A Sentence About the Vicksburg Campaign as Winding as the Mississippi Delta

Shelby Foote

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.)


11 Responses to A Sentence About the Vicksburg Campaign as Winding as the Mississippi Delta

  1. I can’t wait for your live FB Dr. Mackowski, as you know Vicksburg is by far my favorite study and I feel despite the fact all the so-called experts debate whether it or Gettysburg was the turning point of the Civil War the discrepancy in literature can only be described as depressing at this point. So I’m extremely excited to watch you guys live and really look forward to it, you just made my Monday very long, LOL. I can’t wait brother I know you’ll do a great job as you always do sir!

    1. We’re looking forward to it, too. We’re lucky to be partnering with the Trust for this exciting opportunity!

  2. I don’t know what the big deal about Shelby Foote 218 word sentences, I frequently write sentences that go into the three to four hundred word margin. I guess the only slight difference could possibly be I don’t use punctuation, LOL, JK.

    1. tuffncuddly:

      I would have liked to see a debate between Foote and Ernest Hemingway on the use of long sentences. Foote would have probably won the debate. A ticked off Hemingway then would have challenged Foote to a fight, and Hemingway would have won that one, I figure.

    1. I agree. They can be a real delight to read for someone who loves to revel in language. Overall, culturally and literarily, I think Hemingway’s short, simple writing aesthetic ultimately prevailed over Faulkner’s longer, winding style.

    1. One could extend your argument in all sorts of ways, though. Why create web content when there are people who aren’t on the web? Why create books where there are those who don’t read? That might sound silly, but that’s essentially the core of your argument. We try to produce a lot of different content in a lot of different ways so that there’s something for everyone.

      Fortunately, as we’ve pointed out before, it’s possible to watch the Facebook LIVE events even if you’re not on Facebook. Just follow the links we post and you’ll be able to view them. Facebook will ask if you want to join up, but you can say no and STILL watch the videos!

  3. I too share your affection for Mr. Foote’s ability to turn a phrase. Following Ken Burn’s series on the Civil War and adding Foote’s 3 volume history to my library I wrote my first and only “fan letter” to him and to my great surprise and delight he responded with a very kind and helpful letter. It’s one of my treasures!

  4. Chris

    My ancestor was with the supply trains. I cant figure out where the supply came from for the Union forces during the Vicksburg Siege. Were there boats docking on the Mississippi supplying the forces? I know my ancestor, with the 25thIowa Regiment was located on the the Mississippi and I know he was involved with protecting and probably helping to load and reload the wagons across Mississippi from Port Gibson to Vicksburg? Where were the supplies kept? Was there a supply line established on the Mississippi for the Union forces after the seige began?

    Robert Groeling

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