I’m getting ready to head to Vicksburg, Mississippi, this week to join Kris White and the American Battlefield Trust for a series of Facebook LIVE events beginning on Tuesday. (more details to come soon!) While I’ve been studying up with great books by Steve Ballard, Timothy B. Smith, Terry Winchel, Steven Woodworth and Charles Grear, and others, I’ve also turned to Shelby Foote for a little inspiration. After all, Foote was born in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, and the story of Vicksburg was near and dear to him. Perhaps only Shiloh, which he wrote a stand-alone novel about, was more significant to him.
I’m not relying on Foote for his history, but I never fail to be amazed by his writing. Case in point: Take a look at the following sentence from “The Beleaguered City,” which is his section on the fall of Vicksburg. Because of different editions, I can’t give you a specific page number, but it’s the first sentence in the chapter’s third full paragraph. He’s talking about Grant’s plan for marching overland to attack Vicksburg from the rear—and Grant’s plan for breaking the news to Henry Halleck:
He did not know how Old Brains, whose timidity had been demonstrated in situations far less risky than this one, would react to a plan of campaign that involved 1) exposing the irreplaceable Union fleet to instantaneous destruction by batteries that had been sited on commanding and impregnable heights with just that end in mind, 2) crossing a mile-wide river in order to throw his troops into the immediate rear of a rebel force of unknown strength which, holding as it did the interior lines, presumably could be reinforced more quickly than his own, and 3) remaining dependent all the while, or at least until the problematical capture of Port Hudson, on a supply line that was not only tenuous to the point of inadequacy, but was also subject to being cut by enemy intervention or obliterated by some accident of nature, by no means unusual at this season, such as week of unrelenting rain, a sudden rise of the river, and a resultant overflow that would re-drown the west-bank lowlands and the improvised road the wound its way around and across the curving bayous and treacherous morasses into which a wagon or a gun could disappear completely, leaving no more trace than a man or a mule whose bones had been picked clean by gars and crawfish.
That’s a 218-word sentence! If you read it carefully and let the punctuation guide you, the sentence actually has a logical organization and even a smooth flow. But the trick is to let that punctuation work for you. If you try to force your way through the sentence, or you ignore that punctuation, you’re in for the very sort of morass Foote was writing about. (For more on Foote’s use of punctuation, check out this post.)