Every time I start an account of the American Civil War, I get the feeling that I’m entering into a scripted tragedy. It helps that nineteenth-century people, especially public figures, spoke as if a playwright were crafting their words for posterity. So many memorable phrases pepper the exposition leading to Civil War: Calhoun’s “peculiar institution,” Seward’s “irrepressible conflict,” Lincoln’s (OK, actually Jesus’s) “house divided.” Seward and Lincoln together came up with “the better angels of our nature.” But sometimes the lines ironically sound too scripted to come from an author. What playwright would have dared to put John Brown on the scaffold and give him the line, “I John Brown an now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood”? Or how about Lincoln telling his friends at Springfield, “I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return”? It’s so improbably stilted and sentimental, he must have actually said it. (Come to think of it, maybe the nineteenth-century authors that sound so stilted and sentimental to us now were strict realists.)
But tragic drama is not just a series of line. Lines are spoken by characters, and characters push forward a plot. And in the Civil War tragedy, the plot’s events roll down with the pull of gravity to their inevitable cataclysm. Take Stephen Douglas and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Thirty years of negotiation and compromise in Congress had kept the ripping seams of the nation held together by a few delicate threads. And then Douglas proposes overthrowing the compromise, tossing away the peace, for what? What did he care whether Nebraskans got to vote on slavery in their territory? His home state of Illinois was a free state, after all. And what did he get out of it in the end? A couple of years in the Senate and then an overwhelming loss to Lincoln in the presidential election. But once the blood started flowing on the Kansas-Missouri border, nothing would stop it until the surrender at Appomattox Court House.
Shelby Foote captures all the flavor of the tragedy in his monumental telling of the Civil War. His section on Gettysburg – this section alone, published also on its own, has the length of a complete book – bears the title “Stars in Their Courses,” a biblical phrase suitable to the whole three-volume work and the predestined somberness that it shares with the book of Judges. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Foote’s achievement is his ability to tell both the character-driven stories and the military actions with equally convincing detail.
The people who played out the tragedy of the American Civil War were my great-great-grandparents. I have pictures of some of them. I’ve talked to people who talked with them. With just two degrees of separation, they don’t really seem all that distant to me. But then Foote shows me just how different they were. When representatives of the seceded South Carolina come to Fort Sumter under a flag of truce, U. S. Army General Robert Anderson tells them he cannot give up the fort without losing his honor, although he knows his situation is untenable. His enemies, the men who will within hours pull the lanyards of the guns that will force the surrender, understand perfectly and shake his hand before departing to start four years of killing. During the bombardment, when after a couple minutes of silence the poorly supplied Federal fort resumes its meager, futile counter-volley, the South Carolinians actually cheer and applaud the determination of their foes. Oh, yes, these people come from a different culture. I grew up during the Vietnam War, and I don’t remember any handshaking or cheering.