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Civil War

“This country has two great sins on its very soul. One is slavery, which we’ll never get out of our history and our conscience… the marrow of our bones. The other one is emancipation.

They told four million people, ‘You are free. Hit the road.’ Two-thirds of them couldn’t read or write. Very few of them had any trade except farming, and they went back into a sharecropper system that closely resembled peonage. I’m not saying emancipation is a sin, for God’s sake… but it should have been an emancipation that brought those people into society without all these handicaps on their head. And now, my black friends, they are tremendously protective about slavery. They don’t want to hear the word. The opposite of the Jews, who are very proud of coming out of Egypt. And it was this short-circuiting, this instant emancipation… it had a very bad effect on them.

I don’t know whether it’s a lesson or not, but I think it needs to be looked at as if you were in that time and place. A lot of things change when you move back to being a part of it…

Go back to the time. Muzzle-loading weapons sound awful primitive. They didn’t seem primitive to them. They were a new kind of infantry rifle that was deadly at 200 yards. That was a tremendous step forward. And the tactics were based on the old musket, which was accurate at about 60 feet. They mostly lined up shoulder to shoulder and moved against a position, and got blown down because they were using tactics with these very modern weapons. They were using the old-style tactics with very modern weapons. A few of the men realized that, Bedford Forrest for instance. He would never make a frontal attack on anything with this new weapon in their hands. But too many of them, including Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, followed the old tactics against these modern weapons. That’s why the casualties — there were 1,095,000 casualties in the Civil War. If today you had that same ratio, you’d have something like 10 million casualties, to give you some idea of what happened.

It was far worse in the South than it was in the North. One out of four southerners of conscriptable age was a casualty in that war. In the year after the war, the state of Mississippi spent one-fifth of its income on artificial arms and legs for the veterans. Very few people today realize how devastating that war was, especially to the South, but to the North too. A lot of fine men went into graves in that thing. There’s no telling how many Miltons or John Keatses got buried.”



From Shelby Foote’s June 1999 interview with the Academy of Achievement. You’ll find similar and extended reflections in his three-part opus The Civil War and in William C. Carter’s catalog of Conversations with Shelby Foote.

Later in their conversation, the historian is asked to entertain the counterfactual and assess whether the Civil War — with its million-plus casualties — can be rightfully called “inevitable.”

Interviewer: Now that we have 130 years of hindsight, did the Civil War have to be fought?

Foote: There’s a lot of argument about that.

The fact that it was fought seems to me to prove it had to be fought, but even at the time, Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, called it “an irrepressible conflict.” And indeed, the differences were so sharp, especially by the extremists on both sides: the Abolitionists in the North and the Fire-eaters in the South… there was scarcely any way to settle it except fighting. Just as two men can get so angry at each other, the only way to settle a thing is to step out in the alley and have a fistfight. People don’t do that much any more. They’re more apt to take some blind-side swing at somebody instead of a real fight. But I think there probably wasn’t any other way to settle it. Now if we were the superior creatures we claim to be as Americans, we would not have fought that war, but we’re not that superior by a long shot.

These remarks are basically longer forms of a point made several times in Ken Burns’s documentary Civil War: A Film. In it, Foote reiterates the above theme (and can’t help again nodding to his penchant for throwing fists):

Right now I’m thinking a good deal about emancipation. One of our sins was slavery. Another was emancipation. It’s a paradox. In theory, emancipation was one of the glories of our democracy — and it was. But the way it was done led to tragedy. Turning four million people loose with no jobs or trades or learning. And then, in 1877, for a few electoral votes, just abandoning them entirely. A huge amount of pain and trouble resulted. Everybody in America is still paying for it…

People want to know why the South is so interested in the Civil War. I had maybe, it’s a rough guess, about fifty fistfights in my life. Out of those fifty fistfights, the ones that I had the most vivid memory of were the ones I lost. I think that’s one reason why the South remembers the war more than the North does.

The top photograph, taken in 1862, shows the staff of Brigadier General Andrew Porter. Lying next to the dog in the bottom right of the shot is George Custer, who would later on go to fight and die along with his men in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

Below it: figures whose names and dates are unknown. If you have a clue, send it my way.

Read on:

Shelby Foote