Tag Archives: Civil War historians

Shelby Foote – Historian?

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 10.16.27 AMWell, not really.

Now friends, before you let me have it for saying such a thing about America’s favorite storyteller, let me just make my case.

I have read nearly everything that Mr. Foote ever wrote. His novels are delightful and well written, particularly Shiloh. And his so-called history, The Civil War: A Narrative is equally well executed. But that’s just itas the title suggests, The Civil War is a narrative – fine. But in terms of rigorous primary research and pointed analysis his magnum opus falls a little short.

If anything, The Civil War represents a synthesis of the secondary materials that Foote undoubtedly collected in his study over the years. What is really troubling about this work is his somewhat casual use of the contemporary (of the Civil War era) speaking voice. It seems that some of the primary evidence used to narrate the war existed only in the mind of Foote himself.

So, when he described the carnage of Cold Harbor, to use a very famous example, by quoting a young diarist who wrote his last words on the battlefield: “I am killed,” he simply duped his readers. I sure wish that that diary really existed – I could not imagine a more evocative entry in the diary of a mortally wounded soldier on the battlefield than this. But the diary has never surfaced.

Shelby Foote was a wonderful novelist. And his folksy wisdom added charm to Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary, The Civil War. You know, I would have loved to have met him on a battlefield to hear him speak in all his anecdotal glory. I am not sure I would have believed anything he said as he stood, telling tales, smoking his pipe and drawing a circle in the dirt with his foot. I would have had a good time though. I can’t think of a better storyteller.

Rest in peace, Shelby.

Keith