Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign June-July 1863
About the Author
Shelby Foote was born in Mississippi. His father died when he was five leaving his mother to raise him alone, he was also an only child. He was a reader from his early years, mainly because he was so alone. He was a teenager during the Great Depression. At the age of thirteen he became friends with Walker Percy, who he would remain friends with for 60 years and whose friendship is recorded in a book of the letters between the two friends.
Foote was editor of his high school paper and after high school went on to the University of North Carolina, where he contributed to the literary magazine. He dropped out of college during the second world war and joined the National Guard. He began writing fiction while waiting to go to war and in 1946 decided to write full-time.
Foote's first novel was published in 1949 with four more quickly following. These novels included "Tournament," "Follow Me Down" and "Love in a Dry Season."
Foote also published a fictional account of the Civil War battle, titled "Shiloh." This novel was met with popular success and Foote was asked to write a short history of the Civil War by Random House. Foote agreed but told the publisher a single volume would not be enough to tell the story. Random House agreed to publish a trilogy on the subject.
Foote began working on the trilogy, writing 500 words a day. It took him 20 years to complete. The three volumes of "The Civil War: A Narrative" were published between 1958 and 1974. They have since been printed eighteen times.
While Foote was known as a great novelist by many critics and readers he became really well-known when he appeared on the PBS special, "The Civil War."
Shelby Foote is a well-known author of civil war books and novels. "Stars in Their Courses" is an excerpt from one book of a three part series that deals with the civil war, the series titled, "The Civil War: A Narrative." The excerpt taken deals with the Gettysburg campaign of 1863, what is often regarded as the central event of the Civil War.
The book begins by setting the stage for the sixty day period that would later become known as the Gettysburg campaign. Foote describes the decision to invade Pennsylvania. He describes Lee encouraging his soldiers to fight. We are told of Lee's four previous victories and introduced to Meade, the Pennsylvanian commander appointed to oppose Lee. We see that Lee is not in as good a position as he normally is with a delay on the reconnaissance mission of Stuart, leaving Lee with little information on enemy position and troop strength.
The charge is ordered by Lee and executed by Longstreet, a commander reluctant to carry out the charge. This reluctance was shared by many other commanders, except Pickett who was sure of success. We are also introduced to Pettigrew, an intellectual and accomplished commander. We see four of his regiments defeated in a Union assault, despite them outnumbering the Union and having an excellent battle record.
We are also introduced to the University Greys, a regiment made up of students from the State University. They almost reach the Union line but the entire regiment is lost.
Overall, Lee lost 11,000 men, and the Union forces watched their retreat.
The book closes with Lee accepting the blame for the losses, with the troops remaining supportive of their leader. The Gettsyburg campaign comes to an end.
How The Story Is Told
While the story is based on historical fact, it is told in the style of a novel. It is told as a story, with characters introduced, tensions built and the scene described in great depth. This is a result of the brilliance of Foote. It his ability to combine historical information and present it as a story that makes him a truly gifted writer and makes his books so unique.
A telling of the facts could never have captured the events as Foote does. He puts a truth into them that makes for compelling reading.
First, the characters are described so that the reader really feels as if they known them. The commanders are not seen only as commanders on the battlefield, we are also given some insight into them as people. Such as Pettigrew who we see as the scholar, the educated man, though on the battlefield this means little. By doing this, the reader is able to associate these commanders with real people, people they know. This is one of the truths of war, that on the battlefield, everyone there is just a person, a person with a real life back home. This fact is easily forgotten. But it is driven home by Foote's characters.
Foote also tells the story not just from the viewpoint of the leader or the commanders but also from the foot soldiers. These men too, we see, are normal men with normal lives. The University Greys is a good example. We see these men not as soldiers but as school boys playing at soldiers, forced into this role, yet glad to fight. Again there is a reality to this, that these soldiers were not born to fight but that fighting has become part of their lives. It also allows the reader to identify with these characters and involves the reader in the story. They are not portrayed as villains or only as soldiers as some works do, they are portrayed as real three-dimensional characters caught up in this historical event.
The description of the scene and the events also adds to the reality. The scene is described in great detail. The reader can see the battlefield as well as the people involved. The events are also described in detail. It is this scene setting that sets the book apart from others. It really allows the reader to feel a part of the scene. The reader is drawn into the story and rather than just experiencing a series of events they are really drawn into the atmosphere of the events. The reader is able to become part of the events and feel the emotion and the reality of it as if they were there. This occurs partly because of the fine description of the characters, partly because the scene is described so accurately and with such detail and partly because the events are told so well.
It is Foote's ability as a novelist that allows him to tell the story so well. As in any good novel he builds characters, includes tensions and brings life to the events.
He tells of an event in such a way that the importance of it shines through. Consider some of the critical events such as Lee's hesitation on the first day and Meade's decision not to go after the weakened Confederate force in the aftermath of the defeat. The reader is able to see here, how these decisions could have had a massive impact on the Civil War. We see that what appears as minor decisions, actually have major consequences.
Even in the minor details, Foote presents everything that happens in such a way that the reader feels as if they are part of the story. It is a tribute to Foote that he is able to draw the reader and provide suspense even when the outcome of the events are already known. Of course, history has already written the events. But Foote's narrative skill allows the reader to forget this. Foote writes with a style that is eloquent and almost romantic. His use of language is superb and he also tells the story with great pace. It is his writing skill that ensures the reader is immersed in the story, not reading it as a series of facts, but as if they are really on the battlefield themselves. This real quality is also seen in the end where we see the loss of life. Because the characters have been shown as real people, not as soldier villains the reader is able to see the impact of the events and feel the sadness of it. It is another way that Foote takes out how people commonly view war and make it far more real than many other works depict it as. There is a human side to war and Foote makes the reader realize this.
The one common criticism to the work is that there is a bias towards the South. Reasons for this include Foote describing lesser known and lower ranking officers in detail but hardly mentioning Colonel Chamberlain who prevented the Union army from being flanked.
There is also criticism that Foote only ever mentions situation where the South was outnumbered and never mentions situations where the North was outnumbered. The bias showing here, because he is giving the South an excuse where they are defeated while he give the North…