Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Book Review: The Stars in Their Courses

Much like The Beleaguered City Shelby Foote's The Stars in Their Courses is culled from his epic, three volume, 2,968 page, 1.2 million word The Civil War: A Narrative.  Also like the initial work mentioned here, Stars recounts one of the most pivotal and famous events in not only the Civil War but in the history of our country as well.  The title of the work refers to an observation of the South's efforts at the battle of Gettysburg and how it appered fated to fail, that Lee was fighting not only the North but the course of history as well.

Foote's narrative, and that's what it is, not just a recapping of dry facts and figures, is again superb.  I have read no other work of military history that is as thoroughly enjoyable to read as his works.  One is able to grasp the larger movements at work during the various engagements while never leaving the intimate feelings and thoughts of individual players taking part.

Foote masterfully weaves documented evidence, personal journals, letters, reports, recollections, etc. into a true story of the events at the battle at Gettysburg in this work.  It truly was shocking to me how little I knew of this battle upon reading this book.  I always had an image in my minds eye as to what this critical event looked like, derived from those brief mentions in grammar and high school history books but learning what actually occurred was one of the most satisfying experience in reading that I have ever had.

Seeing the blunders on both sides of the battle (but more particularly on Lee and the South's part) and finding out just how close the battle was in swinging one way or the other brought home just how chaotic, random warfare can be and how close the South came to at the worst, winning the Civil War or at best, extending the war by many years.

If you want a proper understanding of the most consequential battle in our country's history, you would do well to acquire this book.  In closing I will let Mr. Foote describe why a historical narrative, such as the style in which he chose to craft his account of the Civil War, can be as, if not more valuable than a simple regurgitation of body counts and dollar signs as is taught to our kids in school.

I am what is called a narrative historian. Narrative history is getting more popular all the time but it's not a question of twisting the facts into a narrative. It's not a question of anything like that. What it is, is discovering the plot that's there just as the painter discovered the colors in shadows or Renoir discovered these children. I maintain that anything you can possibly learn about putting words together in a narrative form by writing novels is especially valuable to you when you write history. There is no great difference between writing novels and writing histories other than this: If you have a character named Lincoln in a novel that's not Abraham Lincoln, you can give him any color eyes you want to. But if you want to describe the color of Abraham Lincoln's, President Lincoln's eyes, you have to know what color they were. They were gray. So you're working with facts that came out of documents, just like in a novel you are working with facts that came out of your head or most likely out of your memory. Once you have control of those facts, once you possess them, you can handle them exactly as a novelist handles his facts. No good novelist would be false to his facts, and certainly no historian is allowed to be false to his facts under any circumstances. I've never known, at least a modern historical instance, where the truth wasn't superior to distortion in every way.

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