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What is his real legacy?

Shelby Foote’s appearance as the principal talking head on Ken Burns’ influential PBS documentary made him one of the most widely read Civil War historians of the past 20 years. His The Civil War: A Narrative, published by Random House in three volumes between 1958 and 1974 and later repackaged in many forms, has earned a large audience of readers seeking a general treatment of the conflict. The prominence of Foote, who died on June 27, 2005, at age 88, invites a few thoughts about The Civil War: A Narrative and the nature of his legacy. Foote’s narrative gifts and comprehensive geographical approach stand out. As one who admired Bruce Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy and Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command, I was not overly impressed when I initially encountered The Civil War in the mid-1960s. I subsequently formed a greater appreciation for Foote’s style. “It was a Monday in Washington, January 21; Jefferson Davis rose from his seat in the Senate,” begins Volume One. After briefly narrating how seven states had left the Union, Foote returns to Davis to complete the opening paragraph: “The senator from Mississippi rose. It was high noon. The occasion was momentous and expected; the galleries were crowded, hoop-skirted ladies and men in broadcloth come to hear him say farewell. He was going home.” This passage, which reflects Foote’s admiration for Ernest Hemingway, draws the reader into an epic narrative that, over the course of 2,934 pages, effectively conjoins literary merit and absorbing subject matter.

The three volumes reveal what a gifted stylist can do with even well-known episodes. The description of Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle on May 12, 1864, exemplifies this attribute: “The Bloody Angle. The term had been used before, in other battles elsewhere in the war, but there was no doubt forever after, at least on the part of those who fought there, that here was where the appellation best applied….These were the red hours of the conflict, hours no man who survived them would forget, even in his sleep, forever after. Fighting thus at arm’s length across that parapet, they were caught up in a waking nightmare, although they were mercifully spared the knowledge, at the outset, that it was to last for another sixteen unrelenting hours.”

Foote relied almost entirely on published primary materials—especially memoirs and the 128 thick volumes of the Official Records—and on secondary works, many of which would be described as quite dated today. His research did not approach what most contemporary scholars, who spend a great deal of time combing through unpublished manuscripts, consider an acceptable standard. Yet I believe Foote was careful, did his best to write evocatively and accurately—and succeeded to an impressive degree.

The three volumes’ subtitles pair Eastern and Western events that reveal Foote’s geographical palette. Fort Sumter, Fredericksburg and Appomattox join Perryville, Meridian and the Red River—and Meridian, which for novices probably would conjure images of imaginary lines that circle the globe but nothing associated with the Civil War, most forcefully expands traditional geographical boundaries. At the end of Volume Three, Foote explains his desire to combat the notion “that the War was fought in Virginia….It was my hope to provide what I considered a more fitting balance, East and West, in the course of attempting my…purpose of re-creating that war and making it live again in the world around us.” He succeeded very well indeed in this effort, and untold readers have been the beneficiaries.

However pleasurable to read and admirable in embracing the war’s geographic whole, much of Foote’s narrative fits a bit too comfortably within the Lost Cause tradition developed by former Confederates. Although he includes Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman as well as Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest among his favorite characters, he cannot accept slavery’s centrality to the coming of the war, attributes the United States triumph to overwhelming numbers and materiel, portrays the Confederacy battling gallantly and with no loss of honor against hopeless odds, and imagines Reconstruction as a horror inflicted on the white South by victorious Yankees. He reiterated themes from the books in his contribution to Burns’ series. “I think the North fought that war with one hand behind its back” he remarked regarding the inevitable Union victory. “I don’t think the South ever had a chance to win that war.”

Foote flies his sectional flag honestly in Volume One. “One word more perhaps will not be out of place,” he notes, “I am a Mississippian.” He remembered Confederate veterans—all dead by the time he wrote. “I hope I have recovered the respect they had for their opponents until Reconstruction lessened and finally killed it….I yield to no one in my admiration for heroism and ability, no matter which side of the line a man was born or fought on…If pride in the resistance my forebears made against the odds has leaned me to any degree in their direction, I hope it will be seen to amount to no more, in the end, than the average American’s normal sympathy for the underdog in a fight.”

What about Foote’s legacy? Most important and lasting, I believe, is that his memorable performance on Burns’ series prompted thousands of people to buy and read his trilogy and then go on to other authors and titles. He also anticipated scholarly arguments that the Western Theater was at least as important as the Eastern Theater, but academic historians did not go down this interpretive path because of Foote’s work. I believe his trilogy has had almost no impact in terms of shaping scholarship—just as Bruce Catton’s has not. Even the best popular writers face a formidable task in crossing the troubling chasm between the academic and nonacademic worlds of Civil War history.

Foote often compared the Civil War for Americans to the Trojan War for Greeks, characterizing it as our Iliad. He never would have equated himself with Homer, I suspect, but many of his readers might.

Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.