A review of The Civil War, A Narrative by Shelby Foote

Reviewed by Molly Martin

The Civil War: A Narrative–Fort Sumter to Perryville, Vol. 1
by Shelby Foote
Paperback, 840 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0394746234

The three volume set created by War Between The States/Civil War historian Shelby Foote commences with his 840 page work regarding the interlude beginning 21 Jan 1861 and continuing until the battle of Perryville, KY during the fall of 1862.

In this first volume Foote writes of the period packed with disorder and warfare which altered the course of life in the United States forever. All the most important battles conducted during the period, from Manassas/Bull Run through Shiloh, the Seven Days BattlesSecond Manassas to Antietam, and Perryville occurring  during the fall of 1862 are detailed in Vol. 1.  Moreover, so too are numerous of the lesser, and less recognized, nonetheless ones often were equally momentous engagements conducted both on sea and land: Ball’s BluffFort DonelsonIsland No. Ten, Elk Horn Tavern/Pea RidgeNew OrleansMonitor versus Merrimac, and Gen’l Jackson’s Valley Campaign to name a few.

The Civil War, A Narrative exemplifies the awfulness, overtiredness, dirt and stench of war. It was a time of fading hope, misinterpretation, fundamental disquiet vis-à-vis the future and an anxiety that the war which everyone had hoped would end rapidly, would not. Notwithstanding the nearly 900 page enormity of the work, is an edition to be studied by serious scholars of history. Weighing some three plus pounds, this individual tome is a bit unwieldy.  The size is the one drawback I find with this book; my hands are small and arthritic.  While reading I lean the book against, pillow when sitting on a chair or against a book rest while sitting at my desk and turn the pages.  The edition might be better served if presented as a series of smaller, more easily handled works.

Full of names, dates, places, and times; Vo1 1 Fort Sumter to Perryville is not  for the marginally inquisitive or the non-serious reader who occasionally reads historical works.  The size alone will put off the borderline student. This book is a wide-ranging, heavily researched source work principally focused for use by those readers who have a deeper interest in military history, the dedicated student of the United States war waged during the 1860s, and for any who enjoy reading United States history in general.

Throughout his life and writing career, Foote was always keenly aware that to the victors go the writing and portrayal of history.  That awareness motivated Foote’s writing objective that his historical works be as focused in fact as possible.  Even in the face of variance of prevalent opinion from either side of the issue, concerning the incidents, grounds and occurrences Foote chooses not to take sides or let personal bias color his thinking or writing. In particular, readers can appreciate that all historical details have been heavily investigated for accuracy. Lending to the legitimacy of the work; the book offers perceptions, reminiscences and actual writings of individual soldiers/officers who actually were a part of episodes recounted.

Reviewed by Molly Martin
20+ years classroom teacher