Remembering Civil War Historian Shelby Foote
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KWAME HOLMAN: It took Shelby Foote 20 years to pen a three-volume, 3,000 page history of the Civil War. It was called simply “The Civil War: A Narrative.” The final volume was published in 1974.
A flair for storytelling was what made filmmaker Ken Burns want to interview Foote. The historian became a celebrity after 89 times in Burns’ 11-hour series on the Civil War shown on public television in 1990. In the opening episode, Foote explained why the conflict was so important to understand.
SHELBY FOOTE: Any understanding of this nation has to be based and I mean really based on the understanding of Civil War. I believe that firmly, it defined us. The revolution did what it did. Our involvement in European wars began with the first World War did what it did, but the Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became — good and bad things.
And it is very necessary if you’re going to understand the American character in the 20th Century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe in the mid-19th Century. It was the crossroads of our being and it was a hell of a crossroads.
KWAME HOLMAN: Foote’s descriptions brought bloody, hard-fought battles to life. Here in Episode Two, he told the story of the last cavalry charge at Shiloh by Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest in 1862.
SHELBY FOOTE: And he landed square into the main body of the union troops. He was surrounded by one gray uniform in a sea of blue, and they began to holler, “Kill him, kill the goddamn rebel, knock him off his horse.” And one soldier did stick his rifle out in Forrest’s side and pulled the trigger and lifted Forrest clear to the saddle with the impact of the bullet and Forrest meantime was slashing with his saber.
His horse was kicking and turning, and Forrest sawed him around and got him clear and took off and they were shooting after him. So he reached down and grapped one union soldier and swung him up behind him on the crup of the horse to use as a shield. And when he got out of range, he threw the man off and rode back to join his command; that was the last shot fired at the battle of Shiloh.
KWAME HOLMAN: Though he wrote six novels, it was the Civil War that defined Shelby Foote. He, in turn, said the conflict changed his country.
SHELBY FOOTE: Before the war, it was said “the United States are.” Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war, it was always “the United States is,” as we say to day without being self-conscious at all. And that’s sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an “is.”
KWAME HOLMAN: Shelby Foote died Monday in Memphis. He was 88 years old.