Sunday, March 22, 2015

Traveling on Foote

Fifty years ago, my family went to Springfield, Illinois, and I got interested in the Civil War; I didn’t know then exactly when I would visit other sites associated with the war. Ten years ago, I drew up my current ten-year reading plan; I didn’t know then what I would be doing in March of year 9. Last year, I got a job at the University of Tennessee; I didn’t know then exactly when I’d travel to see any given Civil War sites in the area. A couple of months ago, my wife and I decided to go to Virginia for a Spring Break trip; I didn’t remember then that I had scheduled Shelby Foote’s The Civil War for March.

This past Monday, we traveled up I-81 to New Market and then went east on US-211 to cross Massanutton Mountain and visit Shenandoah National Park. That very morning I had read about part of Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign of 1862, in which he went north through the wider part of Shenandoah Valley, then turned east at New Market and took his army through the gap in Massanutton Mountain. We followed in his very footsteps. Wednesday, we visited battle sites east of Richmond. That evening, I went back to the motel and picked up the book to resume my steady pace of fifteen pages per day; it turns out I read that evening about the Seven Days battles east of Richmond, which even took place in the order in which we had visited them that very day. Stonewall’s footsteps are difficult to account for in those June days of 1862, but I can say we followed in the footsteps of Robert E. Lee. Seldom (if ever?) has my scheduled reading so closely coincided with the rest of my life.

Someone has called Foote the American Homer. One surface-level detail in Foote’s massive three-volume narrative that justifies the comparison to my mind is his use of various sobriquets for the characters. The blind bard calls Achilles variously “son of Peleus” and “the swift-footed” as well as “Achilles.” Similarly, while Foote usually calls General G. P. T. Beauregard “Beauregard,” he sometimes styles him as “the hero of Sumter and Manassas” (especially when Beauregard is about to mess up), and often as “the Creole.”

But perhaps a better basis for likening Foote to Homer is that Foote concentrates not on the clearest exposition of orders of battle (as a few curmudgeonly raters on Amazon enjoy pointing out) but on the emotions of the characters and groups. I know that the Confederacy survives 1862 and eventually loses in 1865, but Foote has me feeling the dread that filled Jefferson Davis’s people in that second summer of the war. It really feels like the war could end any minute. The author does this partly by shifting his narrator’s eye from Tennessee to Virginia, from the Valley to Richmond. He achieves the effect partly by quoting both generals and privates. I may not know exactly where Magruder’s corps was during the battle of Savage’s Station, but I know what it feels like to be in those woods.

But then again, I was just in those woods.

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