis to name only four. Mr. Foote also cites biographies. When the book was written, use of Internet libraries and online access to historical societies were nonexistent. Sources could only be read in printed formats. Suffice it to say today’s authors have an advantage when it comes to researching historical topics. However, as Mr. Foote’s work was a twenty year-long process, it’s obvious that Civil War history was his passion. In fact, Mr. Foote quoted Chaucer in his Biographical Note, and wrote, “Farwel my book and my devocion” (1986). Mr. Foote’s accumulation of knowledge of the Civil War and its historic figures enabled him to write a passionate narrative as opposed to a dull and colorless historical textbook.

Assessment of Book by Others

This third and final volume in The Civil War: A Narrative Red River to Appomattox is an essential read for students and enthusiasts. Of course, reading the first two volumes is a must to understand much of what transpires in the last book.

Generally, reviews were good to excellent when the book was first released. A review by Donald Stewart of the State University of New York read:

Like its companion volumes, the conclusion of Shelby Foote's twenty-year "labor of love" conveys the gallantry and drama, and the dust, horror and smell, of America's most desperate conflict. In the plethora of books on the Civil War, Foote's trilogy ranks high… Readers can visualize Confederate dead piled seven deep on the field of Franklin, Sergeant Reese relighting the burned-out fuse in the Crater's tunnel, reactions of Northern troops to Georgia chiggers, and Mrs. Lincoln's jealous public tirades against wives of Union generals. Yet Foote never forgets this was a fighting war; movements and battles are his central theme (Stewart, 1975).

Another review read this way: “Foote’s monumental work may lose some of the objectivity that goes with more up-to-date research, but these volumes are commendable materials for Civil War study” (Hartje, 1976).

This reader heartily agrees!

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