Shelby Foote as the Angel of Death

Author Shelby Foote

I’ve been doing some research lately on Shelby Foote and his work on The Civil War: A Narrative. In his correspondence with his friend and fellow writer Walker Percy, Foote provided ongoing updates about his progress on the work, which stretched on for twenty years. “What I have to do is learn everything possible from all possible sources about a certain phase or campaign, then digest it so that it’s clear in my own mind, then reproduce it even clearer than it has been to me until I actually began writing about it,” he explained to Percy.

Early in the process, Foote mentions time and time again how amazed he is by what the war keeps teaching him. Later in the process, he talks about how much he appreciates what it teaches. Throughout, he talks about how difficult yet invigorating the writing process is.

Foote’s admiration for Nathan Bedford Forrest is well documented, so it’s no surprise that he mentions Forrest a lot in his correspondence. Sherman, particularly during the Atlanta campaign and the March to the Sea, gets a lot of attention, as does Grant (although less than Sherman). Foote frequently mentions Lee, too, and Jefferson Davis, who serve as a hero/antihero for the entire three-volume narrative—a literary conceit that makes everything come together for Foote. “I knew the last line from the time I started the book,” Foote told the Paris Review in a 1999 interview: “‘Tell the world that I only loved America,’ he said,” referring to Davis.

On the correspondence with Percy, Foote had a particular affinity for mentioning personal calamities that he happened to be working on at the time. He articulated those calamities with the same turn of a phrase that marked his more formal writing. I thought I’d share a few of my favorites, which come from The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy, Jay Tolson, editor (New York: W.W Norton & Co., 1997):

On Sept. 8, 1960:
By the end of the month I expect to have killed Stonewall Jackson dead as a mackerel; which makes an excellent stopping-place before I tackle the complexities of the Gettysburg Campaign. (122)

On Jan. 19, 1970:
[N]ow am finally back on pulse, crossing the Chattahoochee with Sherman and getting ready to send a bullet straight up James Birdseye McPherson’s ass. A good lodgment. . . . (139)

On Jan. 26, 1973:
For the past two months I’ve been deep into a Lincoln thing. . . . I got him back to Washington yesterday (Lincoln I mean) with five days left between Sunday and his Good Friday appointment with Booth’s derringer. He gets a wire that Sunday night from Grant: Lee kaput. . . . (169)

On May 13, 1973:
Lincoln about to get shot. First was Old John Brown; now there’s J.W. Booth—two madmen, one to start it, another to wind it up. Then Davis: Lucifer in Starlight. (174) [“Lucifer in Starlight” was the name of his last chapter, referencing Davis]


13 Responses to Shelby Foote as the Angel of Death

  1. I’m not one to write fan letters. Well, I did write one, to Shelby Foote. To my delight and surprise he wrote a full page response. That letter is one of my true treasures!

  2. That vivid, personal interaction with his characters is what helps make Foote’s writing so great. He’s right that the author has to really, fully understand and digest the subject before he or she can even begin to try to explain it to the reader. That’s essential. His quotes about historical figures and killing them off, as colorful (or even vulgar) as they are, are a window into how deeply he was connected to those stories which was, inevitably, the key to his success in narrative writing.

    Now if we could’ve just got the old SOB to use a few citations, we’d really have something. 😉

    1. I always thought it would make a great dissertation project for someone to “reverse engineer” Foote’s books and track down source material for them, then go through and add the footnotes. That would’ve been completely against Foote’s intent, who stubbornly refused to footnote them, but it would shut a lot of naysayers up! LOL

      If you ever have the chance to read his letters to Percy, they’re really quite entertaining and provide a great window into his writing process.

  3. Shelby Foote was the last (God willing ) of a century and a half of southern delusion that played a large part in moving me to major in history. He understood nothing about the War of Rebellion, and his fans never will. I can’t bring myself to elaborate on his delusions. That Mr. Burns allowed him to preach his brand of “we almost won it” utterly impugns any pretense of honesty on Burns’ part.

    1. I’d invite you to reconsider your assertion that “his fans never will.” I’m a huge fan of Foote’s work, and yet I would argue that I know a little bit about the war.

      There are two keys to understanding Foote, I think: First, he’s interest primarily in the art of telling a good story (as he understands it to be true); and second, he comes from a place and generation that believed the Lost Cause view of the war, yet his views were fairly nuanced on a lot of it. That didn’t come through in the documentary, but reading his interview with Tony Horwitz will start to give you some understanding of it, as will the Paris Review interview he did in 1999. Check out, too, “Conversations with Shelby Foote” (University of Mississippi Press,” 1989).

    2. I would not dare say that he understood nothing about the Civil War. He may not share your opinions, but he spent the bulk of his life researching the subject. Yes, he has his perspective, and biased it is, but I dare say your opinion is very biased as well.

      Let me know when you spend decades researching the subject and then maybe you can better critique Shelby Foote on his lack of understanding of the Civil War.

  4. Chris:

    Another great ECW post. I read Foote’s trilogy years ago. Your post convinces me to re-read it.

    Re. Foote’s Lost-Cause leanings. I agree with you about Foote playing it pretty straight in his three-volume work (although re-reading his narrative might change my mind). Of course, it’s a far different matter when it comes to some of Foote’s more outlandish comments in the Burns documentary. His hero worship of Forrest in the Burns documentary were especially off putting.

    Although an aggressive and successful commander, it could be argued that Forrest was a war criminal. In attempting to force opponents to surrender, Forrest repeatedly issued no-quarter threats. The slaughter of African-American troops at Fort Pillow was merely the culmination of this policy. The Fort Pillow massacre actually backfired on the Confederate cause. Angered by the Fort Pillow blood-letting, black Union troops gave thousands of unfortunate Rebel soldiers similar no-quarter treatment in the waning months of the war.

    1. Thanks, Bob. Good luck with the trilogy. It is monumental stuff, physically and literarily! I admire it a lot for being such a marvelously written piece of literature.

      I tend to forgive Foote his Forrest worship, for two reasons. First, Foote grew up in the Deep South and lived in Memphis as an adult, and Forrest was a hometown hero to a lot of people back then. Foote’s just a product of his time, and whatever we today might think of that, I try not to judge him through presentism. Second, if Burns were to ask any of us to talk about our favorite Civil War hero(es), we’d all have someone to talk about. For Foote, it happened to be Forrest. However, it wasn’t up to Foote what went into the documentary and what didn’t; that was Burns’ choice, and as a filmmaker, I’m sure he had his reasons for doing so. I won’t paint Foote with that brush.

  5. Judging from those letters, the Civil War really came to life for Foote and he took definite ownership of what he was writing.

  6. I loved Burns and his frequent recourse to Foote, clearly a raconteur of the old (Southern) school. His wonderful drawl clearly betrayed his allegiance. However, I seem to recall (correct me if I am wrong) that his ultimate state conclusion was that the Union fought (and won) with one arm behind its back. He may have loved his Southern roots, but he was not blind to the outcome.

  7. Shelby Foote . Here’s to a great author., story teller and still man enough to be able to speak his piece, which is what we can do in America.
    As far as Mr Ruth goes ; Please once again re read your history and the investigation of Ft. Pillow before you call any one a war criminal. I fear your totally one sided perspective {yankee} of the war and how awful the South was in your blinded view robs you of the true story..
    As you have judged Mr FOOTE and his writing in a negative way .ill with hold my judgement of yours until i see your 3 volume work on this war.

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