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This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of filmmaker Ken Burns’s pbs television series on the American Civil War. In 1990, thirty-nine million viewers tuned in to Burns’s eleven-hour documentary, prompting historian Stephen Ambrose to joke that “more Americans get their history from Ken Burns than from any other source.”1 Although monumental in its own right, the series became, for many Americans, their first introduction to southern writer Shelby Foote. From the book-lined study in his home in Memphis, Tennessee, Foote offered a series of memorable insights into the human side of America’s defining conflict. All told, Foote made eighty-nine appearances in Burns’s program—far more than any other expert—and became an overnight sensation. Foote’s stardom allowed his interpretation to permeate the popular mind.
Burns turned to Foote because Foote had labored for twenty years, from 1953 to 1973, writing a massive three-volume work, The Civil War: A Narrative. Although Foote’s own southern roots first fueled his passion for the war, his adoptive city of Memphis heavily influenced his interpretation of the conflict. In the Narrative, this Memphis perspective translated into an emphasis on battles in the Western Theater—the fighting beyond the more well-known Virginia battles—as well as admiration for fellow adoptive Memphians, President Jefferson Davis and General Nathan Bedford Forrest. By focusing almost entirely on military events and bringing renewed attention to southern heroes—thereby ignoring the significance of slavery—Foote offered a version of the war that proved popular with white American readers and viewers. Weaving his interpretation throughout the Burns series with colorful anecdotes in his signature drawl, Foote became a living, breathing—and endearing—representation of the South for many Americans.
Foote’s Mississippi roots first drew him to the Civil War. Born Shelby Dade Foote Jr. in Greenville, Mississippi, in 1916, Foote moved a number of times during his early childhood as his father advanced within the ranks of the Chicago-based Armour Meats and Company. But after his father’s death in 1922, the young Foote and his mother returned to Greenville, and Foote spent his formative years there in the company of memoirist William Alexander Percy and his younger cousin, Walker Percy. In 1935, Foote briefly left the Delta to study at the University of North Carolina, but two years later he quit the university and returned home to focus on his writing. Near the end of 1940, Foote enlisted in the National Guard in the hope of seeing action in World War II, but before ever seeing combat, Foote was court-martialed for driving a company Jeep beyond the allowed fifty-mile limit and was later discharged for the offense. After returning home, he enlisted in the Marines, but the war ended before his deployment to the Pacific. Frustrated by the experience and unable to prove himself in war, Foote threw himself into his writing. He wrote three novels in quick succession, all of which grew out of his Mississippi upbringing, and then planned to write a series of novels about Civil [End Page 14] War battles, including Vicksburg, the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads (also in Mississippi), and Shiloh, just across the state line in Tennessee. Almost certainly, Foote chose to write first about Shiloh because his great-grandfather, Hezekiah William Foote, had fought there in 1862 as colonel of the 1st Mississippi Cavalry.