Shelby Foote and the Civil War

Keith Harris had a really nice post about Shelby Foote on his blog.  You can read it here.

Shelby Foote was a wonderful writer.  His three-volume narrative of the Civil War is a work of art, which you can enjoy online now.

Volume One can be accessed here, Volume Two is here, and Volume Three is here.  Like most works of art, though, it should be appreciated as art, but not necessarily as accurate history.  His biggest problem was that he relied on secondary sources and was thus captive to those sources and all the errors and deficiencies of them.  As he wasn’t a historian, he didn’t critically evaluate his sources when using them, and his lack of notes means that we can’t double-check all his handling of evidence.  For many of the anecdotes he relates in his narratives, we can only guess at where he may have found them, and we’re left wondering if some of them are true or if they were the products of his novelist’s imagination.

Shelby was perhaps the most popular commenter on the Ken Burns miniseries about the Civil War, yet the more I learn about the war, the more I find that Shelby’s comments were far from accurate.  His folksy style made you almost think he wasn’t telling you what happened, he was remembering it.  But it turns out his telling/remembering was a bit faulty.

One Footeism is that the south wouldn’t have ratified the Constitution if they knew they couldn’t get out of it.  That’s pure poppycock.  Patrick Henry was only one southerner who said quite clearly the Constitution meant a Union that couldn’t be broken.  No one contradicted him on that.

Shelby claimed that the Civil War’s result changed our language, making us refer to the United States as “is” instead of “are.”  Again, that’s wrong.  The change in the language was the normal evolution of American English away from British English.  Collective nouns, such as “United States” and “team” are referred to in the plural in British English, as in “the team are playing today.”  In American English, they’re referred to now as singular, as in “the team is playing today.”  It wasn’t the result of the Civil War, but rather a natural evolution of one dialect away from another.

Shelby also claimed that “the North fought that war with one arm tied behind its back.”  That’s again utterly wrong.  It’s lost cause nonsense that posits the confederacy had no chance at all from the beginning.

Finally, Shelby claimed that Robert E. Lee referred to Virginia as his country.  I have never found a single instance of Lee referring to Virginia as his country.  He consistently refers to it as his native state.

So Shelby shouldn’t be considered a great historian.  He was, however, a great writer and a pure pleasure to read.  I always recommend his books as a good general overview of the war, with the caveat that one has to take what he writes with a hefty grain of salt, which is probably good advice for any book.

 

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12 comments

  1. His greatest line in Burns is at the beginning when he says “The Civil War was the crossroads of our being, and it was a helluva crossroads.” That, at least, seems an accurate assessment.

    1. I agree, Chris. Not everything his said was wrong, but so many people take what he said at face value because of the way he sounded. He was an outstanding story-teller. I agree with him completely when he says you can’t understand this country without understanding the Civil War. Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit of what he said that doesn’t lead to understanding it, but instead leads to misunderstanding it.

      1. There’s an episode in the second book of his CW trilogy, I think, where he describes a real, honest-to-god bender Grant is supposed to have gone on, where he rode his horse dozens of miles, etc. I’m not well-read enough on Grant, but I’ve never found this event described anywhere else, in any way shape or form. I remember reading it and thinking, “ok, so this is weird…Is Shelby embellishing?”

        1. jfepperson · · Reply

          That’s the so-called “Yazoo bender.” The incident happened, but not nearly as Foote described it, and he would have known that if he had used Catton’s Grant Moves South, which was in print at the time. The story of this tale deserves a book, or at least a blog post, all to itself. Simpson covers it best in his biography of Grant.

  2. Mike Rogers · · Reply

    Al – Couldn’t agree more. It was Shelby Foote (courtesy of Ken Burns) that rekindled my interest in the Civil War. I will often pick up one of the Foote volumes again just to read a little bit here & there. But it is absolutely true that the narrative should not be considered an actual history. There is no doubt, though, that the man could write a sentence or two. And as you probably know he wrote the whole thing with a dip pen and ink — no wonder it took him so long.

    1. He was a wonderful writer, Mike. Just wonderful.

  3. Bob Nelson · · Reply

    I, too, thought he was great on Ken Burns’ documentary. And some twenty years ago I looked up his number in Memphis, called him and Foote himself answered the phone. I was so surprised that I mumbled a bunch of junk about how much I enjoyed the documentary and his trilogy. He said “thank you very much” and that was about it. As you and other have noted, he was not a historian. I found his lack of footnotes just plain wrong especially when you quote somebody. As for him being a wonderful writer Al, I must disagree. I found his loooooooooooooooooong run-on sentences very difficult. Don’t know about you but I find sentences of 60, 70 or 80 words to be tedious. I read his trilogy once but would not read it again.

    1. That’s why there are so many different flavors of ice cream.

      1. Bob Nelson · · Reply

        Touché.

  4. Mike Rogers · · Reply

    Or, to paraphrase some of your biggest fans Al: It’s narrative, not history.

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