Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Two Minute Review - The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote

The Civil War: A Narrative - Part One Fort Sumter to Perryville

Two minutes hardly seems like enough time to get started on this one.  For a change, I picked this up as an audiobook.  Very slowly, I'm becoming accustomed to the format, remembering to make an effort to listen along to the recording and to avoid letting my attention wandering.  It's taken a lot of getting used to, particularly with this book; it clocks in at just over thirty seven hours.

Shelby Foote, apart from his literary works, is probably best known for his appearances on Ken Burn's Civil War documentary series.  He had a wonderful voice and a unique way of thinking about the Civil War, particularly his habit of speaking as if it was still ongoing.  This first volume of three, covers the build up to and the first two years of the war.

I'm at a bit of a loss as to describe the work.  Foote certainly gives you an account, mainly chronological, of the conflict, but it's a meandering, seamless narrative where events flow into one another.  Although a chapter might start on the western front, about whatever problems Bragg is facing, the chapter could wander off to talk about the Southern press or Lincoln's personal life or the naval blockade.  Yet the narrative always, in hindsight, has a logic and structure that keeps you hooked in.  Throughout, I was never metaphorically lost wherever the author went.

The way the battles, particularly Antietam, unfold are inspired; there are no big announcements that one of the war's set pieces is coming up.  Instead, we follow the two armies as they march along, choose their positions and skirmish.  Soon you're being told about the fierce fighting and you can't quite exactly recall when battle started.  Somehow, this seems very fitting for the subject matter.

What struck me was how well characterised the main personalities are. Partly this comes from the author's own opinion on certain figures, but also from the frequent quotations from letters and diaries etc.  A case in point is McClellan, whose letters are quoted extensively. Reading (or listening) along, you feel frustrated at his inability to do anything, then feel his excitement as battle draws near and, ultimately, you feel sorry for him as he is quietly removed from command.  Perhaps it is due to the fact I was being read to, but I haven't had that reaction to any other book on the American Civil War.

At this point in any review, you're supposed to point out any criticisms you have of a work. After racking my brain for a while, I can honestly say I have none.  Pushed hard, I'd say that TCW wouldn't be suitable as an introduction to the conflict.  Due to the authors sojourns and detours, without at least an existing idea of the structure of the war, a new reader could get a little lost along the way.  Access to a selection of suitable maps is a huge help.

Sadly, the recording I listened to was not narrated by the author himself.  The style of writing and the turn of phrase used (particularly the quotations from dispatches and letters) would have been wonderful to hear in the author's particular southern accent.  The narrator used does a satisfactory enough job, but he's a touch too fifties newsreader in tone for my tastes.

Quite frankly I can't recommend this book highly enough.  From Grant's preferred expletives to the Beauregard's choice of dress uniform, if you like your history with plenty of character you won't be disappointed.  A bit of a pause will be required before listening to volume two, looking ahead, it clocks in at over forty seven hours!


  1. This is so timely! I just joined so I have something other than podcasts to listen to while I paint. I'm going to grab this one and listen away. THANKS for the review!

    1. I downloaded it and right away, I'm hooked! I'm embarrassed to say I've had the books in my collection for years but never picked them up. Audiobook is the perfect companion to painting.

  2. This book is incredible - listened to it as well. It pulled me into a history that normally doesn't grab me.

  3. I read the books years ago and they are great. I have found that listening to books can be a bit challenging with the whole mind wandering thing.