Foote’s Civil War: Spotsylvania and the Death of Jeb Stuart

As the narrator turns his eye to Grant’s first Eastern campaign—the Forty Days—the shift is from chivalry to butchery, or even from an older war closer to our myths to something more terrible because it is more modern, but from a falsely noble and heroic image of war to an image that is sheer horror.  The Narrative has, as I’ve noted earlier, been moving in this direction since, roughly, Gettysburg, but it is only fitting that the culmination should come with the juxtaposition of Stuart’s death and Spotsylvania, a battle the very name of which should still cause shivers in any American who knows his or her history.

Foote, as is his wont, achieves this shift through the novelist’s, rather than the historian’s, use of detail.  Three years of graphic battles have been fought, but it is not until Spotsylvania that we see, in all its gore:

Next time the glass-sighted Whitworth cracked, a couple of minutes later, Sedgwick’s chief of staff was startled to see the fifty-year-old general stiffen, as if in profound surprise, and slowly turn his head to show blood spurting from a half-inch hole just under his left eye.  He pitched forward, taking the unbraced colonel down with him . . .

We have not, to this point, seen the “blood spurting” from a bullet-wound, though we have seen plenty of blood and plenty of wounds—suddenly, however, the gore becomes, for lack of a better way to describe it, more Iliadic than it has been.  When Sedgwick turns to show his wound to his adjunct, he turns to show it to the reader, and when he falls, knocking the colonel from his horse and covering him with blood, he topples toward (and, in a way, onto) the reader himself.

Even more than the gore, there is a growing implication in the narrator’s account that Spotsylvania—and its immediate predecessor, in the Wilderness—are witness to a kind of mass demonic possession.  Lee attempts in both battles to ride at the head of his troops as they charge into the bloodiest points of conflict, only to be stopped, at least four times, as burly veterans take Traveler by the reins and lead their general to the rear.  It was, perhaps, a motivational technique—but the narrator of the volume is not so certain.  While Lee is not cracking, in the heat of these battles, the reader is forced to step back and wonder whether this is truly the Bobby Lee of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.  And then there are the men on both sides, trapped by sheer density at the point of the Mule Shoe in their sixteen-hour “waking nightmare”:

Neither victory nor defeat was any longer a factor in the struggle.  Men simply fought to keep on fighting, and not so much on instinct as on pure adrenalin.  Slaughter became an end in itself, unrelated to issues or objectives, as if it had nothing whatever to do with the war.  Troops were killed by thrusts and stabs through chinks in the log barricade, while others were harpooned by bayoneted rifles flung javelin-style across it.  Sometimes in this extremity even the instinct for self-preservation went by the board.  From point to point, some wrought-up soldier would leap up on the parapet and fire down into the opposite mass of blue or gray, then continue this with loaded rifles passed up by comrades until he was shot down and another wrought-up soldier took his place.  Rain fell, slacked, fell again in sheets, drenching the fighters and turning the floor of their slaughter pen to slime.  Down in the trenches, dead and wounded men were trampled out of sight in the blood-splotched mud by those who staggered up to take their posts along the works, until they too were dropped or forced to retire because their weapons became so powder-fouled from rapid firing that they could not be loaded to fire again.

Even in the Wilderness, there was still room for surprise and terror—but here, the fighting turns grim, numb, and barely human.  But it should not surprise the reader that something both powerful and evil had been unleashed in this fighting: not because we can now look back and hear Sherman’s “War is hell” echoing throughout the four years of this conflict, or because we learned lessons from the World Wars that make the slaughter of this conflict seem tame, but because, several days prior, when the wind picked up and the Wilderness caught fire and roasted the screaming wounded and exhausted of both sides, the narrator glanced skyward, at the red-orange low-hanging clouds, and wondered aloud whether this was earth or Hell itself.

Grant, in Foote’s telling, in the hero of the account, not the butcher (though whether he will hew more closely to the style of Akhilles or his namesake remains to be seen).  He takes no delight in the slaughter—indeed, he seems to be of one mind with the narrator and his friend Sherman’s still unspoken words.  His army, his country, is trapped in a kind of hell, and it is his duty to fight a way out of it.  So he spends both battles sitting on a stump in the woods, wreathed in cigar smoke, whittling aimlessly while delivering orders.  But at night, when the fighting has ceased, he walks back to his tent and upon stepping inside collapses onto his cot and weeps hysterically for half an hour.

*          *          *

But Jeb Stuart is not at Spotsylvania, at least not after his horsemen manage to keep the Federals from occupying the town proper.  He’s in the rear, racing toward Richmond, to answer Phil Sheridan’s challenge to his superiority as a cavalryman.  Sheridan’s men may be racing toward Richmond, but the city is secondary—this is a duel even more than a threat to the capital or supply lines: “He wanted Jeb to win the race, since only in that way would it end in the confrontation he was seeking.”

Stuart does win the race but loses the duel.  He rides into battle as the emblem of what he sought to represent, the substitution of “esprit for numbers,” but also as the highest representative of another kind of war, where one can seek glory and reputation openly and be thought anything other than a madman, where fighting may be terrible but the terrain is not, in fact, the ash-pits of Hell.

When John Huff, a dust-covered middle-aged private takes careful aim and fires at the heavily bearded general in his red cape, ostrich-plumed hat, yellow sash, and gold spurs, it is the culmination, some miles to the south, of the change that is taking place in the trenches at Spotsylvania.  The nature of war has been revealed, and it was not as gallant, flamboyant Jeb Stuart supposed.

 

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14 thoughts on “Foote’s Civil War: Spotsylvania and the Death of Jeb Stuart

  1. “Foote, as is his wont, achieves this shift through the novelist’s, rather than the historians, use of detail.”

    Would you consider this a feature or a bug?

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    • My lack of apostrophe use in “historians” — definitely a bug. Foote’s “novelist’s … use of detail” — a feature. Perhaps the defining feature of the Narrative. Foote is writing a “Narrative” of the Civil War rather than a “History” of the Civil War — while that doesn’t imply non-fidelity to historical fact, it does mean that his primary purpose is to tell a story; and Foote thought of himself as a novelist first and foremost. More to the point, he was a novelist whose great literary role models were Faulkner and Proust: two novelists who viewed the storyteller’s role as, in an important way, that of an investigator of the past and its meaning.

      I wrote a little more about this here: https://ordinary-times.com/blog/2011/04/12/footes-historia/

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    • I feel like I should also add that in my posts on Foote’s “Civil War” I’m not trying to review them as works of history, or use them as a way to provide an overview for League readers of the war itself. Rather, I’m trying to investigate what Foote/his narrator is saying about the Civil War, war in general, the United States, mankind, history, memory, etc. I’m treating it as a work of literature and trying to see what qualities and meaning it brings in this regard — if for no other reason than because I’m a student of literature.

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  2. Spotsylvania, a battle the very name of which should still cause shivers in any American who knows his or her history.

    If only it didn’t instantly bring to mind Boris and Natasha.

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  3. Spotsylvania has never been the symbol of that wars horror for me in the same way that some later battles have, or even the Wilderness that preceded it, largely because unlike those bloody battles, it served a real and important strategic purpose. If Grant gets behind Lee, the war is all but over for Lee’s army, and therefore for the South.

    I think of the pointless slaughter at Franklin because of Hood’s wounded ego — a thousand casualties an hour for five hellish hours. No strategic purpose, no purpose whatsoever. Just charge after charge at Union breastworks, destroying an army, because a general was angry.

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    • It is not a good day when both of my responses thus far to comments involve apologizing for typos… This one is even worse, because my reaction to “reins” as “reigns” is typically something along the lines of what you just said…

      Count me embarrassed. But it’s fixed.

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  4. I appreciate these reviews of Foote’s work. A couple of months ago I started to re-watch Ken Burns’ documentary on the civil war. I of course got to see Foote many times and remembered that I had read the first volume in his classic work but not the other two. I requested and received nice hard bound editions of all three volumes for my birthday and I’m looking forward to reading through it. Thanks for the reviews and the reminder that I need to read through them again/for the first time.

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    • I’m glad I’m doing more than just indulging myself with them.

      I had the (slightly?) strange experience of hearing the narrator’s voice from Burns’ documentary as the voice of the narrator of the first twenty or so pages of the first volume of Foote. I still can’t decide whether that was more amusing or distracting, but it wore off eventually.

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  5. Wall, you realize that you’re tempting me towards sin here right? The sin being that of straying from my dissertation now that I have three free months to work on (hell, maybe even finish) the fisher. So, dammit, stop writing so compellingly about these books!

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    • Glad to be of service… I hear that living in rural cabins without electricity, let alone internet, works wonders for literary output. Or learning how to build fire/whittle/lose touch with one’s sanity. (I can never remember which!)

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