Shelby Foote, in the final book of his brilliant three-volume history of the Civil War, wrote about the growing confidence of northern soldiers, both in themselves and in their commander, U.S. Grant, during a springtime 1864 series of battles known as the “Forty Days.” The southern army was led by Robert E. Lee. Foote wrote,
It was Lee, not Grant, who was yielding ground, and sooner or later. . . .the southern commander would have none left to yield. Then would come the showdown, the last battle: which, after all, was the only one that counted in the long run, the only one they really had to win to win the war. And steadily, as this conviction grew, so did their confidence in themselves and the man who led them. A Massachusetts regiment, having crossed the Mattaponi [River] on the morning of May 23, was slogging down the railroad, past a siding, and saw Grant, in his now tarnished uniform, perched on a flatcar gnawing a ham bone. When the New Englanders gave him a cheer he responded with a casual wave of the bone, which he then went back to. They liked that in him. It seemed to them that this singleness of purpose, this refusal to be distracted, was as characteristic of his way of fighting as it was of his way of eating. He was giving Lee the kind of attention he gave the ham bone, and it seemed to them that the result might be the same, just ahead on the North Anna [River]–or if not there, then somewhere else this side of Richmond, where Lee would finally run out of space for backing up. (Foote, 1974: 269)What fascinates me about this quote is Foote’s insight. He understood his subject–in this case Union soldiers–so well that he could infer a great deal from a little bit of evidence. Foote probably had a Massachusetts soldier’s account of seeing Grant that day, but little else to work with. From those sparse data, Foote inferred that the soldiers appreciated Grant's focus and intensity, whether he was gnawing away at a ham bone or biting ferociously at Lee–in the latter case with those very soldiers serving as his molars and canids.
The point is that Foote had to interpret the soldiers’ emotions based on little evidence. Despite the paucity of data, his interpretation seems legitimate: believable and trustworthy. Like all authors, Foote had to take chances with his writing in places. He had to interpret his data, filling them out with his insights and, especially, telling the reader what to make of them in the setting that he was using them. You need to do the same thing in your writing. Supported by your data–usually quotations–explain why those data are important, what they mean, and what readers should make of them.
Foote, Shelby. 1974. The Civil War: A Narrative, v. 3: Red River to Appomatox. New York: Vintage.
Return to “Writing Tips.”