Shelby Foote was born in the Mississippi Delta in 1916. His family moved frequently, because of his father’s job, so he was raised in a number of southern cities. Eventually, Foote graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Then he served in the military during World War II. Before he wrote his narrative history of the Civil War, he was known as a novelist. The success of his novel, “Shiloh”, caused Random House publisher Bennett Cerf to ask Foote to write a short history of the Civil War to be published in conjunction with that conflict’s centennial. What Foote’s efforts resulted in was three volume history stretching to approximately 3000 pages, published over twenty years. In 1983 the paperback edition was published and then in 2005, Random House brought out a nine volume edition which added illustrations to the original text. A new edition of the trilogy, edited by Jon Meacham, who wrote a companion volume, American Homer: Reflections on Shelby Foote and His Classic The Civil War: A Narrative was published in 2011.
I had a nodding relation with Mr. Foote because he used the Main Library in Memphis where I worked. But more than that, I remember sitting in a room in the basement of Mitchell Hall on the campus of the University of Memphis listening to Shelby Foote discuss the American Civil War for two and a half hours with faculty and graduate students of the Department of History in the spring of 1990. This was before Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War aired on PBS, so Foote was known to history students as the author of the expansive three volume narrative history of that war, not as a television personality. As he later told Brian Lamb on C-Span’s Book TV, he hadn’t the realized the power of television until he was featured on Burn’s film. Like Lamb, Burns had come to Memphis to interview Foote in his home on East Parkway.
Although Foote admits he is a novelist, he argues the historian and the novelist are seeking the end: “the truth–not a different truth: the same truth–only they reach it, or try to reach it by different routes. Whether the event took place on a world now gone to dust, preserved by documents and evaluated by scholarship, or in the imagination, preserved by memory and distilled by the creative process, they both want to tell us how it was: to re-create it, by their separate methods, and make it live again in the world around them.” I quote this passage as another way of saying, if you need foot or endnotes to substantiate a quote or description of an action, The Civil War, a Narrative is not for you.
Foote’s narrative opens with Jefferson Davis’ farewell speech in the United State Senate. It ends with the death of the same man in New Orleans on December 6, 1889. In between, as only a novelist paint them, there portraits of military leaders on both sides as well glances of the civilian administrators who sometimes helped their military counterparts but often got in their way. Close to the end, Foote quotes Lincoln, on learned of his re-election said this, “What has occurred in in this case must ever recur in similar cases. Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have a weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents of this, as philosophy, to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.”
Foote lived to be eighty-eight. He died in 2005 and was buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis, where his grave is surrounded by the graves of soldiers who fought in the war he spent two decades writing about. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the great Confederate cavalry general lies next to him.