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June 28, 2005

Remembering Shelby Foote

Shelby Foote died this morning in Memphis at age 88.

Shelby Foote was the man. About two years ago, i had the pleasure of finishing his Proustian three volume history, The Civil War: A Narrative. It took me nine months of reading to finish it, and like having a baby i imagine, it was both painful and rewarding at the same time.

You may be familiar with Mr. Foote from his talking head appearances in Ken Burns' Civil War series on PBS. His folksy style and always interesting anecdotes were what interested me in his writings originally. So i bought his short novel Shiloh, which was not bad. With my membership in the History Book Club, and a few surplus bonus points, i purchased the 14 volume illustrated Time Life version of the Civil War narrative. i intended to just look at the pretty pictures, set them on a shelf to impress friends with, and maybe pass them on to my kids someday. i never intended to read it.

i saw Ken Burns' documentary, i have two history degrees, i thought i knew enough about the Civil War. And besides, my concentration was always WWII and postwar history. CW history was for the real history geeks, not me. Still, one day i picked up the first volume of the Time Life set during an idle moment, and read a few paragraphs. Amazing. That led to a few chapters and pretty soon i was committed.

The Narrative is very readable -- Foote was a novelist first -- but it is also very detailed. Having read it, i realize now how superficial the Ken Burns documentary was. And that thing was like 12 hours long! To do full justice to the huge subject that is the American Civil War takes time. A lot of time. But as has been said so often, you can't truly understand America without understanding the Civil War. And i do believe that.

It helps to have an interest in military history, though. Because Foote's history describes every single battle and campaign from both a micro and macro perspective. The macro is often the most esoteric, and difficult material. But along with that stuff, there's plenty of personal, political and biographical detail, which makes the Narrative the most comprehensive popular history of the Civil War that will ever be published.

i worked through it partly for the challenge. i knew the general outline of the war, and i knew i had to get to the big events. Sumter, the Bull Runs, Antietam, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Emancipation, Sherman's march, Appomatox, Ford's Theater, etc. But i learned so much along the way that i had to finish it. To my surprise, i found that some of my favorite subject matter was the history of naval operations during the war. That's a much deeper subject than just the Monitor vs. Virginia battle. Some of the shit that happened on the rivers is pretty unbelievable.

Anyways, i would love to have shaken Shelby Foote's hand and thanked him for having written that huge work, which kept me enthralled for the better part of a year. i almost consider him a professor of mine, because through his books i became a Civil War buff, which i was not before i started.

More: And in the great minds think alike department: The Maximum Leader also wishes he could have shaken the celebrated author's hand.

Posted by annika, Jun. 28, 2005 | TrackBack (0)
Rubric: History


Classy post, Annika. I saw the most of the Burns documentary, and I found Foote wonderful to listen to, very knowledgeable and very HUMAN.

Big applause to you for reading his entire CW set of books. I go to book stores often and stare at his CW set like a climber does Mt. Everest. One would love to complete the challenge, but you know in advance that it will be a sacrifice.

I will miss him, despite not reading his work. A sad testament of humanity is that we acknowledge our greatest people AFTER their death.

Posted by: Mark on Jun. 28, 2005

Mark, that everest analogy made me smile. That's exactly it! i did that too during many a stop at Barnes & Noble's history section. But i finally bit the bullet, and you can too. i boast a little because i am sort of proud of myself for having read the whole thing.

The thing about WWII is that you can really learn a lot about it from movies and the History Channel without having to crack a book. But that's not so with the Civil War. Historically accurate movies are really hard to find, and there's not that much on the History channel. Unlike WWII the world back then was too different from our own time, and that puts people off. But the differences are what fascinate me the most, along with the great characters: Lincoln, Grant, Lee, Jackson, MacLellan.

i've fallen off on my Civil War reading in the last year or two, but it's a great fun subject.

Posted by: annika on Jun. 28, 2005

"A sad testament of humanity is that we acknowledge our greatest people AFTER their death."

Shit Mark, it's widely known, that he had chicks out the ying-yang.

Maybe the hardest thing about comprehending the civil war is understanding the zeitgeist. I grew up in an abolitionist stronghold that produced Joshua Giddings & Benjamin Wade, founders of the Republican Party. Wade was the President of the Senate during Andrew Johnson's impeachment, and so was one vote shy of replacing him. Today, the county is a democrat boil on the ass of the rustbelt. C'est la vie.

Posted by: Casca on Jun. 28, 2005

Yeah Foote was great, even though I often got tired of the civil war, i did like his narration.
I am intrigued that you have two history degrees, I have an economics degree, and after 25 years i have gone back to get a second degree in history to write about history from an economic perspective.
BTW I am currently writing this while the president is giving his address. I may be a silly man, but his voice seems soothing to me. Can you imagine what i would be feeling if i were hearing the halting disembodied brahminisim of Kerry, or the shrill hate speach of Hillary?

Posted by: Kyle on Jun. 28, 2005

imagine what it would have been like to hear the high-pitched country-bumpkin accent of Abraham Lincoln. But his words live forever don't they?

Posted by: annika on Jun. 28, 2005


I'm impressed.

Anyone that finished that American/Russian Novel will have no trouble slogging through year two of law school.

You should be able to do it on your hip.

Posted by: shelly on Jun. 28, 2005

"Shelby Foote was the man"

I agree. I am in the middle of Volume II.

Robots, basketball, air-conditioning and now the Civil War. You are become more perfect every day.

Posted by: Jake on Jun. 28, 2005

"Today, the county is a democrat boil on the ass of the rustbelt."

And I thought Annika was the only poet here. :)

Posted by: Mark on Jun. 28, 2005

I loved the Narrative. I never found it bursensome. I especially liked the flashes of humor that revealed so much of the character in the personalities of the Civil War. Here is one incident related by Foote that comes immediately to mind: At the beginning of the War, when many Southern career officers in the old Army were resigning their commissions to join the Confederate army, Sherman sees George Thomas, a Virginian, leaving the War Department, and assumes the worse. "George, where are you going?" he asks. "I'm going south, Bill" Thomas responds. "But George, I vouched for you to the War Department. You're putting me in a terrible spot," Sherman complained. "Not to worry, Bill," Thomas responded, "I'm going south at the head of my troops."

Posted by: Ralphyboy on Jun. 29, 2005

"...CW history was for the real history geeks, not me."

lol - guess again Annika! But we still love you :)

Posted by: jimilove on Jun. 29, 2005

In general, Ken Burns' series was excellent and Shelby Foote's contributions were critical to its success. The one big criticism I have about the series is that apart for touching very briefly on the subject when discussing the origin of Arlington National Cemetery, essentially no mention is made of the thousands of southerners who remained loyal to the union, and took up arms against their relatives and former friends. Don't forget that so many counties in Virginia stayed loyal to the union that the state of West Virginia was formed. This is also one of the reasons why the union had far more men available despite populations that were much closer. I know that southerners in general don't like to be reminded of this extremely important historical fact, but by ignoring it, Burns and Foote left out the most emotional and fundamental part of the story.

Posted by: Edward Cole on Aug. 7, 2005