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.