Foote’s Civil War, Volume II: Tragedy and Just Causes
I finished Volume II of Foote’s Civil War over the last two days of Passover, and returned to the internet this morning to find two posts at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog with the title and thesis: “The Civil War Isn’t Tragic.” While I find it difficult to look at any war and be truly gladdened that it occurred, I find it similarly difficult to be saddened that a country—my country! How can a part of me not rise up in love at the thought that my country sacrificed so much for such an end?—stood firm and prevented the creation of a neighboring state with the founding premise that the white man is inherently superior and chattel slavery of Africans is the natural, and right order of things.
And yet, I read Foote’s history and find, with his narrator, tragedy. This is not the tragedy of an avoidable war; recall that, for Foote’s narrator, the war’s opening is not tragic but exhilarating. The narrator is more interested (on the surface, at least) in the military narrative of the war than in its causes, results, or the question of moral justification, so it is an exhilaration borne of generalship and a sense of the heroic more than from history’s greater narrative propelling the nation toward the end of slavery. Though that last, too, is present, if in such a way that becomes more apparent as the Narrative progresses.
By the end of Gettysburg, as I have mentioned, exhilaration has given way to frustration, disgust, and tragedy. Rather than a misguided quest for glory, Jeb Stuart’s meandering during the first days of that battle are depicted as a lost child’s desperate search for his father. The scales begin to fall and the South’s “great” men are revealed to be self-serving (Bragg; the Hills; Hood; Stuart; etc.), blindered (Lee), or brutalizers of questionable sanity (Forrest; Quantrill). Longstreet, perhaps, has a measure of redemption in him—but while he, shaking his head at Gettysburg, is the only one who can see the reality of their military efforts, he is merely resigned by honor of some sort to stick around for the ride. Davis is compared from the outset to Lucifer; the image reappears near the end of Volume II as the Rebellion itself, for a moment, takes on the trappings of that angel’s against God.
The comparison is introduced through a letter written by William Tecumseh Sherman, himself a brutal warrior once relieved of duty on account of questionable sanity. Yet he comes in (so far, at least; his march to the sea is not for some hundreds of pages) for less condemnation than his colleagues on the Southern side. The reason is tied to the type of tragedy the narrator sees in the war at this point—and, I think, to the kind most who read of it sense: not that it had to be fought at all, but that it continues without an end at hand while terrain, technology, and the incompetence and “honor”* of the so-called great-men lead to increasing casualty rolls. Sherman’s goal, clearly stated, is a faster end to the war; the narrator knows he will help to bring it.
Thus we have Grant, condemned by some as a butcher, as the hero of the Narrative. Foote, in his letters to Walker Percy, refers to the Union general several times as such; his treatment in the Narrative itself confirms this independently. His ascent to this role has dual causes: he fights, unlike his colleagues on either side, who dilly-dally, blundering into and through battle and prolonging the war, and he fights for the Union. For all the narrator’s fascination with Lee’s and Jackson’s underdog role in the first volume, by the end of the second, the South has condemned itself, militarily and morally.
Here, the sense of the tragic in Foote’s Narrative returns again to TNC’s case that there was nothing tragic about the war. As the combat lulls in the winter of 1863-4 and the seasons inch toward spring and a resumption of full-scale campaigning, Pat Cleburne, a Southern Irishman with, we are told, little faith in the institution of slavery, proposes that the South emancipate its slaves and enlist them in its armies. Not merely a response to the manpower shortage, it would change the moral rubric of the war, demonstrating, Cleburne said, that the South fought not for economic self-interest but truly for principled liberty. The proposal is not merely dismissed by the colleagues to whom he floats it, but they, in indignation, forward it on to higher authorities with the intent and result that this proposal is never spoken of again and that Cleburne’s ascent up the ranks is permanently halted. To free and enlist the slaves, as the famous response had it, would undermine their whole theory of slavery—that is, the stated basis of the revolution itself.
And it is at this point, with the South’s motivations (or, at the very least, those of her leaders, her “great men”) shown for what they truly were, that Grant is summoned to Washington to become the hero of the war. Perhaps he was a butcher, but he ended the war—something no one else, to Foote’s narrator, appears capable and willing to do—and the cause against which he fights has been stripped bare and revealed as wholly unjust.
*The idea of honor, at least as it is conceived of by the generals of this war—particularly the Southern generals—dies for the narrator at Gettysburg, if not before. His attitude toward it as 1863 stumbles into 1864 is revealed fairly clearly in two passages. The first, after the capture of the Morgan brothers and their imprisonment, without visitors, in the Ohio State Penitentiary, speaks for itself:
Hardest of all for them to bear, however, was the indignity of being dressed in convict clothes and shorn of their hair and beards. This last was the ultimate in inhumanity, according to one of the four reunited Morgan brothers, who had the full horror of war brought home to him by the lose of his mustache and imperial. Presently Governor Tod himself tendered what one of the captives called “a most untimely apology for an outrageous and disgraceful act.” The shearing had been an administrative error, the governor explained, but Morgan’s brother Charlton expressed a harsher opinion of the action. “The entire world will stamp it as disgraceful to this nation and the present age,” he fervently protested. (683)
The second is a duel between officers, because one called another a coward for refusing to agree with him:
Walker replied, as expected, with a challenge which was promptly accepted, the terms being “pistols at ten paces to fire and advance,” and the former Memphis businessman fell mortally wounded at the second fire. The conditions of honor having been satisfied in accordance with the code—which, presumably, was one of those things the South was fighting to preserve as part of its “way of life”—presently, after a period of intense suffering by the loser, the Confederacy had one general less than it had had when the two men took position, ten paces apart, and began to walk toward one another.
Within four days of this exchange the South also had one state capital the less. (706-7)
Now, of course, this duel itself does not cause the loss of Little Rock, but the opening of the next paragraph is constructed thus for more than reasons of parallel style. There is, to the narrator, a kind of causal relation between the vanity and waste of this scare-quoted “way of life” and the South’s slow but creeping failure in its bid for independence.