By Shelby Foote
Suffering has no flag. Pain has no territory. Death visits us all. These are human experiences which transcend any qualities we may attribute to ourselves. Most people have heard and read of the politics, the power, and the epic battles of the Civil War era. In "Chicamauga", compiled and partially written by Shelby Foote, we see our own eyes in the eyes of the nameless and formless soldiers and victims of a country divided. Through fiction, Foote succeeds in showing the striking imperfection and cold reality of the Civil War's events as opposed to our usual objectification and romanticism of a very real and sobering event. To a "modern man" it is somewhat like a tear falling from the television screen while a bullet rips through your dream. Where did the drama go?
The drama of our nation splitting apart and fighting itself , which is usually spell bounding and intriguing at least, loses its fascination to "small" men's' reality. Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln are very powerful, principled men. Even in the written word alone, their charisma can seem to draw you in to the power politics of the time. The economic dual between the North and South can, as well, draw one into the process of taking sides and becoming passionate about a particular course of action. The events leading to the civil war and the fighting itself are no doubt extremely enigmatic and almost magnetic in a way. Yet in "Chicamauga", it is the plight of small players in battle who sober your outlook from intrigue to true understanding. It is the individual suffering and confusion which color this great event. Events which you formerly saw as two sided, or perhaps even one-sided, now become ambiguous and gray. Right and wrong become confused with courage and fear. Reality and illusion intermingle to help men deal with whatever trauma may arise in the next moment. These are the legacy's told in "Chicamauga".
In the very first fictional short story "A Young Soldier's First Battle" by Stephen Crane, one sees the vast difference between the thoughts of one very fragile human being versus the power and glory of a battle for ideals in the landscape of an entire country's civil war. While Abraham Lincoln and other's in places of power may be contemplating morality and economics, one young man is contemplating death and obedience, his life versus the regiment's life, and this struggle is multiplied by the thousands every second. Where does the true drama lie, if there is to be any at all. The real legacy of the civil war is in this young man's mind. "(The War) enclosed him. And these were iron walls of tradition and law on four sides"(P.11). The glory and drama disappear from the war here. This young man is just a pawn of "tradition and law". He was trapped in this war by force and it was only his duty now to try and survive it. He could not defeat the Confederacy in his eyes nor did he desire to do so. What he could do was lose his life in a meaningless battle. Yet when the battle came and the mystery was solved, "he became not a man but a member"(p. 24). He lost himself to his regiment, his army, his government. This is the tragedy of thousands of men just like this one. Men who lost themselves, whether through death or through the horrors of battle, to a cause that was not wholly their own.
In the story of "Chicamauga" by Thomas Wolfe, men lose themselves again to the events which modern readers often see through merely historically significant filters. I've never read a speech by Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln about the gentleman at the battle at Chicamauga who lost his chance to get an education. Nor have I heard anyone mention that this man died many deaths during this war, although his heart still beat. He lost the man he would have been had the war not taken his chance for a good education away. The man who was not a gambler before the war, died in surrender to the man who was "ready for anything"(P.51) during the war. Where are all the stories, the millions of stories, of men's many deaths before even their physical deaths. Again, the drama of the historical war fades in the context of the individual suffering and death which history is built upon.
Even civilians like Peyton Farquhar suffered the uniformity of suffering and death which did not discriminate among men during this tragic war. A mere planter in the south, who happened to have taken a side which was no longer the authority. In this planter we see the meaninglessness of his death. Hung, alone from a bridge, left to live out his only escape in his mind while death grips his neck. Reality and illusion come together here as often seemed the case in every aspect of the civil war. Farquhar lived his escape out through his thoughts even as he was about to be hanged. How many generals lived their victory only to be flanked in defeat in reality. This man's death show's us the hopelessness that so many men dealt with through the illusions of grandeur that ran through their minds and that often predominate our thinking today in relation to the Civil war's events. If ever the reader of Shelby Foote's compilation lapsed into the former drunken romanticism with the past, this one man's pitiful dream of escape with a rope around his neck surely brought them to a sober reality.
In the short story "Fish-Hook Gettysburg" by Stephen Vincent Benet, the reader is once again brought back to a more romantic view of the events of the war through a narrative style description. Events in this selection roll past the reader with a more movie like feeling to them as if there are no real consequences to the events. Yet, ironically, Benet is able to use an almost sarcastic, nonchalant awareness of this objective recount of this history to draw attention to the very fact that the actual events were far more significant than his narrative can draw attention to:
"The pale faced women, huddled behind draw blind Back in town, or in apple-cellars, hiding, Thought it the end of the world, no doubt. And yet, As the books remark, it was only a minor battle."(P.131)
We see here that although the narrative is calm and objective, the description paints a far more intense picture of the individual reaction which in turn contrasts the historical accounts of such battles as this one in particular. So, even through selection of a comparatively calm piece of fiction, Foote succeeds in shocking the reader in new ways to acknowledge the plight of the individuals who become blurred through the historical lens.
In "Pillar of Fire" by Shelby Foote, we see the marriage of the many forms which the civil war existed. Geographically, the differences in ideology and physical geography are touched upon. The politics of the country are discussed and the sides are drawn to some extent. The southern planters have their opinions, and the northerners have their opinions and there are many permutations of personalities depending on politics and place of residence. There were civilians and vengeful soldiers who burned down their houses. But what is all this but yet another story similar to all the previous ones which we have just read yet headed under one title. Couldn't we have gotten a more than realistic break through to the personal, human tragedies of the civil war and her actors without Shelby Foote's own contribution? Yes, however, Foote adds a note to this compilation which is powerfully moving and symbolic of what the lesson of this book is in relation to the civil war and to life in general. This lesson comes in the form of a civilian, and in relative peace. There is no hanging involved. There are no roaring canons or sheets of muskets hurling through the air. One man's wife died in a few short seconds. She had been working in the house one moment and the next she was dead. This man's reaction is the Truth of this book: "He was bewildered at last by mortality, by a world in which a person could sneeze and say, 'God bless me: I feel dizzy,' and then be dead"(P.191-192). It is the impermanence of life and its living that is the great lesson of all the individuals and struggles which this book brings to light through the civil war. What is truly important is not so much the great speeches and battle strategies, but the head on struggle of every human being with their own mortality in the context of daily living, even in a great civil war. A man fighting at Antietam still has to have a meal whether death looms overhead or not. The fear of death and need to live exist together.
This book was truly about individuals struggling to exist when existence is constantly threatened and insecure. There are more large scale political, economic, and military issues which exist, yet these other issues exist on the backs of individual struggle. The characters in these stories are the paper on which some man's great speech and declaration lie. It is the stories of these civilians, soldiers, and reincarnate survivors who teach about the civil war, both of a country and of single hearts in agony. Shelby Foote succeeds in shattering the malaise of history that covers the many realities of the Civil war era.