This completes the series, published originally as “The Civil War, a Narrative” by Shelby Foote. The original is three fat volumes. This re-release was a Time-Life series with added illustrations.
The period covered in this book is from the opening of the Spring 1865 offensive by Grant. This resulted in the decisive defeat of Pickett at Five Forks, followed by the breaking of the defensive lines of Petersburg soon after. Lee was forced to evacuate Richmond and Petersburg. The pursuit caught up quickly, and at Sayler’s Creek the Army of Northern Virginia was crushed again, losing many thousands of prisoners yet again. Days later, the remnants were brought to bay and Lee surrendered.
This was followed by the surrender of the remaining armies, and the narrative follows the Assassination of Lincoln, the pursuit of Jefferson Davis and his final capture and imprisonment. He then uses Davis’ life as a framing mechanism for a view of the postwar period, ending with his death.
This set of books remains, even after 50 years, the best overall view of the whole war. It reads like a novel more than a textbook, and it’s almost 3000 pages means that there is time to give more than a paragraph on each battle or campaign or key figure. At least two sections of this book have been republished as independent books – one on Gettysburg, and one on Vicksburg.
The power of his writing is shown that each time I read the final chapters I feel sympathy for Jefferson Davis. I’m a northern partisan, and Davis is an unlikeable person whose foibles probably hastened the South’s defeat, but Foote pulls it off all the same.