Skip to comments.Shelby Foote's War Story
Posted on 11/18/2011 8:26:03 PM PST by Stonewall Jackson
Shelby Foote's War Story
How a Memphis novelists history of the Civil War made history itself
It was supposed to be a brief assignmenteighteen months or so, tops. In 1954, with the centennial of the end of the Civil War approaching, Bennett Cerf, the president of Random House, wrote the novelist Shelby Foote to propose a short history of the conflict. In midsummer the author traveled from his home in Memphis to meet with the publisher in New York, and the two came to terms. The target was 200,000 words; the advance, four hundred dollars. For Foote the plan was to get the book done fast and return to writing novels. Fiction is hard work, he recalled thinking; history I figured, well, theres not much to that.
Foote was then thirty-seven. By the time he finished the third volume of his The Civil War: A Narrative, he would be fifty-six. In a notable case of literary understatement, Foote later observed, It expanded as I wroteultimately to just over 1,500,000 words, or, as Foote said, a third of a million longer than Gibbons Decline & Fall, which took about the same length of time to write. The war had come alive to himhe heard the hoofbeats and smelled the gunpowder and felt the anguish and the anxiety of Lincoln and Davis and the hundreds of thousands of unknown soldiers. Dont underrate it as a thing that can claim a mans whole waking mind for years on end, Foote wrote of the war.
Now, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the war, Footes masterpiece is getting a new look from readers in search of the truth about a seemingly distant conflict so encrusted in myth. Written in longhand in his house in West Tennessee, The Civil War is a twentieth-century book about a nineteenth-century clash that resonates still in the twenty-first. The further I go in my studies, the more amazed I am, he told Walker Percy in 1956. What a war! Everything we are or will be goes right back to that period. It decided once and for all which way we were going, and weve gone.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that there is properly no history; only biography, and to reread Foote is to see how the greatest historians are those who recognize that the past, like the present, is shaped by flawed, flesh-and-blood individuals, from presidents to foot soldiers. The whole thing is wonderfully human.... In that furnace (the War) they were shown up, every one, for what they were.
Born on Friday, November 17, 1916, in Greenville, Mississippi, Shelby Dade Foote, Jr., grew up in a relatively cosmopolitan atmosphereor at least cosmopolitan by the standards of the early-century American South. Foote had Jewish ancestors in a time and place where Jews were broadly accepted in the social and cultural circles of certain Southern cities. Greenville was one of them (Foote later remarked that there were more Jews in the Greenville Country Club than there were Baptists). His father was the son of a lost Delta fortune, and one suspects that Footes tragic view of the world likely came in part from the saga of the Foote clan.
Shelby Jr.s great-great-great-grandfather had bad luck back in Virginia, losing valuable tobacco land in Prince William County, and later generations gambled away the familys sprawling Mississippi Delta plantations. Loss, then, was something young Shelby understood in his bones: It was an intrinsic element of his ancestry, the central fact of his paternal history.
His forebears fought for the Confederacy and engaged in the grim politics of Reconstruction Mississippi, but the defining influence in Footes youthand thus in his lifecame less from tales of Southern sentimentality and more from talk of literature, art, and philosophy in the house of William Alexander Percy, scion of a Delta dynasty and uncle of Walker. Will Percy was a planter-poet who took Walker and his brothers LeRoy and Phin in after their mothers death, and Mr. Will, as he was known, asked young Shelby to come over to help entertain his young kinsmen when they arrived from Athens, Georgia.
The Percy salon fundamentally shaped Foote, who decided to become a novelist. His early books, particularly 1951s Love in a Dry Season, were good but achieved little commercial success. He also had an expensive tendency to go through wives, creating obligations for alimony and child support. On the occasion of his third marriage, Foote wrote,I cannot function outside the married state, no matter how much Im galled inside it. (Nothing special about that. I think its true of most people: women as well as men.)
Though he dropped out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Foote was a literary man by inclination and training. One of the great readers of his age, Foote consumed Proust, Hemingway, Homer, the Russiansnothing of note seems to have escaped him. It was this immersion in the most enduring works of imaginative literature that informed his rendering of the Civil War. The Iliad is the great model for any war book, history or novel, he said.
Like Homer, Foote focused on two things: the clash of arms and the lives of the warriors. The grand issues of politics and diplomacy, of economics and culture, mattered less to Foote than re-creating the reality of battle. The idea is to strike fire, he wrote, prodding the reader much as combat quickened the pulses of the people at the time. Critics took Foote to task for this single-minded focus, but he believed in his approach, and stuck to it. I think the superiority of Southern writers lies in our driving interest in just two things, the story and the people. In a way, Foote is one of the little-noted pioneers of the New Journalism, the movement to bring fictional technique to nonfiction subjects, elevating journalism, history, and biography to the level of literature.
He also saw himself working in a broader tradition than that of many mainstream historians. My hope was that if I wrote well enough about what you would have seen with your own eyes, you yourself would see how those things, the politics and economics, entered in, he said. I quite deliberately left those things out. My job was to put it all in perspective, to give it shape. Look at Flaubert: He didnt criticize Emma Bovary as a terrible woman; he didnt judge her; he just put down what happened.
Time has vindicated his view. There are other books about other parts of the wargreat books. No other volumes, however, put the reader in the horror and the haze so effectively and so memorably. It was hard but rewarding work. The battle scenes are lit by a strange, lurid light.... I have never enjoyed writing so much as I do this writing, he wrote. It goes dreadful slow; sometimes I feel like Im trying to bail out the Mississippi with a teacup; but I like it, I like it. He grew obsessive in his study in Memphis: All I want is to work at my book, a great wide sea of words.
He visited the battlefields in season, walking them at the same time of year as the soldiers had walked them. For one thing, its teaching me to love my countryespecially the South, but all the rest as well. Im learning so many things: geography, for instance. I never saw this country before nowthe rivers and mountains, the watersheds and valleys. The books are as much a biography of the land and the elements as they are of the men who fought the war: It is the accumulation of such atmospheric detail that lends the trilogy much of its vivid novelistic feel.
Foote undertook his narrative of what he would later call the crossroads of our being in the years in which the civil rights movement forced the South to confront the wars worst legacy: segregation. He began work in the months after the Brown v. Board of Education decision came down, published his second volume in the year of the March on Washington, and completed the trilogy as the struggles over affirmative action were taking shape.
Foote was no liberal on issues of race, but he was more fair-minded than many of his contemporaries in the South. His admiration of Nathan Bedford Forrests military genius, for instance, transcended his sense of outrage at Forrests politics, including the generals involvement in the Ku Klux Klan. To Foote, the Confederacys defeat was in a way foreordained, but more for material reasons than moral ones: You just cant whip 23,000,000 people with 9,000,000especially when nearly half of the latter number are slaves.
Yet Foote knew evil when he saw it. In a bibliographical note composed for the second volume in 1963, he wrote: I am obligated to the governors of my native state and the adjoining states of Arkansas and Alabama for helping to lessen my sectional bias by reproducing, in their actions during several of the years that went into the writing of this volume, much that was least admirable in the position my forebears occupied when they stood up to Lincoln. Ross Barnett, Orval Faubus, and George Wallace were fighting battles that should have been settled on the side of justice. I feel death all in the air in Memphis, and Im beginning to hate the one thing I really ever lovedthe South, Foote told Percy. In the note at the conclusion of the second volume, he added: I suppose, or in any case fervently hope, it is true that history never repeats itself, but I know from watching these three gentlemen [Barnett, Faubus, and Wallace] that it can be terrifying in its approximations.
In the summer of 1973, recuperating from a head cold and fascinated by the Watergate hearings on television, Foote neared the conclusion. Theres a strange sort of twilight over all this part of the book, a murkiness as if the rebels were slogging along the floor of hell, stomachs all knotted with hunger and knees about unjointed from fatigue. He told Percy of a small but telling moment on the eve of Appomattox: Yanks threw down one scarecrow retreater, yelling: Surrender! We got you! He dropped his rifle, raised his hands. Yes, he said, and a hell of a git you got. There was never an army so thoroughly whipped, short of annihilation.
William Faulkner was Footes literary idol, and Walker Percy was the friend of his heart, but it was Robert Penn Warren who, with a single telephone call, may have done the most to elevate Foote to his present status as the American bard of war. Ken Burns, a young documentary filmmaker, had told Warren, whom he knew from an earlier work, All the Kings Men, that he was thinking about a project on the Civil War. At dinnertime one evening, Burnss phone rang, and it was Warren. Warrens suggestion: You have to talk to Shelby Foote. Thus began an enormously influential collaboration. Burnss epic PBS film, which debuted in 1990, relied heavily on Footes voice. One of the things about Shelby in our work was how he really became a force field that prevented anyone elseand this is not to take away from any of the great people who worked with us as wellfrom moving in the same orbit with him, Burns told me. For Foote, celebrity followed almost instantly. By the time of his death in Memphis in 2005, he was one of the most iconic of American writers.
At the end of the drafting of the third and final volume, in July 1974, twenty years to the season after Foote first went to New York to talk over the project, Walker Percy finished reading the proofs and sat down to write his friend. Dear Shelby, he wrote, Yes, its as good as you think. It has a fine understated epic quality, a slow measured period, and a sustained noncommittal, almost laconic, tone of the narrator. Ive no doubt it will survive; might even be read in the ruins. It might indeed.
Excerpted from American Homer: Reflections on Shelby Foote and His Classic The Civil War: A Narrative (April; Random House), which is part of a rerelease of Footes famous trilogy.
For the last twenty years of his life, Mr. Foote was a regular visitor at the Shiloh Battlefield, where he would take visitors on a guided tour of the battlefield and autographed many of his books.
A well written article about one of the greatest Civil War historians of all time.
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I sat for an hour or two watching Foote answer questions and discuss his books with Brian Lamb on C-Span and I was enthralled. A couple of years later I sat and watched the same show all the way through again. No one like him sharing his thoughts in that wonderful southern drawl. Amazing man. Our country was blessed to have him write about the war for our history.
On a more serious note; I never had an opportunity to meet Mr. Foote at Shiloh (I missed him by one day the first time I visited), but I have had an opportunity to meet a number of fellow Civil War historians at Shiloh, Stones River, Chickamauga, Corinth, Pea Ridge, Perryville, Munfordville, Fort Donelson, and Mill Spring. Many of them are more than happy to pass on their vast wealth of knowledge and love meeting fellow historians.
Good article. Thanks for posting.
my wife and i werethird row center at one of his lectures in denver. what a fascinating man. he described the results of the war in one sentence;
“before the war the country was refered to as united states are; after the war the country was refered to as the United States is.”
With American History not being taught in our schools and universities as prerequisite courses as it should, we’re in grave danger of losing our national heritage forever.
With American History not being taught in our schools and universities as prerequisite courses as it should, we’re in grave danger of losing our national heritage forever.
Thank you for posting this. Hub and I watched the Civil War Documentary and Shelby Foote brought it all home. What a talented historian. I would have loved to have met him.
A true Southern Gentleman. The documentary and Mr. Foote’s book taught me to love history.
I first became aware of Foote through the Ken Burns documentary. Without Foote, that documentary would not have been so fascinating, and I doubt that America would have been as captivated by it.
I remember him quoting Faulkner when he was talking about Gettysburg: “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain...” When Foote quoted this passage, I could feel that he meant it, he had lived it.
Afterwards, I read his three-volume account of the Civil War. He was able to view the war, the various battles, as though he were taking part in them. He felt the exhaustion, the hunger, and the terror. And he made the reader feel them, too. If a person can only read one account of the Civil War, this is the one I would recommend.
I liked the closing quotation Foote read.
In time, even death itself might be abolished; who knows but it may be given to us after this life to meet again in the old quarters, to play chess and draughts, to get up soon to answer the morning role call, to fall in at the tap of the drum for drill and dress parade, and again to hastily don our war gear while the monotonous patter of the long roll summons to battle.
Who knows but again the old flags, ragged and torn, snapping in the wind, may face each other and flutter, pursuing and pursued, while the cries of victory fill a summer day? And after the battle, then the slain and wounded will arise, and all will meet together under the two flags, all sound and well, and there will be talking and laughter and cheers, and all will say, Did it not seem real? Was it not as in the old days?
Private Barry Benson, Army of Northern Virginia, 1880
Which is the difference between a republic and a democracy..
Foote had Jewish ancestors in a time and place where Jews were broadly accepted in the social and cultural circles of certain Southern cities. Greenville was one of them (Foote later remarked that there were more Jews in the Greenville Country Club than there were Baptists).
This is something that is all to often overlooked. I am from the south and 72 years old, today the PC scat is that Jews were hated in the south, but I remember no such thing.
In our small town there were two Jewish owned retail stores, both of which carried people on the books between cotton crops. Not just the farmers, but also those who chopped and picked the cotton. There was also Jewish doctors and lawyers, a small Jewish place of worship and I never recall any anti-Semitic feelings expressed.
Not many people today know of Judah Benjamin. He was Jewish and a member of the Louisiana house of representatives, in 1852 he was elected by the state legislature to the US senate from Louisiana. When the civil war commenced, he resigned from the senate and was appointed by President Jefferson Davis to three different cabinet posts in his administration, Attorney General, Secretary of War and Secretary of State. He was hated in the north and was called the brains of the Confederacy.
IIRC, the only Jewish military cemetery outside the nation of Israel is the Hebrew Confederate cemetery on Shockoe Hill in Richmond, Virginia.
His interviews were the best parts of Ken Burns' Civil War series.
Realizing just now the he has a distant and understated recounting manner just like that of the only interview Carlos Gunny Hathcock presented.
Perspective of long-range suffering, the tragedy of retrospection.
Foote's best quote was about a soldier waiting to make Pickett's Charge, who saw a rabbit running away ...
The soldier said to the rabbit something like:
"Run, you old hare - if I was an old hare, I'd run too ..."
The best ficticious quote I know is from the movie, Gettysburg:
"He tells me it was your uncle who defended Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. And that he was therefore the guardian of the original "Star-Spangled Banner". I must say,I do appreciate the irony of it all."
"Colonel Fremantle, it does not begin or end with my uncle or myself. We're all sons of Virginia here.
That major out there commanding the cannon: That's James Dearing. First in his class at West Point, before Virginia seceded.
And the boy over there with the color guard. That's Private Robert Tyler Jones. His grandfather was President of the United States.
The colonel behind me,that's Colonel William Aylett. Now, his great grandfather was the Virginian Patrick Henry. It was Patrick Henry who said to your King George III: "Give me liberty or give me death."
There are boys here from Norfolk, Portsmouth, small hamlets along the James River. From Charlottesville and Fredericksburg. The Shenandoah Valley.
Mostly they're all veteran soldiers now. The cowards and shirkers are long gone. Every man here knows his duty. They would make this charge even without an officer to lead them. They know the gravity of the situation and the mettle of their foe. They know that this day's work will be desperate and deadly. They know that for many of them this will be their last charge. But not one of them needs to be told what is expected of him. They are all willing to make the supreme sacrifice to achieve victory here. The crowning victory and the end of this war. We are all here.
You may tell them when you return to your country that all Virginia was here on this day."
Some good history in these posts.
I had read of Judah Benjamin and wondered if he was Jewish...
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