Interview with Shelby Foote (November 2, 1981)

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Interview with Shelby Foote (November 2, 1981)
Series Title:
Authors & Literature Oral History
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Subjects / Keywords:
Literature, Modern -- Florida
Fiction -- Florida
Black authors -- Fiction
Women authors -- Fiction
Writers -- Women writers -- African American writers -- Florida
Oral histories ( lcgft )


This text has been transcribed from an audio or video oral history. Digitization was funded by a gift from Caleb J. and Michele B. Grimes.

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Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, Department of History, University of Florida
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Interviewee: Shelby Foote
Interviewer: Michael V. Gannon

G: I am Mike Gannon [retired Distinguished Service Professor of History, former
director of Early Contact Period Studies, CLAS] and this is Conversation. A
native Mississippian, and now resident in Memphis, Tennessee, my guest on
this conversation is a novelist-turned historian. His works of fiction include
Tournament, Follow Me Down, Love in a Dry Season, Shiloh, and most recently
in 1978, September, September. In 1958 he published the first volume of a
three-volume history of the Civil War which won five nominations for the National
Book Award. Our novelist-turned historian is Shelby Foote, who is here for a
series of seminars and visits with our history faculty and others. Mr. Foote,
welcome to Conversation and the campus of the University of Florida.

F: Thank you. I am glad to be here.

G: I welcome this opportunity to talk with you about history as well as about fiction,
particularly about your three-volume work on the Civil War. When you first
started out writing this work, were you of a mind to write the kind of three-volume
series that you did? I know that at the beginning, or perhaps it was at the close,
of the very first volume, you said that you were going to bracket the story within
certain terms. For the first volume, they were Fort Sumter to Perryville, for the
second they were Fredericksburg to Meridian, and for the third they were Red
River to Appomattox. You stuck to that scheme, did you not?

F: Actually, at the very beginning, it was something quite different. I had just
finished five novels in about five years and had moved to Memphis from
Mississippi [where] I was going to start a new series of five novels with a
different goal. At that point, Bennett Cerf asked me if I would inaugurate a new
historical series that Random House was starting by writing a short history of the
Civil War. It seemed like a good idea to mark that pause between these groups
of five novels by writing a short history of the Civil War. So I said I would. It was
to run about 200,000 words, and I began it. I was not a week into it before I saw
[that] there was no sense in my trying to write a short history of the Civil War,
and if I had anything to say about the Civil War, it would come from applying a
novelist's methods to this material. I wrote to Bennett and to my editor at
Random House and said, I would rather write a three-volume full-fledged history.
I do not know what the reaction was at the meeting they must have had
afterwards, but about ten days later I got a letter from them saying go ahead. I
went spread-eagle at it and organized it first into three-volumes, each of which
had three books and went all out. At that time I thought it might take me maybe
as much as five years to do the thing. I knew so little about the writing of history
that I thought it would go a lot faster than writing a novel where I would have to
think about what was going to happen. [I thought] that in writing history all I had
to do was pick up a few books and find out what happened. That shows you
what little I knew about the writing of history when I began it.


I was totally fascinated from the start and the fascination never let up. I never
regretted that I began it, although it took me twenty years to do it, and I think I
know why. The Civil War, and [this may be true of] any good historical subject,
gave me as much room as any writer ever needed to move around. I felt no
more cramped by writing about the Civil War than I would feel cramped by
writing about life. It is a human subject, it is the American Iliad [one of the two
greatest epoch poems of ancient Greece, written by Homer], and I was
absolutely delighted from start to finish to be involved in it.

G: It was a fascinating thing that as a novelist you turned your writing skills and
obvious insights into human nature to the task of reconstructing events a century
before your own time. And to do it not as a work of imagination, but as a work of
historical reconstruction.

F: There is no point in anybody writing history if he is not going to do everything he
possibly can to stick to the facts. There is no excuse for any invention. The
truth is always superior to anybody's distortion or invention. So it becomes a
question of truth, but having discovered what you believed to be the truth, there
is nothing wrong with bringing to bear the technical skills that a novelist knows.
But you will find some professional historians who are mistrustful of what I call
good writing.

G: I remember a comment you made in a bibliographical note about the novelist
Lewis Wallace, who wrote Ben Hur among other books. His account of the
counsel of war before the march on [Fort] Donelson was discounted by some
professional historians because he was a "novelist."

F: A writer of fiction. They said that testimony by a writer of fiction, especially a
popular one, is always to be taken with a lot of salt.

G: In reading your work, I see you in the company of Douglas Southall Freeman
[historian and journalist, preeminent authority on Confederate military history],
Bruce Catton [author and journalist, won Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for A Stillness at
Appomattox] Alan Nevins [journalist and historian] and, my all time favorite,
Francis Parkman [historian and author, best known for his book The Oregon
TrailJ. They were all great narrative writers, great story-tellers.

F: Yes, that is good company to be in. I am pleased to be there.

G: You deserve to be. I want to get back to the brackets within which you placed
the story. I believe anyone who knows the slightest bit about the Civil War, and I
do not pretend to know more than the slightest bit, can place the start of the
story at Fort Sumter. But what is Perryville and what did that mean to you?


F: Let me say at the start that each of the subtitles of each of the volumes is an
eastern theater name and a western theater name, and that helps to emphasize,
I hope, that the story is concerned with the whole geographical panorama of the
war. As to why they were chosen, Perryville is a battle that was fought on the
eve of [Braxton] Bragg's [commander-in-chief of the Confederate Army, 1864-65]
retreat from his Kentucky campaign. I have always thought that not nearly
enough attention was paid to Bragg's Kentucky campaign, which incidentally
was far more successful than [Robert E.] Lee's [commander-in-chief of the
Confederate armies, 1865] Maryland campaign. This helps to emphasize that
oversight. Also few people have ever heard of Meridian, which is part of the title
of the second volume Fredericksburg to Meridian. Meridian is the preview of
[William Tecumseh] Sherman's [Union general famous for march thru Atlanta to
the sea] march through Georgia, only he made it on a far more limited scale
through the southern middle of Mississippi. So the Meridian campaign is a very
important campaign if you want to understand what follows in Georgia. Using
these names in the titles gave them a kind of emphasis that I thought was

G: You have so many human touches in this story. For example, when Sherman
made his triumphal march through Washington and finally reached at the head
of his troops the White House reviewing stand, he marched up smartly to a
salute and shook the hand of President Johnson and then pointedly ignored
[Edwin McMasters] Stanton [secretary of war, 1862-1868].

F: He felt that Stanton had insulted him and his army; he was not about to shake
that man's hand. [laughter]

G: There are so many wonderful human touches that make the telling of the tale so

F: I certainly hope so. They belong there; they are part of the story. It must be
remembered that our Civil War is our Iliad, and it was enacted by men as much
as the Iliad was. Abraham Lincoln was just as real as Agamemnon [Greek
commander in chief in Homer's Iliad], Stonewall Jackson [Confederate general,
considered an outstanding commander] was just as real as Hector [in Homer's
Iliad he is represented as an ideal warrior and the mainstay of Troy], and so on
right through the line, and they played their roles. Anyone who gets involved in
the Civil War or, as I said before, any historical period for all I know, begins to
recognize that he is in a high drama, and it is played out before you. By that, I
do not mean that you pump in emotion or you supply a false theatricality. It is
not a question of pumping those things in; it is [a question of] finding them and
telling the truth about them. They will come out on their own accord. Oscar
Wilde [Irish poet, dramatist, author] spoke often of nature imitating art. [He said]
that you can find an artistic form in a perfectly natural course of events [like the

Civil War], which does imitate art. It has a first act, a second act, and a third act.
I have seen [things like that] time after time.

G: That is a good paradox. You did not have a thesis as such in your trilogy, if I
might call it that. As a narrative writer, as a storyteller, you wished simply to
recreate the experience of the war and convey that to your reader. Yet, there
was a small thesis hidden among all of your words, and I think you acknowledge
that in your bibliographical note, namely that the West was as important in the
conflict as was the East. The Battle of Vicksburg was just as significant as the
Battle of Gettysburg.

F: I do not claim that it was more important, but to say that it was not as important is
ridiculous. Certainly the loss at Vicksburg had enormous and very practical
consequences which the Battle of Gettysburg, it seems to me, did not have.
That does not make Vicksburg greater than Gettysburg; it makes it absurd to
think that Gettysburg was greater. The siege at Vicksburg lost us the Trans-
Mississippi Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas were cut off from us and that was
of enormous importance. The Virginians dominated southern Civil War history
for seventy-five years after the war. When Robert E. Lee himself spoke of "my
country," he meant Virginia, and that is the way Virginians are to this day. They
think of the Confederacy as Virginia plus some adjuncting territory out there
where vague things went on. I do not agree with that at all.

G: Let me ask you about the third volume, Red River to Appomattox. We would all
recognize Appomattox as the place of surrender, but what was Red River?

F: Red River was a prelude to the 1864 campaign by both Sherman and Grant. It
was a job given to [Nathaniel P.] Banks [Union general who during 1862-64
commanded at New Orleans] to move out the Red River in an attempt to move
into the cotton lands of Texas. It was a total fiasco. He was [forced to] retreat
and sent down the Red River. It has its aspects in spite of men being
killed, and it makes a good opening for the terrific drama and bloodshed of that
last year of the war.

G: I am also interested in the way you portray Jefferson Davis [president of
the Confederacy, 1861-65] because he brackets the story told in all three
volumes. You begin the first volume with his rising from his place in the
Senate of the United States to declare the necessity of his resignation
now that his home state has seceded from the union. At the end of the
third volume, we find him captured by Union forces. You seem to treat
gently or to mitigate the fact that he was found in women's clothing.

F: Because it was not true. He and his wife had raincoats made out of the same
material. It was raining, and he grabbed her coat and threw it over his head as

he left in time to get on his horse and ride off. That is the origin of the myth that
he was dressed in a hooked skirt and pantaloons.

G: The hooked skirt was found in his wife's baggage.

F: That is right. [P.T.] Barnum [circus owner, opened "The Greatest Show on
Earth" in 1871] later put on a show that was called "Jeff Davis in Flight," in which
he enacted Jeff Davis wearing a hooked skirt and pantaloons, running off and
being captured.

G: How do you read him?

F: I could best characterize it by saying that I agree with Robert E. Lee. After the
war someone asked Lee, what did you think of Mr. Davis as a president and
commander in chief? Lee said, I do not think that anyone could have done a
better job, and I personally do not know of anyone who could have done as good
a job. And I will go with that. I find Davis to be a very attractive man. There has
been almost an historical conspiracy against Davis to make him out to be a
bloodless pedant an unbending, stiff man with no warmth to him. That is
totally untrue. He was a warm, friendly man. He was a great admirer and quoter
of the verse of Robert Burns [Scottish poet, 1759-1796]. I cannot tell you how
many examples I could give you to say that the opposite of that is true his
letters to his wife, his feelings for his children, his deep sense and responsibility
to the people and, in many cases, his very sound judgement as to what should
be done in an extremely difficult situation. I admire Davis greatly. He is one of
the heroes of my book.

G: I wanted to ask you about Lincoln too, but first I wanted to say that I thought you
attempted a very evenhanded approach to both sides of that conflict, the Union
and the Confederacy.

F: I hope so.

G: You allowed a certain sympathy for the underdog, as you say.

F: Right.

G: Allowing for that, you made an effort to tell a story of gallantry that appeared on
both sides. It was an epic event in our nation's history.

F: That is where the truth is. The gallantry was on both sides. If the Southerners
were more daring, that was because they had to take greater risks with the odds
against them. It interests me that, in mind anyhow, there were two authentic
geniuses in that war. One was a statesman on the northern side, Abraham

Lincoln, and the other was a military man on the southern side, [Nathan] Bedford
Forrest [Confederate war general, first head of original Ku Klux Klan]. By that I
do not mean that Forrest was the greatest general in the war; I just mean that he
had a particular genius which came out [during the war]. The first five or six
years that I was writing this in Memphis, [where] I wrote the whole thing, Mary
Forrest Bradley, the general's granddaughter, lived there. And I had thought
long and hard about this thing, and I decided these two men were the authentic
geniuses of the war. I am eternally in Mrs. Bradley's debt because she let me
swing the general's saber around my head one time, and I appreciated that very
much. She was always very nice to me. I called her once and said, Mrs.
Bradley, I thought long and hard on this, and I decided that the Civil War
produced two authentic geniuses. One was Abraham Lincoln and the other was
your grandfather, Bedford Forrest. There was a long silence at the other end of
the phone. And she said, you know we never thought much of Mr. Lincoln in my
family. [laughter] She did not like her grandfather's name being coupled with
that scamp Abraham Lincoln.

G: You tell so many wonderful stories about Lincoln in the overall war story; every
once in awhile you pause to say something about him as a human being. I
remember that Carl Schurtz wrote Lincoln a very bitter, condemning letter, and
Lincoln wrote back and said, well, you blame me; I blame you. Why do you not
come to the White House and we will talk this over. Schurtz came and found
Lincoln seated before the fire in his slippers. Lincoln told him to pull a chair up
close, and then Lincoln leaned forward and patted him on the knee and said,
now I am not such a bad fellow, am I?

F: When you get overstressed like that, come see me. We can straighten these
things out.

G: Lincoln had a special and powerful relationship with his generals, did he not?
He really ran the war.

F: He really ran the war. One of the things wrong with the Union war effort through
at least the first three years of the war was Abraham Lincoln. Every Union
general in the field had to look back over his shoulder, because Lincoln was
practicing being a military genius. He was giving them advice, and the worst
thing he was doing was jerking the rug out from under them. He would say, you
go ahead. I give you carte blanche; you do what you think is best. The next
thing the man knew [was that] he would be fired. You must remember that the
Army of the Potomac had six commanders before Grant. But let us be fair here
to Lincoln. It was not until he got Grant that he got a man he felt he could trust
enough to leave him alone. He let Grant do whatever he wanted to do, and
Lincoln backed him up; he furnished him with the troops as best he could. But
until then he was in such distress over [having to hear about] one defeat after

another and trying one general after another. He got some strange
When he appointed John Pope [Union general relieved of command following
the Confederate triumph at the Second Battle of Bull Run], some of his advisers
said, the Popes are all liars and blusterers. I do not think you ought to make that
man [a general]. Lincoln said, I do not know of any reason why a liar and a
blusterer should not be a good general. And appointed him anyhow -

G: How good a general, in your estimation, was Grant? Did he win because he had
enormous resources and manpower or did he win because he was a good
tactician and strategist?

F: There were two or three different Grants. There was the Grant of the Vicksburg
campaign where it was his side that was in the difficulty, which was a very
different Grant from the Grant of the to the James Fight [Union troops
used the James River (Virginia) to recapture Richmond] against Robert E. Lee.
You never want to belittle Grant by saying that he had enormous resources. He
simply fought the way he should have fought with those resources. He did not
take chances that he would have taken if he had not had those resources. Grant
was a very great general, and anyone who has ever studied his campaigns
knows it very soon. He had a simplicity to him, he had a doggedness, and he
had some unattractive qualities that turned out to be virtues. For instance, he
would never acccept blame for anything under any circumstances. If he was
surprised at Shiloh, it was somebody else's fault, not his. He would never take
blame. One time he said that he regretted that he ordered the attack at Cole
Harbor. That was where he lost 8,000 men in about five minutes.

G: Who was the most impressive personality in all of the war, exempting Lincoln,
Davis and Grant?

F: Sometimes eccentricity can be impressive. If that is the case, and by no means
only for that reason, Stonewall Jackson was certainly one of the most fascinating
people in that war, as was Bedford Forrest, whom I mentioned earlier. Then
there were little knowns like Richard Taylor and Patrick Claibome; men that
are almost forgotten now who are enormously attractive men. It is very difficult
to name a favorite with such a crowd of people.

G: There was such sadness with the deaths, the wounded lying on slopes crying
out in pain. You tell this so tellingly.

F: We cannot conceive of the suffering, nor of the bravery. It is impossible. If you
and I go out to Gettysburg today, and we stand there on Seminary Ridge and
look across at the Cemetery Ridge and imagine that thing studded with guns,
and somebody comes up and tells you, Shelby, you are going to move across

that valley and up that ridge. You cannot conceive of saying anything except,
no, I am not; there is no way I am going across that valley.

G: What enormous courage.

F: But they all went.

G: There was so much sadness. I remember that you tell the story of a relatively
insignificant soldier, George Wood, who was shot by an errant round that
passed through two tents and then found his body.

F: After the war was over.

G: And as he lay dying, he told the chaplain, I hope that in heaven one does not
have to remember all the agony of these last three years.

F: That is right. He said, I have not spent these last three years in a good way at
all. He was a brave man.

G: Are Americans well-advised to study the Civil War in order to understand

F: Yes. In fact, I think that an understanding of the Civil War is a prerequisite to
understanding what made America what it is, because the Civil War had such a
large hand in that. There are a lot of "might have beens." Could the South have
won it? What is the most critical battle? And this, that, and the other. The truth
of the matter is, I think, that it can be seen fairly clearly now that the South only
had one chance of winning that war and that was to get English and French
intervention, which they were not going to get. There was no way they were
going to get that. And they finally knew that. Davis knew that and abandoned
even hoping for it. It is foolish to say that if the South had done this, it could
have won. The North fought that war with one hand behind its back, and if it had
had a tougher war, it would have brought that other hand out from behind its
back. Few of us realize how much the North was doing in addition to fighting
that war the Homestead Act was in operation, people were settling the West,
great institutions like Vassar and MIT began during the war. In the bloodiest
spring of the war, 1864, the Harvard-Yale boat races were held. The North did
not put out anything like a fraction of its effort that the South had put of its effort
into that war. If the South had brought the crunch down, as people say.... if after
first Manassas, they marched on Washington, they would have by no means
won the war.

G: The war was distant for people in the North.


F: Right. There was no stigma attached to a man who hired a substitute or paid his
$200 to be exempt. You got your contract in Ireland or in Germany or in the
South with the black man to come take your place. In the South you could not
do that because the young ladies would not speak to you anymore, and your
family would be disgraced. But there was none of that in the North.

G: Do you think the South is still a distinctive region of the United States?

F: Yes. I do not think there is any doubt about that. I think that its distinctiveness
is being diminished by the homogenization that is going on in the whole nation. I
somewhat regret it, but there are gains there too. We have given up some bad
things along with some good things.

G: Are there many traditions that remain from the antebellum period and the war

F: Yes. I hope that it is the best of them that survives.

G: Sometimes one sees a sign or a bumper sticker or a flag with something
emblazoned on it that is belligerent in tone.

F: The best of us is our fondness for each other, our decent manners which are
very much present among the poor people as they are among the rich, and a
sort of independence which makes its claim as an individual. The yeoman
farmer is still a pretty stiff-backed creature in the South. He does not take a lot
of fooling around with and that is the way a man ought to be. We have virtues
which I think we have not lost, and I hope we will not lose.

G: And you have not lost your accent.

F: You cannot grow up in the Mississippi Delta without this thing, that is right.

G: You live in Memphis, but you are close by Mississippi.

F: Right.

G: Where exactly in Mississippi were you born and raised?

F: I was born right in the middle of the Mississippi Delta in a town called Greenville.
It is on the Mississippi River about 150 miles from Memphis.

G: You are writing a novel now that has a Mississippi locale?

F: Right. All of my novels have had Mississippi locales, and I suppose they always


G: Did you know William Faulkner [author from Mississippi, wrote The Sound and
the Fury, 1897-1962]?

F: Yes. I knew him well and spent nights in his home. We were good friends.

G: He also wrote about Mississippi in his unique way.

F: He did indeed.

G: Have you ever written a novel about the war that you have recounted so
thoroughly as a historian?

F: Only one novel called Shiloh which is only about the two day fight at Shiloh. It is
an attempt to deal with the facts of the case. It is told from all sides. Any
historical character in the novel is not allowed to do or say anything that I do not
know for a fact that he did or said. For instance, [Pierre Gustav Toutant de]
Beauregard [Confederate general who directed bombing of Fort Sumter to start
Civil War in 1861] is not going to take the hero's side and give a little advice on
his love life. Beauregard does not do anything on the field in Shiloh that I do not
know that he did do, and he does not say anything that I do not know he said.

G: As a novelist, you have a special gift that you bring to the craft of history and
that is evident from your great work The Civil War: A Narrative. I have learned
greatly from reading in its pages and now from talking with you. Shelby Foote,
distinguished novelist and historian, guest lecturer on our campus at the
University of Florida, I thank you very much for being with me on Conversation.

F: Thank you, I enjoyed being here.