Ode to Shelby
by Jeff Hendershott
America, and indeed Civil War fanatics of all stripes, have just lost a treasure with the passing of Shelby Foote. I think I can say this honestly and without hyperbole. They just don't make them like this anymore.
Most of us got to know Shelby Foote through Ken Burns’ fantastic "Civil War" documentary series in 1990. As luck would have it, this was about the time I got into Civil War reenacting. Then, I was devouring books about The War Between the States at an alarming clip, and as a borderline anal retentive, I vowed - and DID - accomplish the reading of Shelby Foote's three volume narrative of the Civil War.
What struck me about Shelby Foote then and now is that here we have a southerner who looked at the whole of the war and went beyond the blood and bullets, the carnage and battles, and tried to interpret it into a broader meaning for all of us. I believe he did so successfully.
What Southerner would have the gall to list U.S. Grant as one of his favorite generals from that war? Shelby did! Shelby's observation that "The Civil War produced two authentic geniuses - Nathan Bedford Forrest and Abraham Lincoln," at least in my mind has yet to be disproven. And it's another example that Shelby Foote didn't narrow himself to view things from a strictly provincial perspective. The man became truly educated somewhere along his long and interesting life.
Another thing I "dug" about Shelby Foote was his ability to not be stuck in a special area of the war. He could talk smartly about the battle of Glorietta Pass as well as Gettysburg, about Corinth as well as The Wilderness. I admire this in a historian. And again, he could also interpret the broader political as well as social implications of the mid-19th Century within the context of the battles.
And along with the Bruce Cattons of the world, he could talk intelligently about the common soldier. I believe Shelby Foote - in an off-hand and unintentional way - was a benefit to the living historian because he sparked an interest in the "common soldier," or what professional historians call "history from below."
Shelby Foote's little snippets could appear a bit trite from time to time. Maybe even melodramatic. Maybe it goes with the territory since the Civil War stirs passions unlike any other war in this nation's history. Yet this man had insights from a mind that was to be reckoned with. Maybe saying that Shelby Foote weaved common sense into a field where common sense comes at a premium.
My favorite statement by Shelby Foote may seem cynical, but none the less I believe it sums up what I'm trying to say about this man as a pure historian who chose to make interpretations from the tragedy known as The American Civil War rather than immortalize its participants and study its minute - dare I say trivial - aspects such as seem stitches and belt buckle styles and corps badges. To paraphrase Shelby:
We think we are a holy superior people [Americans]. If we WERE as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war. But since we did fight it, our generals have to be the "greatest" generals of all-time and our battles have to be the "greatest" battles of all-time. It's very "American" to think that way.
What I believe Shelby Foote was trying to communicate here is that yes, the Civil War WAS INDEED a tragic and important chapter in the history of our nation. He himself also said that to really understand the character of America, one needs to have a firm base understand of the Civil War. Yet, on the other hand, I interpret what Shelby Foote is saying here is that, in my words - "But let's keep in mind that in the grand snapshot of world history, there were A LOT of grand leaders and battles, so let's be careful when we hand out awards for the ‘greatest’ this and that soley based on the American Civil War." Shelby Foote was a veteran of World War II, I should add.
So I personally believe they don't make them like Shelby Foote any more. It takes a real talent - which I believe came natural to him - to make studying history both enticing and truly educational at the same time, be it through the spoken and written word.
We'll be seein' ya' Shelby!