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A Visit from Historian Shelby Foote

By Richard Carter | HUMANITIES, January/February 2000 | Volume 21, Number 1

"History is a pretty wretched subject to study in school," says Shelby Foote, a historian of the Civil War and an acclaimed novelist. "As I remember it, it was terrible. They required me to memorize so many things. There was a Treaty of Utrecht, and it has thirteen steps. I don't know one of those steps. But it had thirteen."

Foote came to Washington last fall to reflect on American history, the South, Southern character, the Civil War, education, and human nature before a breakfast on the Hill with senators and congressmen. He also spoke at a second session at the National Endowment for the Humanities in the Old Post Office.

Foote is the author of The Civil War: A Narrative, the monumental work for which he is best known. He has also written six novels, including Shiloh, Testament, Follow Me Down, Love in a Dry Season, and Jordan County. At a congressional breakfast Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott described Foote as "more than a Mississippi treasure.....he is a treasure for our country, a writer who seeks the truth and writes the truth." Here are some excerpts of Foote's remarks at a congressional breakfast held in his honor and later that same day at a gathering at the NEH.


"I had absolutely marvelous teachers. They were mostly old maids. They made--I'm not exaggerating--about $120 a month. They had maybe three dresses that hung in the closet of a rooming house where they took their meals, and they were enormously respected. They loved their life and wouldn't have swapped places with anybody for anything.

"One way to attract more and better teachers is to greatly increase teachers' pay. But then you may have people teaching to get in the money, which is not a very good reason to be a teacher."

Diversity and the Strength of America

"If Americans were anything as superior as we claim to be, we would be paragons of virtue, and of course, we're not that. But we are superior in another sense. And our superiority comes from this diversity of the way we're made up. We can see a subject in a different way from the way a Frenchman or an Englishman or a German would see things because so many different points of view are combined in the one American mind. It gives us a view of things that's extremely valuable to the world as well as to ourselves."

The South's Sense of Tragedy

"There is something that is too often overlooked of a far serious nature than the usual business about drawls and accents and overalls. And that is we truly, having lost a war, know a tragedy that other Americans do not know or have not experienced. Certainly not until Vietnam. We know what it means to lose a war. But what we have gained from it is of more value than the people who won the war got from it. We got a true sense of tragedy, and I think that it counts in part for the dominance of Southern writers in the history of American literature, particularly in this century.

"The South gained a great deal from losing the Civil War. These things are strange, but we live with them all the time. And Southerners, it seems to me, perhaps because I'm a Southerner, have these things that I'm talking about to an increased degree that other people have a chance not only to scorn but also to learn from. And I hope that they will be understood as not an evil that lurks in our hearts, but a lack of being in tune with what has happened in the last, in the past generation. We have a hard time understanding it."

Sins of the Soul

"The South has got some sins on its soul that it will never be able to get clear of. But so has the nation. And quite often the attempt to correct these sins leads into still greater sins through the method in which they were corrected. Slavery for instance. I don't suppose that sin will ever be removed from our souls."


"Southerners are very outgoing and friendly, but they're also very private people in their own way. If you're a stranger who moves to town or comes down to visit, you are welcomed. They're glad to see you, and you will be welcomed anywhere you go. And if they find they like you, that intimacy develops. If they find they don't much like you, the Southern deep freeze sets in. We wouldn't be what we are if we hadn't been what we were. George Eliot says that over and over again: 'What we have been makes us what we are.'

"You can see some ugly things in the South, entirely aside from the racial thing, that's the ugliest of all. You see some real cruelty. And it comes from a particular regional kind of ignorance. It comes from a misplaced machismo like you're showing yourself a man if you hurt somebody. Those things are present in us as they are in other places, and maybe more present.

"I regret the loss of some things that do contribute to our being what we are. A Southerner, for instance, can be insulted. I have been in nightclubs and other such places where one man would call another man a son of a bitch. I expected an immediate invitation to step outside and settle this thing. Well, it wasn't. It was laughter. And it seemed to me that it's not a good society where people go around cursing each other with impunity. There ought to be some risk involved when a person does--that risk is conducive to good manners.

The Civil War

"The American Civil War is a wonderful example of good coming out of evil, of strength coming out of suffering. The American Civil War was where this country became this country. The Revolution got us free of England, established us an independent nation, but the Civil War was the one that decided what kind of nation we were going to be. There were a lot of bad things that went along with a lot of good things. And it's that combination of different points of view that somehow found a way to get along with each other and learn from each other and contribute each in its way to the American character that has given us our strength.

"By a paradox of having this dreadful thing in which we tried to tear each other to pieces, we wound up in the end with a Union that has been stronger than it was before the war started. That war settled a couple of things very strongly. One was the right to secede. That was settled. And the slavery issue was settled once and for all and probably could not have been settled any other way. There were things about that war that couldn't be settled apparently except by bloodshed."

Legacy of the Civil War in the South

"People want to know why the South is so interested in the Civil War. I had maybe, it's a rough guess, about fifty fistfights in my life. Out of those fifty fistfights, the ones that I had the most vivid memory of were the ones I lost. I think that's one reason why the South remembers the war more than the North does.

"What the Civil War did to the South is far more extensive than even Southerners know. The statistics are enough to rock you on your heels. The year after the war the State of Mississippi paid a solid fifth of its total income on artificial arms and legs for veterans coming back from the war. The hardships of the war you wouldn't even consider nowadays. The absence of nails or needles kept you from mending clothes or keeping the roof from coming off your house. We were without those things, and it had a terrible influence on us. There was this terrible grinding poverty on everyone. And yet we took it quite well, I think. We stood by each other. We obeyed the rules of decency with regard to it. And we took poverty as something that came our way because we lost the war. I have great admiration for the way people managed to survive and what they did to survive. What they survived is unimaginable to us. And it had continued through the war and continued after the war, as retaliatory measures were passed against them during the Reconstruction days."

Behavior in War

"Sherman, in his march across Georgia and up through Carolina, had sixty thousand men with him. I don't know what percentage of them were illiterate. I know there were very few men in there with a delicacy of manners that you'd expect nowadays. And the whole time he made that march, those sixty thousand men, I had not heard of one case of rape. And that is one of the finest compliments I know you can pay this country and the soldiers it produced that we did not engage in these usual horrendous things that are common in civil war. The fact that we spoke the same language is not what made us close together. In fact, in most civil wars they speak the same language, and they're very savage with each other. But somehow we didn't do that.

"I'd give some of the credit to Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, both refused to engage in a hanging match and things like that, which was often a chance to get popularity. Neither one of them did it. The Civil War brings everything into a sharper focus with heightened color. Anytime you want to study human behavior, it is well to study the Civil War, because in that you study human behavior under terrific pressure and heat. So that men show what they are for good or bad more readily than in ordinary times."


"My favorite historian probably is Tacitus. I get more pleasure out of reading him than anybody else. He dealt mainly with high-placed scoundrels and did a good job of it. He's the one who said of a German who'd been conquered by the Romans: 'They make a wilderness and call it peace.'

"But there's also Thucydides and Herodotus and Livy and others. I like the old historians very much. A modern historian can learn from the modern novelist. Thucydides learned a lot through Euripides. Euripides taught him how to set a scene, set up a crisis, and resolve it. I'm sure he was a serious student of Greek tragedy.....I see many signs of that. It's a great shame that more historians don't read novels or read bad ones, and more novelists don't read historians, which they tend not to read at all. It's a great shame because they have a lot to teach each other."

Writing History

"I felt literally no different writing history from what I felt writing a novel. The difference was where I got my material. In a novel, it came from my invention and mostly my memory. Now with a history I looked these things up and got them out of documents. But once I got them out of the documents, they were facts just like these other facts.

"Plot makes a story move under its own power. And to neglect plotting as a device of history is a serious mistake. Among American historians, probably my favorite is Francis Parkman. Parkman's a wonderful historian. I had not read him until late in life to realize how good he was."

Contemporary Historians

"Among modern historians I like Arthur Schlesinger. I like a man who's been dead now for five or six years, called William Appleman Williams. He wrote a book called The Contours of American History. He takes violent objection to one aspect of American life: this constant move westward. He says that every time any American ran into a problem, he simply moved on west and left the problem behind him for someone else maybe to work on. Williams is about half socialist, which is kind of hard to put up with for us nowadays. But he presents some excellent challenges, and I think should be read more even if he angers you occasionally on page after page after page. As a conservative, he has one of my favorite quotes: 'Better highways don't make better picnics.' Which is certainly true. The best picnics I've been on you had to meander through some kind of wretched highway to get to it."

Judging Character

"John Keats said a good thing in one of his letters. He said, 'There's no man who can't be carved up on his wrong side.' And that is certainly true. You can take any one of us apart if you find what angle to approach him from that'll do him the most damage. You can always do it."