Thursday, August 2

Foote Notes

THANK you kindly, John DeVille, for providing the excellent Civil War bibliography, from which I'd make special pleading for Potter's Impending Crisis and Vidal's Lincoln, and to which I'd add The Civil War Battlefield Guide, from The Conservation Fund, because they deserve the money, and because it's a nice collection of battle maps and short essays on the major battles, and Garry Wills' Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, because it's a friggin' great book and because it's hard to imagine a better appreciation of the great man's language and intellect. And oddly enough...

Shelby Foote's trilogy, which is not good history, but is a damn fine read. I'd read bits and pieces of the first two volumes as a dedicated war-gaming slacker in college, picked up the set at some point and read it with relish, just noting some of the problems I'd already been warned about. But then I picked it up again a few years back and read straight through, and I was, let's say, somewhat mazed by the remarkable congruence between the ahistorical and mythological materials he includes and the Lost Cause romanticism that bubbles up from below the surface over and over. Maybe I've just grown less forgiving about that sort of thing in the last thirty years. I think he did well not to footnote. Still, there are much less entertaining ways to spend several weeks, and one comes away with a classic, Kings and Battles, standard American understanding (that is to say, Dixiecentric, the only time I can think of when history was written by the losers) of the war.

As for Lincoln in '64, if I left the impression of thinking he faced no real re-election worries I hope I did so in the same way Darwin emphasized gradual change over enormous periods--more as a rebuttal of the misuse of facts than a dogmatic belief. The war did turn bloody and wasteful--make that bloodier and wastefuller--that year, and no one can deny that Atlanta assured Lincoln's victory. But neither can anyone claim his defeat was a forgone conclusion without it. Lincoln knew the war was won militarily. He'd discussed Reconstruction plans in the fall of '63. He also knew that the war's opponents might gain control of the government, and he'd pledged to supporters that he'd make an all-out push for military victory in the event he had but months left to serve. Suggesting by extension that George W. Bush "knows" victory has been achieved, and has merely to figure out how to get this information "over" to an ignorant and war-weary public would be an egregious lapse in an armchair military historian; coming as it does, as a cynical partisan ploy involving more sacrifice and death on the part of the military it is damned infamy.


Anonymous said...

I'll take Bruce Catton any day over Foote; either in his history-as-story or the footnoted and documented versions.

John deVille said...

Thank you kindly for your kind words. I'll second Wills' book and add to it Harold Holzer's Lincoln at Cooper Union which chronicles the writing, the delivery, and the reaction to the speech that put Lincoln in the White House. And since we're on the topic of Lincoln's words, everybody go read or re-read Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address> which gets far less attention than the Gettysburg Address, and in my opinion, is the superior rhetoric.

I'll second the Foote suggestion even though I've just some sections of the trilogy but one just doesn't read Foote for the information, as much as one might read how someone controlled a literal quill pen with such grace.

I don't know if the standard American understanding is Dixiecentric, although it certainly appears that way. The issue goes to the heart of who won and lost after 1876. The North certainly won on the issues of Union and a strong central government but it lost for the next 100 years on the issue of racial equality. It's a long argument as to why and how, but suffice it to say that much of the reconciliation between the North and South was borne on the backs of the Southern black -- the war became their fault and it was best that he be sent back into the wilderness of subservience for the sake of healing the nation. And since the on that score a Dixiecentric view served both factions equally well, why not let the Footes of the world write it? If you're a Yankee, one could retain the smug moral high ground with a wistful shake of the head of the romance with the Lost Cause while secretly keeping an interior racist candle burning. That's why no Voting Rights Law until 1965 and only then in the shadow of the Cold War with the continent of Africa in play.

I must obviously concede that Lincoln's political defeat was not a foregone conclusion without the taking of Atlanta -- that's the nature and the beauty of counterfactuals -- they cannot be proved but they sure as hell can proved something to go with a pitcher of beer for history geeks. Similarly, I think Doghouse has to concede that the war wasn't won militarily until Lee and Johnston surrendered because the political realm influenced, if not flat out controlled, the military realm. Yes, the trend for inevitable defeat was there. The British looked to have everything locked up after shooting Washington's fleeing men in the back at Long Island and the British could have continued to send more troops in after Yorktown, but the political situation in London changed in 1782/1783 retroactively making Yorktown the essential final success.

But that's a quibble between like-minded folks.

This whole war has forced me to reconsider Lincoln and the Civil War. I consider Lincoln and George W. Bush to be the two most radical presidents in our history. Lincoln bet the farm and got at least a partial but crucially essential victory at the terrible price of 2% of the nation's population.

George W. Bush has gone all in with the US Army and Marines and has devastated their ranks and their effectiveness. He has bequeathed to thousands of servicemen and women a lifetime of dealing with a debilitating and often painful injury. He has saddled tens of thousands with a lifetime of dealing with PTSD. He always has lied whereas Lincoln tended to tell the truth. All he knows is that Daddy cannot give him any more chips to sit at the table like he has his whole life and he's pissed that the American people can't be duped into providing just a little more credit so he can mount his comeback.

I highly recommend Peter Galbraith's essay> in the current NY Review of books on where the Iraq situation is, which is truly fucked.

Anonymous said...

While we're talking history here, I have to recommend "World Undone" by G. J. Meyer, discussing WWI. I found it to be an eminently readable single volume, laid out in nice chapter-then-background sections (in different fonts even!). Most of all, I came away with the sad realization that personalities of screwed-up individuals can have such ramifications. Even as I write this, I realize I can't convey what I got out of the book.

Somewhere along the line, history became as least equal to the best fiction I read.

Vivek said...

Redemption: The Last Battle Of The Civi l War by Nicholas Lemann is a pretty nice telling of the beginning of the end of Reconstruction, while we're recommending books here.