Shelby Foote

Shelby Foote

Associated Press / 29 June 2005

Civil War historian Shelby Foote dies

By Woody Baird

Memphis, Tenn. – With his pointy gray beard, soft Southern accent and gentlemanly carriage, Shelby Foote seemed to have stepped straight out of a Mathew Brady photograph.

It was that style, coupled with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Civil War, that turned him into a national celebrity after he lent his observations on the conflict for Ken Burns’ 1990 “Civil War” series.

“We had planned to film 30 or 40 historians. Shelby Foote was in it 89 times or something like that. The next closest was seven or eight times,” Burns said.

Foote, who wrote a three-volume history of the Civil War and six novels before the Burns documentary, was remembered Tuesday as a gifted storyteller. He died Monday night at 88.

“He had a gift for presenting vivid portraits of personalities, from privates in the ranks to generals and politicians. And he had a gift for character, for the apt quotation, for the dramatic event, for the story behind the story,” said James M. McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian. “He could also write a crackling good narrative of a campaign or a battle.”

Though a native Southerner, Foote did not favor the South in his history or novels and was not counted among those Southern historians who regard the Civil War as the great Lost Cause.

He publicly criticized segregationist politicians and abruptly abandoned a move to the Alabama coast in the 1960s because of the racist attitudes he found there.

“He was a Southerner of great intellect who took up the issue of the Civil War as a writer with huge sanity and sympathy,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford, a friend and fellow Mississippi native.

Early in his career, Foote took up the habit of writing by hand with an old-fashioned dipped pen, and he continued that practice throughout his life. Foote said writing by hand helped him slow down to a manageable pace and was more personal than using a typewriter.

Foote was born Nov. 7, 1916, in Greenville, Miss., a small Delta town with a literary bent. Walker Percy was a boyhood and lifelong friend, and Foote, as a young man, served as a “jackleg reporter” for the crusading editor Hodding Carter on The Delta Star. As a young man, Foote got to know William Faulkner.

Foote attended the University of North Carolina for two years and served in World War II, though he never saw combat.

After the war, he went back to Greenville to write commercials for a radio station. “Then I sold my first story to the Saturday Evening Post. I quit my job and haven’t had another one since,” he said.

His first novel, “Tournament,” was started before the war and published in 1949. Then came “Follow Me Down” in 1950, “Love in a Dry Season” in 1951, “Shiloh” in 1952 and “Jordan County” in 1954.

That same year, Random House asked him to write a single-volume history of the Civil War. He took the job, but it grew into a three-volume, 3,000-page project finally finished in 1974.

In 1999, the Modern Library ranked that work, “The Civil War: A Narrative,” as No. 15 on its list of the century’s 100 best English-language works of nonfiction.

“Narrative history is the kind that comes closest to telling the truth. You can never get to the truth, but that’s your goal,” Foote once said.

His final novel, “September, September,” published in 1978, tells the story of an ignorant white couple who kidnap the son of a rich black businessman in the 1950s. It became the basis for a TV move starring fellow Memphis resident Cybill Shepherd.

After Burns’ 11-hour PBS series, Foote would say that being a celebrity made him uneasy, and he worried it might detract from the seriousness of his work.

“This Civil War stuff is driving me crazy. I thought I had my discharge,” he told the AP in 1990. “People keep wanting me to come somewhere and speak and I enjoy it. But I disapprove of it.”

In addition to his wife, Gwyn, he is survived by a daughter, Margaret Shelby, and a son, Huger Lee. A graveside service is planned in Memphis on Thursday.


  1. Shelby Foote says

    When Walker told me he was thinking about going into the Catholic Church, we were in Santa Fe, New Mexico on a sort of vacation. And I couldn’t believe he would do that. I knew nothing about the Catholic Church. I knew that they had an index of books that people are not supposed to read, and I certainly didn’t want him belonging to anything that would do that to you. So I said, “You are a mind in full intellectual retreat,” and it’s a wonder he ever spoke to me again. He found exactly what he was looking for in the Church. It gave him exactly what he wanted, and it was a great comfort to him when he was dying, and it was at the wellspring of his being, the Church and its teachings, and he was truly devout. He had a lot of trouble, always called himself a bad Catholic, but he got a great deal from it.

  2. Anonymous says

    Foote was the last of the gentleman historians and the perfect foil for Percy.

    For the latter alone he should be canonized.

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