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Shelby Foote - Authors that Changed My Life

Updated on February 14, 2016
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This is a tribute written about ten years too late. Shelby Foote died on June 27th, 2005, at the age of 88, after achieving somewhat of a rock star status among historians. It is not too often in the modern era that practitioners of a profession best known for putting 7th graders to sleep gain such notoriety, albeit fleeting, as cultural icons. The last time this happened was when Herodotus, known as the 'Father of History,' was awarded a massive cash stipend by the grateful citizens of Athens, sometime in the fifth century, B.C., for his history of the Greco-Persian wars, at that time a runaway bestseller.

It look two and a half millennia, in the person of Shelby Dade Foote Jr., for another historian to achieve such renown. Perhaps Mr. Foote's lasting legacy will not be so much as a historian, however, but as a storyteller who made history accessible to everyone, and in so doing changed a science into a craft; transformed a stodgy academic discipline into inspired, breathtaking art. He was a modern day Homer, a wandering poet whose words traveled far and wide through the power of the printing press and the electronic magic of television; through which media he thrilled audiences with his genteel insights into the proceedings of this continent's greatest conflict.

Shelby Foote changed my life because his massive, three volume The Civil War: A Narrative, the books that comprise the prized centerpiece of my threadbare literary collection, taught me that history can be poetry. He showed me that there is magic in the flow of human events and that the chronicles of bygone times can be both educational and inspirational. Most of the time I do not covet the physical form of a book so much as I do the intangible magic of the words that are captured there. Because of my lack of covetousness for the printed word, I have given away uncounted piles of books to the local Friends of the Library, enough to set up a pretty respectable prison library of my own, I think, if I was inclined to crime. But I cherish Foote's work so much that I actually purchased the three volume The Civil War: A Narrative in hardback, a luxury I never indulge in, and it is a literary shrine that I meditate in front of when I am in need of a revelation.

Authors that Changed My Life is a new Hub Pages series I intend to cultivate in this venue. The title is fairly self explanatory, and because there are so many authors who have influenced me in so many ways, it should eventually be very well populated. I hope you enjoy it.

My literary shrine
My literary shrine | Source

Brief History of a Historian

Shelby Foote is reputed to have done all of his writing with an old fashioned nib pen, eschewing any contact with those modern day technological short cuts of lazier modern writers, the typewriter and the word processor. He was born in Mississippi to a former patrician planter family of faded glory. His paternal grandfather was a Confederate army veteran. He attended the University of North Carolina, worked as a reporter for a newspaper in his college town of Chapel Hill, then served as a Captain of Artillery in Northern Island in World War II. He was discharged from the Army after being court marshaled for commandeering a motorcade vehicle, which he used to take his Irish girlfriend out on a date. For a time Mr. Foote then served as a reporter for the Associated Press in New York, but quit his job to pursue a career as a novelist full time.

The essential side to consider when discussing Shelby Foote, the historian, is to remember that he started his literary life as a novelist. He wrote six works of fiction before embarking upon his massive Civil War, which was intended by its publisher, Random House, to be a centennial commemorative edition of that conflict. The final volume, Red River to Appomattox was not published until 1974, meaning that the last installment missed the centennial celebration by about ten years. Nonetheless, the trilogy eventually catapulted Foote into legendary status among Civil War buffs and casual readers alike.

A fairly representative image of Shelby Foote being interviewed in his Memphis, Tennessee study for the Ken Burns Civil War documentary.
A fairly representative image of Shelby Foote being interviewed in his Memphis, Tennessee study for the Ken Burns Civil War documentary. | Source

Enter Ken Burns, and Fame

In 1990 the documentary TV series The Civil War, by producer Ken Burns, appeared on American Public Television. Yawn - you are thinking, another educational snooze fest designed for eggheads and others with no life. Indeed, PBS shows are typically not huge ratings grabbers, but there was something about this particular Ken Burns documentary that captured the attention of the American public. It turned out to be PBS's most popular program ever; being watched by 40 million viewers, not all of whom could have been history nerds desperate for a date, such as myself.

A significant part of the success of Ken Burn's Civil War can certainly be attributed to Shelby Foote. The author was a late, afterthought addition to the slate of historians that were lined up to be interviewed for the series, but he proved to be the most popular of these. The reason for his popularity, most likely, is because he didn't come across as a stodgy historian in the least during the accumulated one hour, out of 11 hours total running time, that he appeared on the program.

The American Public was held mesmerized by Shelby Foote's slow rolling, musical Mississippi drawl and the leisurely, relaxed fashion in which he told his Civil War stories. His style was more like an aging Uncle talking about events he had actually witnessed than a stern, pedantic professor lecturing an assemblage of yawning, eye rolling, clock watching students. There was lyrical poetry in his words and in the way he delivered them. I remember sitting in front of the television in anxious anticipation for Foote's next appearance, even though I had absolutely no idea who he was at the time.

For a while Shelby Foote was the toast of Public television and became a late night talk circuit celebrity as well. This fleeting burst of fame culminated in an October 10th, 1990 appearance on The Johnny Carson show - a venue more typical for vapid models and narcissist movie stars than for dignified intellectuals such as Mr. Foote. Sales of his The Civil War: A Narrative, skyrocketed - by mid 1991 the title's Random House publisher had sold 400,000 additional copies of his work. Shelby Foote is reported to have told the Civil War documentary's producer, "Ken, you have made me a millionaire."

Award winning documentary producer Ken Burns, whose Civil War documentary catapulted author Shelby Foote to fame.
Award winning documentary producer Ken Burns, whose Civil War documentary catapulted author Shelby Foote to fame. | Source

My Impressions of the Man

I received the first volume of Shelby Foote's great work, Fort Sumter to Perryville, as a Christmas gift sometime around the mid 90s, although I can't recall the exact year. One of my most vivid memories of the book is reading it while dining at a pancake house on a rainy El Nino day, just after going in to the hospital to be x-rayed for a kidney stone. The words of the book flowed as freely and as deliciously as the butter dripping down the side of my pancakes. As a displaced Albuquerquean, I was thrilled that Mr. Foote included no less than 12 pages on the Glorieta campaign in New Mexico, a series of battles often overlooked by Civil War historians more focused on the colossal battles of Northern Virginia than what they consider the backwater skirmishes of the dry and dusty west. But Shelby Foote did the forgotten citizens of New Mexico justice in his detailed and poetic narrative of the invasion of the Rio Grande Valley by marauding Texans under Henry H. Sibley.

Only a skilled novelist such as Shelby Foote could capture the feeling of the three day carnage of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania with a literary skill that bean counting historians using their dry statistics and sterile descriptions of mass movements of men, roads, and strategic positions have never measured up to. Shelby Foote certainly includes all of these details as well, but they are merely the background of a grander narrative in which the emotions and impressions of individual soldiers, great and small, play the central role. I read Shelby's approximate 80 page chapter on the Gettysburg campaign, Stars in their Courses, included in Volume II, Fredericksburg to Meridian, while bedridden with bronchitis. Perhaps the reason I am so fond of Shelby Foote is because he was always there to keep me company when I was ill.

I finally finished off Volume III, Red River to Appomattox, while trying to muddle through a Business Mathematics course I was taking at the local community college. I would hide the massive tome behind my pile of textbooks and surreptitiously survey its tantalizing pages while the teacher fielded mostly dumb questions from the confused classroom. In those days I was pretty good at math and didn't really need the lecture, but was still required to have my butt in the seat for the class. Shelby Foote helped me escape those dull, dark days of academic drudgery.

I once heard a Yankee sympathizing history buff complain to a clerk at a battlefield bookstore that Monsieur Foote was biased toward the southern cause, an assertion that baffled me, because I've never detected any residue of rebel sympathies in his work. Quite to the contrary, Mr. Foote's writing is as unbiased as any similar human endeavor could be, and for the most part steers clear from the war's ideological roots. He took great pains to avoid any "lost cause" mythologizing, and was a great admirer of Northern President, Abraham Lincoln, considering him one of the great geniuses of the war. Shelby's southern neighbors often took passionate exception with him over this point.

Shelby Foote passed away on June 27th, 2005. I was saddened to find an obituary of the author included in the mostly ignored mid section of the newspaper, his own glory having faded considerably since his 15 minutes of fame 15 years before his death. I think I shed a tear or two in honor of my fallen literary hero, having fantasized that I might one day meet him in his legendary Memphis study and talk Civil War, one writer to another. I was working a postal office job at the time of his passing, and although my coworkers may have been mystified by my actions, I clipped the article and posted it by my computer. I was probably the only person in the room who remembered the magnificent man, and what he had done to change history into poetry.


For miles the brush and undergrowth were so dense that they had to cut and hack their way through with bowie knives and axes. Skirting the western slopes of the Madelenas, they crossed the Sierra de San Mateo, then staggered down the dry bed of the Palomas River until they reached the Rio Grande again, within sight of which the Texans sent up a shout like the "Thalassa!" of Xenophon's ten thousand.

— Shelby Foote
Shelby Foote's The Civil War:  A Narrative is replete with magnificently penned maps like this.
Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative is replete with magnificently penned maps like this. | Source

Shelby Foote on the Civil War

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    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 17 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      There is no way I would be caught dead reading an article about a historian. History is bad enough, but an article about someone who wrote about it.

      Alas here I am enchanted and interested due to the skill and panache of a certain Mel.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California

      Shelby Foote goes way beyond mere historian, Eric. He is literary magic, a man who will be eventually be named alongside the classic authors such as Herodotus, Thucydides, and all those other greats nobody can pronounce correctly, or even want to pronounce correctly.

      I am glad you found this article worthwhile. I hope you take your beloved wife out for a wonderful Valentine's soiree. Thanks for reading.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E. Franklin 17 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      I can't say Shelby Foote changed my life, but I have greatly enjoyed and benefited from reading his Civil War trilogy. I purchased vols 2 and 3, and have the text of parts of vol 1 on my computer, plus several pages of "Shelby Foote quotes."

      I agree with you that Foote tried to be even-handed in his accounts, but in reading him I reached the conclusion that his identification with the South still came through. But it's hardly noticeable, and seldom if ever compromises his accuracy.

      I think he did admire southern generals more than northern ones. An example is his account of Gen. Grant supposedly going off for several days on an alcoholic bender, an event most historians doubt actually happened. But Foote uncritically (in my view) assumes the historicity of that episode. But that's ok. Foote's version is certainly historically possible. I just think he was slightly more predisposed to see Grant's negatives than he was with Lee, for example.

      All in all, Foote provides very readable and very accurate accounts of the war, and I'm glad to have his work on my bookshelf.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California

      I guess it would be impossible not to be infected by the culture one grows up in Ron, but altogether I think he supressed it fairly well. He did spend a great deal of space going over the brilliant political machinations of Lincoln, and he did not hide the atrocities of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a general he admired. I think he ruffled feathers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon. Thanks for reading!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 17 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm familiar with him through the Ken Burns series, of course, but when it came to the Civil War, I was more a Bruce Catton follower. Thanks for the mini-biography....and your thoughts on how he influenced you.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California

      Bruce Catt on is a pretty powerful wordsmith too Bill, but I think Shelby Foote's work flows from the soul. Thanks for reading!

    • Eldon Arsenaux profile image

      Eldon Arsenaux 17 months ago from Cooley, Texas

      This article has amazing scope Mel. I look forward to more Authors Who Changed [Your] Life. My pops has Mr. Foote's Civil War collection in his study, though the volumes are staggering. I prefer picture books, but of course, a hundred thousand words will sometimes surpass one simple photograph. What is the worth of words... I'm sure Barnes & Noble has a noble answer.

      -E.G.A.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 17 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Hi Mel Carriere you have got me thinking about the past a lot. A great subject definitely a way to improve on one's knowledge.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California

      I guess word count is not so important as how deftly a writer uses them Eldon. However, Mr. Foote was covering a massive conflict that was fought coast to coast, so I think it required three thick volumes at a minimum to do it justice. Imagine him giving so much space to our little cap gun war in the New Mexico badlands; it doesn't even rate a paragraph in other Civil War books I have read. I think your pops has very good taste. One day you will wake up and realize you are starting to like the thick books us old farts hide in. Listen to your father. Thank you for reading, my friend, I always appreciate your visits.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California

      Devika, the past can be fascinating, and is full of beautiful stories regardless of our country of origin. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Eldon Arsenaux profile image

      Eldon Arsenaux 17 months ago from Cooley, Texas

      Agreed. An attempt at humor on my part. My pops always gave me good books to read, and so have Hubpages book-reviewers like you (that sounded like a PBS promotional!).

      -E.G.A.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California

      Did I come across as a PBS promotional? My experience with PBS started and stopped with the Civil War. Everything else I've seen there is for the chronically sleep deprived. Don't have a bad thing to say about Señor Foote. Wait til you see what I say about Steinbeck if you think I'm being a sycophant now. Thanks again.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 17 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I appreciate this article and your review very much, Mel, especially since I have never heard of Shelby Foote. He sounds like a great writer. I'm looking forward to reading more installments in your Authors that Changed My Life series.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Linda I am glad you learned something. I think he is a great writer indeed, although some Civil War buffs here disagree. Thanks for reading!

    • Eldon Arsenaux profile image

      Eldon Arsenaux 17 months ago from Cooley, Texas

      No, no, Mel, what I wrote! 'PBS viewers like you', is the comparison I meant to make with my own words. I think Bob Ross, the painter, was actually sleep-painting the entire time he was televised.

      -E.G.A.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California

      No problem Eldon I get what you're saying. I'm not thin skinned anyway, we old farts have rhinoceros hides, so even of I did sound like a PBS promotional I take it as something to work on. Thanks again.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 17 months ago

      Okay, Mel, you’ve sent out the hook and I’m caught. I now consider reading Shelby Foote’s three volumes on the Civil War a must, despite the fact that the Ken Burns connection loses me. As a Southerner, I deplore Mr. Burns blatant penchant for the Northern viewpoint in his series, as with most other "historical" writers. So, if Mr. Foote has a sympathy toward the South, I would find that refreshing. I have to tell you that the sister of Nathan Bedford Forest was my great great grandmother.

      I at one time read everything I could get my hands on about the Civil War and could have been called a “Civil War Buff.” It all started with an author who changed my life. When I was in the 8th Grade I discovered a series on the Civil War written for youth by Joseph Altsheler. I read all eight volumes and anything else by him that I could get my hands on. This author changed my whole attitude toward history, and I went on to a history minor in college.

      BTW, I have a connection to NM, having lived in that beautiful state for two years and loved every minute. Now my niece resides in Albuquerque.

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 17 months ago from Southern Georgia

      Hello Mel, I really enjoyed this article as my ancestors on both sides of the family fought for the south in that horrible war. I too enjoyed Mr. Foote's dialogue on Burns' documentary.

      Although I've read many books--historical and fictional--about the CW somehow I've missed Mr. Foote's books. I've written several historical fiction hubs--and a few factual about my ancestors--I'm now looking forward to reading Shelby's volumes.

      You did a great job writing this piece!

    • kalinin1158 profile image

      Lana ZK 17 months ago from California

      A new series from Mel? I love it! I've never heard of this historian before, but I do appreciate history, or historical fiction. I remember swallowing Stefan Zweig's books within a matter of days when I was back in Russia, still haunted by the ghost of Marie Antoinette...

      Fantastic job on the hub, as always, and on paragraphing :)

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California

      Miz Bejabbers, I think you will not find Mr. Foote biased one way or the other, but then again I don't remember Burns being biased either. Could be because I don't have a horse in the race, my parents being from both sides of the Mason-Dixon. I really appreciate you coming by with your captivating comment. Its amazing to me that there is a still a good bit of mostly good natured Yankee/Dixie conflict about 200 years.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Randy. I don't think you will regret reading Shelby Foote's work. I want to read all of his novels now too, which I have neglected to do, despite being such an obvious fan. I really appreciate you stopping in and commenting, and I look forward to reading some of your historical hubs within the next couple of days, when I can break free from some of life's necessary evils, like doing my taxes.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Svetlana. Although I am still not quite ready to completely break free of the overly verbose paragraph, I did manage to slice one or two of them in twain for this hub, based on your kind input The first two paragraphs were actually one, at one point. You have given me a new author to investigate now. When I was a younger man, but equally nerdy, I read a lot of hefty books on the French Revolution and Napoleon. I am going to investigate Stefan Zweig. I appreciate you dropping in.

    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 17 months ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      Mel, love reading about history, I just never got into the Civil War books. I have never heard of Shelby Foote. I am still stuck on WWll books. Some people living in Florida are still fighting the Civil War. Great article from a wonderful writer.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Stella. I'm seeing here that a lot of people are still fighting the Civil War. Amazing after 150 years. I appreciate your nice words.

    • Dana Tate profile image

      Dana Tate 17 months ago from LOS ANGELES

      Nice tribute. I haven't heard of him but as always you certainly have a way of introducing me and others to author's we have never heard of. I look forward to the series you plan to write.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Dana Tate always so nice to hear from you. If the Civil War is,not your thing stick around and eventually something might spark your interest, because I do not confine myself to any particular genre.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 16 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      While I was reading this, I was wondering if this had anything to do with Ken Burns. I must read this when I can and see if I can get the poetry out of this wonderful material, as well. I great topic on a great man that I knew nothing about until you brought him to my attention.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 16 months ago from San Diego California

      My reading tastes run a little eclectic, Deb. Thanks for dropping by, I was just thinking about looking you up, to see what you have been up to lately.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 16 months ago from Oklahoma

      I'm embarrassed. I really don't know that much about Shelby Foote. I'll have to look into it. Great read.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 16 months ago from San Diego California

      I think you will find it enjoyable Larry if you have a lot of time on your hands. Three thick books about 1000 pages each. I think he even has a section about a campaign that took place in Oklahoma. Thanks for reading, my friend, nice to hear from you.

    • Jennifer Mugrage profile image

      Jennifer Mugrage 16 months ago from Columbus, Ohio

      Well, Mel, you are a good salesman. You have definitely made me put these three volumes on my To Be Read list. I remember seeing the volumes around a lot, when my brother was ravenously devouring them in middle school. I think Shelby Foote was one of the authors that got my brother into serious reading.

      If only we had more such historians.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 16 months ago from San Diego California

      History is a lost art Jennifer. If we learn anything from history, it's that we don't learn anything from history. Thanks for reading and I hope you find these as enjoyable as your brother did.

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