Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative Volume 1 Chapter 4

We’re continuing with a look at the accuracy of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative. Once again, let me stress that I regularly recommend Foote’s trilogy, which I regard as a work of art, as a good overview of the war. However, it shouldn’t be used as a source. Of course, anyone who claims Foote is anything but perfect will be instantly attacked by Foote’s fans, who will either mischaracterize that person’s claims or simply not even read them and make assumptions about them.

I undertook this project because there are those who ask exactly what Foote got wrong. This is an attempt to answer that question. While it’s usually not fair to criticize an author for not knowing scholarship that didn’t exist when they wrote, in this case I think it is fair to use the latest scholarship because it shows why Foote shouldn’t be used as a source by today’s students of the war. This is not an attempt to assert Foote deliberately falsified his work or was a complete incompetent. Foote, who by his own admission was not a historian, was a prisoner of his sources. Because he didn’t do original research he is stuck with whatever errors and misconceptions the secondary sources he used had. My purpose is solely to show why Foote shouldn’t be used as a source and to answer the question of what exactly is inaccurate in his trilogy.

We started with this post and continued with this post and this post. We now proceed with the fourth post of the series.

On page 277, when writing about Earl Van Dorn, Foote writes, “He was a Mississippian, which simplified his decision when the South seceded; for him there was little or none of the ‘agony’ of the border state professionals.” A minor point is that it’s inaccurate to say “the South” seceded. A total of eleven southern states claimed to secede, but that left four southern states remaining loyal to the United States. But the larger point here is why Van Dorn went with the confederacy when fellow Mississippians such as Benjamin Franklin “Grimes” Davis stayed loyal to the United States. What Foote doesn’t tell us is Van Dorn came from a prominent slaveowning family in Mississippi, a state in which more than half its population was enslaved. [Robert G. Hartje, Van Dorn: The Life and Times of a Confederate General, pp. 3-6] This is another case of Foote ignoring the most important issue of the war.

While this is not necessarily an error, it’s another example of Foote ignoring the most important issue of the war. On page 293 he writes, “Having forged its independence in the crucible of war, the new nation could then return to the old southern nationalist dream of expansion, acquiring by purchase or conquest the adjoining Mexican states of Chihuahua, Sonora, and Baja California. After these would come others, less near but no less valuable: Cuba, for instance, then Central America, and all that lay between.” He never tells us why, other than “southern nationalism.” They wanted all that ground for the expansion of slavery, but you would never know that in reading Foote.

On page 309 Foote writes of the US ironclads on the Mississippi River, “Highly vulnerable except from dead ahead, his ironclads carried little armor back from the prow and none at all at the stern.” This is not correct. The original design by Pook was to have armor only on the sides, but Commander John Rodgers extended, did not replace, the armor onto the forward casemate. Thus, the ironclads were not highly vulnerable from the side. The forward half of the side was covered with armor. Foote is correct when saying the stern was unarmored, as was the after casemate. [Gary D. Joiner, Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy, p. 26]

Illustration by Gregory Proch

On page 317 he writes that George McClellan, on March 3, 1862, considered Ulysses S. Grant as a “possible rival.” This was when Halleck sent a message to McClellan telling him he hadn’t heard from Grant and wanted to discipline him. There’s no evidence McClellan looked on Grant as a possible rival, and Foote intimates that McClellan sought to support Halleck because Grant was a possible rival, not because the charges Halleck made were serious. That’s completely unfair to both McClellan and Halleck and is completely unsupported by the record.

On pages 349-350 he relates the tale that at Fallen Timbers, after the battle of Shiloh, Nathan B. Forrest escaped being surrounded by US soldiers and being shot in the side with the bullet lodged next to his spine by “As he came out of the mass of dark blue uniforms and furious white faces, clearing a path with his saber, he reached down and grabbed one of the soldiers by the collar, swung him onto the crupper of the horse, and galloped back to safety, using the Federal as a shield against the bullets fired after him. Once he was out of range, he flung the hapless fellow off and rode on up the ridge where his men were waiting in open-mouthed amazement. Sherman was amazed, too, but mostly he was disgusted.”

Let’s compare that with James Lee McDonough’s description in Shiloh–In Hell Before Night, pp. 209-210: “Turning his horse around and clearing a path with his saber, Forrest plowed back in the direction from which he came. As he was emerging from the mass of Blue infantry he reached down, grabbed an enemy soldier by the collar, swung the man onto the horse, and used him as a shield as he galloped away. Once out of range of the Union fire, Forrest flung the man to the ground and rode up on the ridge to the point where his command was waiting in amazement. Sherman, too, was amazed, as well as disgusted.” [Those are very similar accounts. Someone may be plagiarizing.] McDonough cites Robert Selph Henry, First With the Most, [published in 1944] pages 80 and 81 and Henry, As They Saw Forrest, pages 39 and 40. Foote, of course, cites no source. On page 80 of First With the Most, Henry writes, “One ball struck hi in the left side just at the point of the hipbone, and plowed through to the spine. Another struck and mortally wounded his horse, as Forrest turned to shoot and slash his way out of the predicament into which he had charged. Clearing a way with his pistol, he started back. To protect his rear from the shower of bullets aimed at him, he seized a hapless bluecoat as he dashed by, and swung him up behind–to be dropped when the horse and his two riders were out of range.”

The first published account of this alleged incident I could find was James Harvey Mathes, General Forrest, published in 1902. On pages 59-60 Mathes writes, “Drawing a revolver, he fired right and left, and spurred his horse to run the terrible gauntlet. In a moment he was out of immediate danger, but was severely wounded by a pistol-ball, which entering near the spine, ranged around on the left side and lodged in his hip. In this desperate strait he reached down, caught up a rather small Federal soldier, swung him around and held him to the rear of his saddle as a shield until he was well out of danger, and then gladly dropped his prisoner, who doubtless saved his life.”

This alleged incident likely never happened. In the first place, it’s highly unlikely the wounded Forrest could have bent down far enough as he was riding the grab hold of a man’s collar while he was galloping past the man at high speed and then have the strength to pivot him and hold him in place while riding. Secondly, Sherman, who was present, never mentioned it. Third, no other soldier ever wrote about it. Fourth, Thomas Jordan and J. P. Pryor, in The Campaigns of General Nathan Bedford Forrest and of Forrest’s Cavalry, a manuscript reviewed and approved by Forrest himself, have this to say about Fallen Timbers, on pages 147-148: “Immediately observed by the enemy, now all around him, Forrest was fired at from all sides. One ball from an Austrian rile, striking him on the left side, just above the point of the hip-bone, penetrated to the spine, and, ranging around, lodged in the left side–a severe, if not, indeed, mortal wound, as his surgeon apprehended. His right leg, benumbed by the blow, was also left hanging useless in the stirrup. Turning his horse, however, he resolved to escape, surrounded as he was by hundreds bent on his death, and shouting, ‘Kill him!’ ‘Shoot him!’ ‘Stick him!’ ‘Knock him off his horse!’ all of which they literally sought to do. His horse, too, was wounded (mortally, as it proved,) but still bore up under his daring rider, as he dashed out of the throng of assailants, using his revolver with deadly aim to clear his path. In a moment more his path to the rear, at least, was clear of foes; but their marksmen, still within easy range, sent hundreds of balls after him as he galloped down the road and over the hill. Happily, he escaped without further hurt, and rejoined his command, halted behind the ridge.” There is no mention of Forrest lifting up a Federal soldier and using him as a human shield. If the story was true, Forrest would have seen to it that it was included. It didn’t happen. Is Foote terrible for including it? No. Other historians, such as Brian Steel Wills, include it in their biographies of Forrest. But it’s one reason why Foote should not be used as a source. It is one thing that is inaccurate in Foote’s book.

On page 351 Foote writes, “Total American casualties in all three of the nation’s previous wars–the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War: 10,623+6765+5885–were 23,273. Shiloh’s totaled 23,741, and most of them were Grant’s.” This is deceitful. Only one side were United States casualties. The confederates were claiming they were not US soldiers. Calling them “American” is the same as saying the Mexican War had over 15,000 casualties since both sides were part of the North American continent. Foote here is being dishonest.

On page 372 Foote repeats the old chestnut that has Lincoln saying of Grant, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.” That comes from Alexander McClure. It’s probably a fabricated quote. As Brooks Simpson has pointed out, there were several times when Lincoln could have spared Grant. Also, in Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, Don Fehrenbacher rates this quote as a “D,” meaning there is more than average doubt about the veracity of the quotation. Fehrenbacher writes, “Accompanying misstatements of fact by McClure raise doubts about the authenticity of this famous quotation.” [p. 315]

The rest of the chapter appears to be accurate to this reader.


  1. John Mccambley · · Reply

    Friend you really need to find better resources than that any resources that I have found state different. Shelby Foote never proclaimed to be an historian, but out of all of them he brought the civil war down to a level that people could understand the mindset at that time .If you don’t believe me ask Ken Burns

    1. You should perhaps read the post before commenting on it. I specifically wrote Foote “by his own admission was not a historian.” Whatever noncredible sources you may have read are of little interest to me when you don’t name them. Since you haven’t read the post you’re commenting on and don’t tell us anything other than vague generalities, why should we credit your opinion?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: