On the bookshelf across from where I am sitting are two trilogies that both try to tell the story of the entire war. One is well known these days – Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative, published in the mid-Twentieth Century. The other was well know in its day but is less so now — Benson Lossing’s Pictorial Field Book of the Civil War, first published in the late 1860s. In a chronologically reversed tribute, Lossing has been referred to as “The Shelby Foote of the 19th century”. But that is where the similarity ends. Structurally and stylistically the two works are quite different.
A big difference is the way that the two authors segment the war. Lossing devotes considerable space to the buildup to war during 1860 and early 1861. His first volume opens with the presidential conventions in 1860 and only goes as far as the battle of Bull Run in July 1861. For Foote, the focus is more on the military action and he moves more quickly through the early part of the war. His first volume ends in fall of 1862, over a year later than Lossing. Both then put about a year and a half into their second book such that Foote starts the third book in spring 1864 whereas Lossing is only as far as mid 1863.
I appreciate Lossing’s attention to political developments and the way he highlights characters and actions often marginalized in more modern works. But the result is that too much is crammed into his third volume. I think Foote had the right idea about how to segment the war. To me late 1862 is a pivotal time. There was a shift in US leadership as major leaders of the early war faded. McClellan and Buell were relieved of command, Butler was replaced, Pope and McDowell were sent packing, Curtis sidelined himself, and while Halleck continued as General-in-Chief Lincoln had become aware of his limitations. Late 1862 was also when the mid-term congressional elections occurred and Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, changing the politics of the war. Likewise, I feel that the spring of 1864 is a good break between the middle and final thirds of war. Grant took control of the situation in Virginia and Sherman in Georgia, setting up the campaigns that would bring the war to an end.
How would you segment the war for storytelling purposes?
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