Anatomy of Great Writing: Shelby Foote

Shelby Foote, journalist and amateur historian, was the best thing that happened to the best American documentary, Ken Burn’s Civil War. That Foote appears throughout the footage, giving insightful comment, is a small miracle: Foote’s contributions were about to be removed from the documentary, following the request of the noted progressive historian C Vann Woodward (1), but we’re all lucky that they weren’t.

Foote’s comments remain controversial to this day. This, for example, is a typical recent article blasting Foote:

The problem of having an all-white, all-male (and non-historian) production team was further compounded by Burns’ choice of interviewees. Eight-and-a-half minutes into the first episode, Shelby Foote, a Mississippi-born writer with an accent as thick and sweet as Tupelo honey, made his unforgettable debut. The descendant of wealthy, slaveholding planters who fought for the Confederacy, Foote, a writer and journalist with no historical background, made the first of many appearances in which he spoke with the authority of a historian, but with none of the scholarly understanding of the war. Yet Foote was so charming and stereotypically “southern” that the Burns brothers used his interviews as the dominant narrative throughout the entirety of the film.

This sort of criticism obfuscates the fact that Foote was extremely knowledgeable about the Civil War, as well as a fantastic writer (2). One only needs to go to his books, notably “The Civil War: a Narrative,” which he spent decades writing and researching. Take this moment, for example, in 1861 after Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus across the union:

“Congress bowed its head and agreed. Though Americans grew pale in prison cells without knowing the charges under which they had been snatched from their homes or places of employment, there were guilty men among the innocent, and a dungeon was as good a place as any for a patriot to serve his country through a time of strain. Meanwhile the arsenals were being stocked and the ranks of the armed forces were being filled.”

This is Foote on George McClellan, unfortunate and arrogant Union general:

“The Young Napoleon, journalists had begun to call him, and photographers posed him standing with folded arms, frowning into the lens as if he were dictating terms for the camera’s surrender.”

Still in 1861, this is just before the skirmish in which senator-colonel Edward Baker, a close friend of Lincoln who was fond of all-out attack and literature, was killed with a bullet straght to his brain:

«Reaching the top of the bluff, the New York colonel—a West Pointer and the only professional soldier on a field in charge of lawyers and politicians—was amazed to find Baker so confident and buoyant over a situation in which, to the military eye at any rate, the danger in front was exceeded only by the confusion in the rear. The Confederates, holding high ground beyond the brush and timber where their snipers were picking off men in the glade almost at will, obviously were building up to launching an attack; whereas the Federals, backed up to the rim of a steep drop with an unfordable river one hundred feet below, were doing little more than dodging bullets and listening to their senator-colonel sing out quotations from Walter Scott.»

On Jefferson Davis, Confederate president, and the curt reply he sent to Gen. Johnston after the latter complained of a slight:

«Knowing Johnston he knew the effect this letter would have. He knew that it would never be forgotten or forgiven and that it must necessarily underlie a relationship involving the fortune, if not the very being, of their new nation. In writing and sending this reply it was therefore as if he deliberately threw off-center a vital gear in a machine which had been delivered into his care and was his whole concern. Yet his reasons, his motivations, were basic. Loving his country he was willing to give it all he owned, including his life; but he would not sacrifice his prerogative or his pride, since in his mind that would have been to sacrifice not only his life but his existence. There was a difference. It was not only that he would not. He could not. Without his prerogative, he would not be President; without his pride, he would not even be Davis.»

Foote summarizes the two Presidents’ popular caricatures in the press:

‘On the one hand there was Davis, “ambitious as Lucifer,” with his baleful eyes and bloodless mouth, cerebral and lizard-cold, plotting malevolence into the small hours of the night. On the other there was Lincoln, “the original gorilla,” with his shambling walk and sooty face, an ignorant rail-splitter catapulted by long-shot politics into an office for which he had neither the experience nor the dignity required.’

This is Foote, trying to put some context into Lincoln’s (or anyone’s) mandate to seed North America with the blood of combatants, noting that he received almost a million fewer votes in the 1860 election than his three Democratic opponents, combined:

“He had carried none of the fifteen southern states, receiving not a single popular ballot in five of them, even from a crank, and no electoral votes at all. Yet he had carried all of the northern states except New Jersey, which he split with Douglas.”

And yet Foote is swayed by Lincoln’s character, ideals and rhetoric. He approvingly quotes this extraordinary bit from his 1861 proclamation speech:

“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect and defend’ it.”

Foote shows unparallel insight into Confederate institutions and the morals and convictions of the era:

“Except for certain elucidations, the lack of which had been at the root of the recent trouble, the Confederate Constitution was a replica of the one its framers had learned by heart and guarded as their most precious heritage. “We, the people of the United States,” became “We, the people of the Confederate States, each state acting in its sovereign and independent character,” and they assembled not “to form a more perfect Union,” but “to form a permanent Federal government.” There was no provision as to the right of secession. The law-makers explained privately that there was no need for this, such a right being as implicit as the right to revolution, and to have included such a provision would have been to imply its necessity.”

Foote is also excellent in another fundamental task of the historian: trying to ascertain what would have happened if this or that decision, of key event, would have gone the other way. For example, he ponders U.S. Secretary of State’s William Henry Seward’s early, failed attempts to “internationalize” the conflict; Seward, Foote explains, believed that:

“….if the North became embroiled with a foreign power… the South would drop its States Rights quarrel and hasten to close ranks against invasion: whereupon, with that war over, the two sections could sit down in a glow of mutual pride at having won it, and reconcile past differences without the need or desire for further bloodshed.”

Another unique Lincoln moment: when a learned visitor explained to him that his blockade declaration had naturally gained for the  Confederacy the rights of a belligerent in all the courts of Europe, since a nation did not blockade its own ports, Lincoln replied, disarmingly:

“Yes, that’s a fact. I see the point now, but I don’t know anything about the Law of Nations and I thought it was all right.”

McClellan and his troubles on the battlefield:

‘The smoldering wreckage of the Confederate camps showed conclusively that Johnston’s army had been no more than half the size McClellan estimated. “Utterly dispirited, ashamed and humiliated,” one reporter wrote, “I return from this visit to the rebel stronghold, feeling that their retreat is our defeat.” The feeling was general. “It was a contest of inertia,” another declared; “our side outsat the other.”’

In early 1862, General Zollicoffer from Tennessee has been tasked with advancing cautiously into Kentucky, to move the Confederate defensive line further to the north. But the general, a scholar with no real military experience, overdoes it and ends up in Beech Grove, on the other side of a great river, exposed to a counterattack by a larger Union force. His superior, General Crittenden, is dismayed by the news:

Here at Beech Grove, with a wide unfordable river to his rear, the Tennessean was defying a Union army twice his size and attempting to stir up the doubtfully loyal citizens with proclamations which boldly inquired, “How long will Kentuckians close their eyes to the  contemplated ruin of their present structure of society?
Despite this evidence of literary skill, Crittenden now began to doubt the former editor’s military judgment, and at once dispatched a courier, peremptorily ordering him to recross the river. But when he went forward on inspection in early January, to his even greater dismay he found the citizen-soldier’s army still on the north bank. Zollicoffer blandly explained that Beech Grove afforded a better campsite; he had stayed where he was, in hopes that they could talk it over when Crittenden arrived. Then too, he explained—to the West Pointer’s mounting horror—there were reports that the Yankees were advancing, which made falling back seem a cowardly or at any rate not a manly sort of action.

This particular last bit is wonderful in terms of phrasing, pace and attention to detail: the high-falutin, high-Victorian rhetorical question posed to the good people of Kentucky, the gentleman’s doubts about how withdrawal may have an impact of one’s honor. That’s how one explains history, the motivations and the feelings of people long gone, whose ideals have little to do with ours. This is why Foote shone in Burn’s Civil War, clocking almost 46 minutes on screen, while Barbara Fields, an actual professional historian with a doctorate, received eight-and-a-half minutes of airtime: because he knew.

  1. This is according to the edition of Woodward’s letters published in 2014 by Michael O’Brien.
  2. Also, not racist: in the 1960s, Foote was an outspoken supporter of the Civil Rights Movement in the South, arguing in 1968 that “the main problem facing the white, upper-class South is to decide whether or not the negro is a man … if he is a man, as of course he is, then the negro is entitled to the respect an honorable man will automatically feel to an equal.” Foote protested against the KKK’s use of the Confederate flag, believing that ‘that everything they stood for was almost exactly the opposite of everything the Confederacy had stood for’. 





About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
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