Over the last week, I read four passages of interpretation in Shelby Foote’s The Civil War that especially caught my interest. The first is just a phrase: the South, he says, started a “Conservative revolution.” The historical events that the word revolution most readily calls to my mind – the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution – all involve (theoretically) large segments of society overturning a smaller, privileged aristocracy. The leaders of the southern American states of 1861, by contrast, fought as an aristocratic minority. Foote’s simple phrase helped me see that rather astonishing difference.
Next comes a character summary of William L. Yancey, an Alabamian sent by the Confederate States to Europe to try to gain the support of France and England. “Nothing in his personality,” says Foote, “had shown that he would be armed with patience against discouragement or with coolness against rebuff, or indeed that he was in any way suited to a diplomatic post.” I don’t care so much about Yancey himself (except in that I’m happy that his mission failed) as I do about the generic description of diplomacy. If I judge myself honestly according to Foote’s short list of criteria, I have to blame myself for some past failures in negotiation.
The last two comments concern arguably the most fascinating figure in American history. Abraham Lincoln, the only American ever to lead military operations in the field while President, studied strategy textbooks in the first year of the War. Gen. George McClellan humored his Commander-in-Chief’s recommendations for battle plans, but as Foote tells it, Lincoln was the first Northener to understand the overall strategy that geography and population dictated: the South could quickly concentrate forces to win battles, so the North would have to make simultaneous attacks in multiple theaters. Well, if anyone else saw saw that truth earlier, it certainly wasn’t the cunctative McClellan. Lincoln, though, may only have been the first one with any authority to see the big picture. Neither Grant nor Lee were in charge of much by the end of 1861, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that they were already thinking grand strategy themselves.
Any time I see a mention of Lincoln’s melancholy condition now, my attention is piqued. Joshua Shenk’s examination of Lincoln’s temperament (I wrote a little bit about it here) changed the way I think both about the sixteenth President and about myself. When Foote reports Lincoln’s statement from near the end of 1861, “The bottom is out of the tub,” he says that bemoaning the end of all hope was only Lincoln’s way of dealing with his melancholy, a plaint uttered to make reality seem less dire by comparison. “Lincoln was his own psychiatrist,” he comments. I know the danger in speaking out fears and doom. But I also know that some vocal worrying often jump-starts the process of solution-finding. I’m glad to see Foote recognize the possibility and praise Lincoln for it.