Shelby Foote has become the nation's conscience in matters of the American Civil War.

This is only fitting. Not because of his appearance in PBS' "Civil War" series, which earned him more notice than his decades of scholarship, but because of his peerless literature.Foote makes history a thing of beauty. He provides pleasures usually reserved for the realm of fiction.

Further, he is neither a voice of Northern victory or an apologist for Southern defeat. He is a Southerner who sees the Civil War as a truly national event, the defining moment of the American character. He colors the war with wonder but is not in awe of the conflict. He refers to it as a catastrophe but admires in its moments of brilliance and heroism, and his talent for sharing his emotions is unfailing.

"Stars in Their Course" is taken from the second volume of Foote's "The Civil War: A Narrative," written in 1963. It is a wonderful recounting of wild chances taken and opportunities missed in the war's pivotal battle.

"Stars" does not deal in scapegoats, in itself a minor miracle for Gettysburg histories. Foote makes no judgments but relates to the main characters of the sad affair like he would cousins that went out of their heads and tore into each other behind the shed on a summer afternoon. It is a fierce, lively story that holds us spellbound; not for facts alone - most of those we already know. It is how Foote tells us about those cousins, our cousins, in blue and gray that makes this volume special.

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Although an excerpt from a larger work, "Stars" stands on its own because the Gettysburg campaign itself does. It speaks volumes about American history and about a classic American writer.

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