By Theory Possessed   /   Spring 2023   /    Essays

The Spirit of Appomattox

Shelby Foote, Then and Now

Jonathan Clarke

robusa/Alamy Stock Photo.

In 1990, American public television viewers were introduced to the Mississippi novelist and Civil War historian Shelby Foote (1916–2005). The unlikely star of Ken Burns’s epic 1990 PBS documentary The Civil War, Foote proved to have a gift for humorous anecdote and a way of rounding off a scene. Burns and his team shaped the narrative, but it was Foote who gave the landmark series its distinctive register of aubade, leavened by a rich appreciation of the war’s human comedy. We remember the Civil War today largely in his voice, as the event that, in his words, “defined us as the nation we were going to be.”

Academic historians began to register their complaints about Foote’s appearance in the series even as The Civil War was being broadcast. His sudden stardom, which made him wealthy through renewed sales of his enormous three-volume history, The Civil War: A Narrative, generated resentment.11xShelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, 3 vols. (New York, NY: Random House, 2011). First published 1958–74. Some also complained of a lack of balance in Burns’s documentary. Foote, a white Southerner who emphasized the fighting itself—and who had no formal training as a historian—was on camera for forty-six minutes; Barbara Fields, a black Columbia University professor who had written extensively on the war’s ideological conflicts, was given less than nine minutes.

Foote made things worse by presuming to instruct other historians on how they should approach their craft. Before he began his Civil War epic, in 1954, he had been a fiction writer, publishing five novels mostly set in his native Mississippi Delta. In writing his history, he stuck to the tools of a novelist, emphasizing narrative shape and vivid characterization—history, he often said, “has a plot.” In interviews, he suggested that the historians on whose work he relied could improve their craft by “learning to write well, which most of them have never bothered to do.” “The reader must sense behind the work,” he said, “a credible author, and find in his pages an artistically constructed point of view.”

The Civil War: A Narrative, the final volume of which was published in 1974, was initially accepted as a masterwork. Out of the carnage of the fighting and the torpor of ancient political skirmishes, Foote had wrought coherence and even inspiration. In her appraisal of Foote’s accomplishment, “Shelby Foote’s Iliad,” published in a 1979 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, Helen White identified one of the trilogy’s undeniable strengths:

Shelby Foote exhibits in this book undeviating interest in human character and enjoyment of human experience.… There is a magnanimity for the men who break or fail.… He is an afficionado, not necessarily of war, but of the testing of men under extreme pressure; for he has faith that some, at least, will rise to the occasion and set a standard.22xHelen White, “Shelby Foote’s Iliad,” Virginia Quarterly Review 55, no. 2 (Spring 1979),

Recently, however, the complaints about Foote’s putative Confederate bias have grown louder, and his legacy has been called into question. In September 2020, the Washington Post published a sustained attack on Foote’s role in the Burns series by Gillian Brockell, who argued that “Foote’s screen time is dripping with Lost Cause fables as thick as his accent.”33xGillian Brockell, “Re-Watching ‘The Civil War’ During the Breonna Taylor and George Floyd Protests,” Washington Post, September 26, 2020, Later the same year, in The Journal of the Civil War Era, Ella Starkman-Hynes wrote that Foote was “dangerous as a historical source.”44xElla Starkman-Hynes, “A Mistaken Form of Trust: Ken Burns’s The Civil War at Thirty,” Journal of the Civil War Era, October 1, 2020,

Most viewers of The Civil War did not suspect two crucial facts about Shelby Foote. The first was that in addition to being an amiable raconteur, he was a prose stylist of enormous discipline and distinction. The second was that his perspective on the war was, even then, decidedly unorthodox. In defending the honor of the Confederates, Foote arguably separated the moral stain of slavery itself, which he always acknowledged (“just as wrong as it can be, a huge sin”), from its perpetrators. His emphasis on battlefield tactics and logistics—about which he wrote with elegant precision—tends to slight our sense of the war’s moral purpose. He also asks us to live with a peace whose terms many Americans no longer find acceptable.

Now that we are once again debating the Civil War’s meaning, Foote’s reveries about the leading figures of the Confederacy (“Lee had a cheerful dignity and could praise [his men] without seeming to court their favor”) seem less quaint. Whether his reputation will survive the latest skirmish in our history wars is not clear.

The Menace of Anti-Intellectualism

Ours is a moment of palpable fear in America, and no one is more unsettled than those of us who have come to depend, through long years of higher education, on stable cultural values for a sense of identity and purpose. Academics and intellectuals—book people—tend to come from the cosmopolitan middle class. This means we are not rich enough to be indifferent to the fate of our society and not rooted enough to be immovable. We aspire to openness, but more fundamentally what we require is continuity and order, F.R. Leavis’s “great tradition” or Lionel Trilling’s “sense of the past.”

History, in all its folly and contingency, is just what the revolutionary resents. The notion that so many generations should have come before him, ignorant of his impending birth and living therefore according to their own benighted values, affronts his ego. Robespierre guillotined nobles and clergy. The Khmer Rouge expressed the revolutionary ideal even more pithily by executing anyone wearing eyeglasses. Anti-intellectualism took root early in America. Tocqueville thought it was the handmaiden of the democratic spirit. But rarely has it seemed quite so menacing as it does now.

Several elements have worked in concert to undermine our sense of continuity and shared achievement: political and economic upheaval, rapid demographic change, the irruption of therapeutic values into literary life, and race essentialism, which emphasizes the historical exclusion of some groups from that story. Inclusion indeed has come grudgingly, and the meaning of our history has always been an ongoing argument. Each period seems somehow to modify our sense of what preceded it. Perhaps never before, however, have we agreed so little on our basic premises. What once appeared warm, solid, and proximate—that shared, consoling sense of what it means to be an American—now looks as though it is about to disappear over the horizon.

Those of us over forty are old enough to remember an intellectual culture with more ballast. The leading intellectual figures of the postwar period—David Reisman, C. Wright Mills, Richard Hofstadter, and others—were sometimes harshly critical of their country, especially of its growing self-satisfaction. They believed, however, that America had a vital role to play in the world, if only it would accept the responsibility of the historical moment. If anything, what they feared was that our material abundance would condemn us to moral mediocrity. (One feels nostalgic for the days when complacency was our greatest threat.) Likewise, while criticism of the Vietnam War was often bitter and occasionally violent, the broad assumption remained that a better, more just America was waiting patiently to be discovered. This is precisely the assumption many Americans now do not share, and paradoxically it is often those by whom this country has done the best who are the most skeptical of its ethos.

Precisely the Wrong Lessons

There are better and worse ways of bringing our ethical concerns to our reading life. In 1995 a London solicitor, Anthony Julius, published T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form, a sharp attack on Eliot’s anti-Semitic utterances in poems and essays spanning several decades.55xAnthony Julius, T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1995). Julius relied on close readings of Eliot’s work, understood against the backdrop of historical anti-Semitic tropes. The tone of the book is at times unpleasant—Julius has a bit of Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert in him—and his implicit claims about the ethical dimensions of literature do not always succeed, as exemplified by his flat reading of another anti-Semitic “problem work,” Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Julius’s way of reading arguably shortchanges irony and ambiguity, precisely those aspects of Eliot’s work that have made it so durable and progenitive.

Even so, Julius behaves essentially as a critic should. He makes literary rather than political arguments, and he does not deny the transformative power of Eliot’s poetry, even as he sometimes seems not fully to understand its source. For all his reciprocated hostility (Julius is Jewish), what he seeks is not to drive Eliot from the canon but to promote the fullest understanding of his work. If Julius has limitations as a critic, the debate the publication of T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form nonetheless generated both broadened public understanding of Eliot’s legacy and desanctified him, which in the long run can only be a good thing for a writer. A recent biography adduces new evidence from Eliot’s correspondence that tends to vindicate Julius’s argument that anti-Semitism was essential to his thought.66xRobert Crawford, Eliot After “The Waste Land” (London, England: Jonathan Cape, 2022).

Unfortunately, the legacy of Julius’s book in similar controversies has been its prosecutorial tone rather than its textual criticism, its personal outrage rather than its scholarly discipline. What brings fame to the critic now is not due consideration of the writer’s work but extravagant care for the critic’s own feelings. From Julius we have learned precisely the wrong lessons.

Contrast Julius’s good faith in handling the difficult questions posed by Eliot’s writing with the critical trajectory of Willa Cather, a great American novelist whose reputation has been carelessly disfigured by critics claiming to admire her. As described in Joan Acocella’s Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism (2000), leftist academic critics decided that the meaning of Cather’s work was that she was a feminist (which she was only in an unconventional sense) and a lesbian (which she likely was, but chose not to make a subject of her writing). Acocella, herself a left feminist, sees the evident danger in this:

[Cather] wrote novels showing that women could do something important besides giving themselves to men. Then she wrote novels about history and exile and the life of the mind in relation to the world—in other words, all the things that women were not supposed to write about, though today they do so, partly because Cather did. If we now argue that those subjects of hers were just covers, that what she was really writing about were the very things she chose not to write about, sex and gender, is this a vote for the rights of women and homosexuals? Or is it, however unwittingly, another attack on them?77xJoan Acocella, Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 62–63.

Conservative critics, particularly Catholic conservatives, also willfully misread Cather’s work, likewise trying to turn it to their own purposes. Cather was indeed a political conservative, but of no orthodox sort, and her novels cannot be read as a straightforward defense of Christian values. Cather the penitent is as unrecognizable as Cather the third-wave feminist.

For Acocella, Cather’s is a case study in the risks of a de-aestheticized criticism:

Should politics be left out of literary discussion? How can it be? It is part of the critic’s intellectual world. If it is not there explicitly, it will be there implicitly, as today’s political critics have repeatedly pointed out. The problem with these critics’ writings, however, is not that they contain politics, but that they contain almost nothing else. Cather might have been a journalist, or indeed a politician, for all that the literary qualities of her work are noticed.88xIbid., 67.

We should resist the temptation to put our reading life too much at the service of our politics, whatever they might be. Politics are too much with us already. And history shows that political turmoil tends to create precisely the conditions under which literature’s claims to autonomy—to a kind of necessary irresponsibility—tend to suffer most.

Visceral Affinities

Even in his youth, Shelby Foote felt the heavy emotional weight of the Civil War. His great-grandfather had commanded a Confederate regiment at Shiloh, and Foote grew up in a Mississippi in which, as he recounted, he was taught obscene doggerel about Abraham Lincoln. As he aged, and his Civil War project grew to dominate his life, his identity became more rather than less bound up with the Confederate cause. Unsurprisingly, he was driven, perhaps more than he could admit, to vindicate it as essentially honorable. For Foote the novelist, this was clearly an advantage: He brought his passion to the page every day for two decades. For Foote the historian, though, the dangers of such visceral affinities are evident.

By starting and ending his history with the perspectives of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis and moving the two presidents in parallel through the war years, Foote implied an equivalence between Union and Confederate, if not of political wisdom than of human interest. This is necessary to his narrative purposes but confounds our settled sense of the Union as not only victorious on the battlefield but superior in legitimacy.

Foote would see this as moral complacency. If we had lived in the Confederate states in that period, he suggests, we would have seen things just as Southerners did. Foote has said that he himself would have fought in Lee’s army. “What’s more,” he told an interviewer in 2002, “I would fight for the Confederacy today if the circumstances were similar.”99xShelby Foote, “Shelby Foote, the Art of Fiction No. 158,” interview by Carter Coleman, Donald Faulkner, and William Kennedy, Paris Review, no. 151 (Summer 1999), We should be conscious of enjoying the privilege of hindsight. Why do we read history, though, if not to exercise that privilege, to understand what in the course of events was inevitable and what might have been different?

Foote’s identification with the Confederacy led him to embrace several doubtful premises. He rejected some Lost Cause shibboleths but embraced others. For example, he did not deny that slavery was the chief political cause of the war, but he did deny that it was on the minds of the those who did the fighting, whether Union or Confederate. (“No soldier on either side gave a damn about the slaves.”) It is a truism that the chaos of battle quickly drives idealism from the field and that soldiers fight for the man next to them more than for any objective formed behind the lines. Even so, to suggest that Union soldiers were entirely unmindful of the war’s aims both overstates the point and denies us a full sense of the competing values the war represented. (Indeed, the Burns documentary draws on powerful epistolary evidence that Union soldiers were not only mindful of abolition as a casus belli but also deeply committed to that cause even before the Emancipation Proclamation.) Slavery remains a constant reminder of the fragility of American ideals; we are entitled, however, to the consoling fact that 360,000 Americans gave their lives to end it.

Foote also gives voice, through his extended portrait of Jefferson Davis, to the notion that the Confederate cause was not merely respectable but somehow the more consistent with the nation’s founding principles. Here I think we must agree with Ulysses S. Grant, who was gracious in victory but nonetheless observed that while the Confederates had “fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause…that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought.”1010xUlysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1982), 555–56. First published 1885–86. Relatedly, Foote maintained warm feelings for Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest (“a genius…a man meant to be a soldier the way Keats was meant to be a poet”), a gifted military strategist better known to posterity as the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. This is where fidelity begins to grade into obduracy.

Foote refrained, in the years between the PBS documentary and his death in 2005, from revising his views. This must be counted as a missed opportunity. He maintained that the Confederate flag was misunderstood as a symbol, that much of what the Confederate Army fought for was worthy, and that the failure of Reconstruction to integrate freed slaves into American life was a sin nearly equivalent to the institution of slavery itself. “The backward view won’t work,” he said of contemporary efforts to understand the period—which is an interesting claim coming from a historian. He always said that he had no particular thesis to propound about the war. His broadest ambition was simply to see that it be properly remembered.

Foote’s intransigence was at the core of his character, and was in some ways an admirable quality. He had that deep elegance that is born of conviction as well as manners. (You do not spend twenty years on a single project if you are easily moved.) He believed that a person’s first duty was to his own sense of self, which he conceived as bound up with family, tradition, and relatively static social roles. This was precisely what he admired in Confederate life, as contrasted with the increasingly mechanized mass society of the industrialized North.

We must grant that there is something distinctive in the white Southern character, the loss of which would be a loss to the interest and vitality of American life. The preservation of that distinctive quality was not, however, the principal reason the war was fought. In any event, it seems evident that neither the war’s outcome nor the succeeding 150 years have entirely erased it.

Foote saw himself as contributing to a national understanding of the war that would bind up old wounds. The tense but elegant exchange of letters between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, culminating in Lee’s surrender, struck precisely the note of reconciliation Foote wished us to embrace. He describes the “tacit agreement” this way: “The victors acknowledged that the Confederates had fought bravely for a cause they believed was just and the losers agreed it was probably best for all concerned that the Union had been preserved.” Grant did not gloat in victory, and Jefferson Davis, on hearing in 1884 that the former commander of the Union forces was near death, spoke of his wish to “contribute to the peace of his mind and the comfort of his body.”

This is very fine, up to a point. We should remember, however, that Americans of African descent were not made a party to this compromise, and that asking them to accept its terms may be asking too much. What is clear is that Foote’s tacit agreement did not hold, and that the bitter divisions in our current politics are to some extent traceable to the elisions that were necessary for its formation.

The Music of History

The Civil War: A Narrative took Foote twenty years to write. He often worked seven days a week, alone in his study with hundreds of volumes of history and memoir within arm’s length. He began his project as a relatively young man and ended it in late middle age. If nothing else, what literally became his life’s work should compel our respect as a triumph of self-mastery. A less hardy character would not have survived this slightly different form of Lincoln’s “brutal arithmetic of war.”

Foote was no mere Confederate apologist. He was compelled to recognize honorable conduct wherever he found it, including the Union side. He wrote admiringly of Grant, somewhat against the grain of Grant’s reputation at the time. He extolled Lincoln’s immense qualities as a leader and a speechmaker, writing of the “Lincoln music” that Jefferson Davis “could never match…or perhaps even catch its tone.” If Foote was more drawn to the Confederates, this was less a matter of politics than of origins and even of masculine style, those heroics on horseback that so appealed to his sense of the war as having been fought and decided by individuals, as opposed to the more prosaic achievements of supply, logistics, and manpower that ultimately led to the Union victory.

In this sense, the Southernness of Foote’s history is both its characteristic strength, in that it conveys the tragic, dolorous, and humorous elements of the war as only the losers can, and also its weakness, in that it leaves Foote open to charges of bias—indeed, to the impression that he is relitigating the war through prose. In time, we may decisively reject some of Foote’s claims about why the war was fought and where the laurels should lie. Whether we are Southerners or not, however, the tone of our recollections will be his.

As an achievement in prose, The Civil War: A Narrative has few American rivals. In interviews, Foote frequently invoked Marcel Proust, and while Foote would never make the comparison himself, in terms of scale and ambition, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time does come to mind as an analogue. Foote’s complex irony, that sense that the author simultaneously occupies multiple points of view, certainly owes something to Proust. The monumental length of Foote’s project would strain any style, tending to expose the stock phrases, repetitions, and default strategies of even the most gifted writer. Yet Foote’s text is almost never awkward or prolix. It rises regularly to eloquence, and occasionally to resourceful neologism. Foote was not without self-regard, but at his writing desk, he was always thinking of his reader. The lovely final pages recounting the last years of some of the war’s major figures provide that reader with the proper sense of having completed an arduous journey. 

Foote was a devoted listener to classical music, and his methods of organization are symphonic as much as literary. In the first volume (Fort Sumter to Perryville), one senses the author’s restraint, his bridling of the music of history in favor of its plain facts. In the third volume (Red River to Appomattox), the music reaches a series of crescendos, as the motifs of earlier movements are paid off. For Foote, such moments are often humorous:

Aboard a Chesapeake Bay steamer, not long after his surrender, [Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston] heard a fellow passenger insisting that the South had been “conquered but not subdued.” Asked in what command he had served, the bellicose young man—one of those stalwarts later classified as “invisible in war and invincible in peace”—replied that, unfortunately, circumstances had made it impossible for him to be in the army. “Well, sir, I was,” Johnston told him. “You may not be subdued, but I am.”1111xFoote, The Civil War: Red River to Appomattox (New York, NY; Vintage, 1986), 1048.

Foote occasionally allows himself to drift into a register that is something close to memoir. The war “happened” to Shelby Foote, who spent twenty years immersed in its histories, as much as it did to any veteran. Foote defined his duty as a historian as telling the reader “how it was,” from the sensory experience of the soldier in battle to his notion of why he was there in the first place. It is hard to imagine that any historian will ever again give us the “how it was” of Shiloh, or Gettysburg, or Appomattox half as well as Foote did.

Writing in The Atlantic in 2011, Ta-Nehisi Coates summarized the case against Foote. “Shelby Foote wrote ‘The Civil War,’ but he never understood it. Understanding the Civil War was a luxury his whiteness could ill-afford.”1212xTa-Nehisi Coates, “The Convenient Suspension of Disbelief,” The Atlantic, June 13, 2011, This has lately become a drearily familiar form of ad hominem. Coates also said, however, that he was enjoying The Civil War: A Narrative. (“I’m looking forward to finishing [it].”) Coates is a polemicist. He is also a writer of talent and ambition. He therefore understands, as too few of Foote’s critics do, what it cost Foote to write those three volumes and what it took for him to develop, over the course of many lonely years, a prose style that could stand up to the challenge of 1.5 million words. Coates grants himself the right to have his politics and his literary pleasures, too. Why should he not? 

We should continue to read Shelby Foote with pleasure, and with a full understanding of his purposes and his point of view. The fact that we cannot fully agree with him—that we might, with the “enormous condescension of posterity,” even regard the views of a man born in 1916 as untenable—should not prevent us from taking his proper measure.1313xWidely quoted, this phrase originated with the British historian Edward Palmer Thompson (1924–93).The Civil War: A Narrative is a work we should not be without, insofar as we wish to maintain a link to our collective past, to know the character and experience of those who fought the war that defined us, and to understand the passions and principles that led them to lay down their lives.