While Confederate women and civilians pressured their sons, husbands, brothers, and fellow-citizens into fighting, those men, like one lieutenant wrote, “asked himself the question: What is this all about? Why is it that 200,000 men of one blood and one tongue, believing as one man in the fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man, should in the nineteenth century of the Christian era be thus armed with all the improved appliances of modern warfare and seeking one another’s lives? We could settle our differences by compromising, and all be home in ten days.”
There were, of course, reasons aplenty that compromising would have been a satisfactory end to the war—it had causes and reasons that existed outside the battlefield as well as on it—but this brings us to the Narrative’s distinction between what the war was “about” for those who fought it and for those who did not—for those, in some cases, who caused or prolonged it. While the former, at the war’s outset, may not have understood what war “means,” by the time this Confederate officer lies in the fortifications outside of Petersburg, writing under starlight, it has been brought home to him and his comrades-in-arms quite clearly, “a grim struggle for survival,” all the more so for his side once the reality of numbers and food set in during the winter of 1864-5.
Whether Foote, or his narrator (because I do want to try to keep them distinct, in a least some small way) believed that Confederate enlistees and conscripts ultimately resented those on the home front who pressured and shamed them into fighting (we’ll leave alone those who, like Forrest, dragged them to the lines at gun- and sword-point), he does not condemn those Union officers who did blame the Confederate home front for causing and prolonging the war:
“This may seem a hard species of warfare,” he [Sherman] declared, “but it brings the sad realities of war home to those who have been directly or indirectly instrumental in involving us in its attendant calamities.” Such, after all, was one of the main purposes of the expedition, and if, in its course, southern women had been subjected to certain discourtesies in their homes, there was a measure of justice in that as well, since they were among the fieriest proponents of a war that might have ended by now except for their insistence that it be fought to the last ditch. Many of the soldiers believed as much, at any rate. “You urge young men to the battlefield where men are being killed by the thousands, while you stay at home and sing The Bonnie Blue Flag,” an Ohio colonel heard one of his troopers lecture a resentful housewife, “but you set up a howl when you see the Yankees down here getting your chickens. Many of your young men have told us they are tired of war, and would quit, but you women would shame them and drive them back.”
Perhaps the narrator does not condemn the Union hard-heartedness (and methods of warfare that, today, we may well consider to be questionably legal at best) not out of intellectual sympathy, but because he recognizes that Fate itself seems determined to drive home the same message to Confederate civilians. Take the results of Hood’s preference for destroying his own army at Franklin rather than set aside what he thought were a set of very elegantly drawn battle-plans:
Nor was the horror limited to those who had been actively involved; Franklin’s citizens now knew, almost as well as did the few survivors among the men they had sent away three years ago, the suffering that ensued once the issue swung to war. This was especially true of the Carter family, an old man and his two daughters who took shelter in their cellar, just in rear of the initial breakthrough point, while the fighting raged outside and overhead. Emerging next morning from their night of terror, they found the body of their son and brother, Captain Tod Carter of Brown’s division, Chetham’s corps, lying almost on the doorstep he had come home to when he died.
Other families in Tennessee are more fortunate, and see their soldiers alive—but do not recognize them in their tattered, dirt-coated uniforms and new-won thinness. As the Narrative draws to a close, what unfolds is, in greater part than has been the case up to now—as, in fact, it must have been during the war—the realization, primarily on the part of the Southern home front, of just what was unleashed onto the continent in 1861—not, mind you, when Carolina voted to secede the December prior, but when its Charleston batteries began firing on Sumter. If the Civil War, or at least Foote’s Narrative, is tragedy, then Sherman’s march is its anagnorisis.
* * *
Two notes on this series of posts:
First, there will, very likely, be only two more on Foote’s Civil War, one on what it argues the war was “about,” and likely another on Davis and Lincoln, but primarily Davis. I have two more sub-chapters to get through—the end of Kirby Smith-dom and then the war’s aftermath, before I’m going to write begin thinking about them. Some of you may cheer this turn of events; others may weep tears of sorrow; do as you please, but be warned: this is tempting me to turn back to Faulkner for the first time in some years.
Second, just a quick what-I’m-doing-here: I am interested in this work not because of its role as a monument to the present historical profession, but because it is an important literary achievement. In earlier times, Foote would have been more easily called an historian; today, writing history with a literary paradigm and design leaves one uncertain whether he sat at his desk and invoked Clio or Calliope. Foote’s Narrative also has the distinction—unlike many notable literary works—of having worked its way into the American cultural imagination. (Much of the credit for this goes, probably, to Ken Burns.) This makes it more relevant—because it is a work that is making an argument about what war, and this war, mean and meant, and about the idea of America. Others may be more interested in the factual history of the Civil War; my interest (as tends to be the case) falls on the attempts of literature to grapple with and understand it.