(February 23, 2018) Although Shelby Foote died a dozen years ago, he remains one of the most popular Civil War authors ever. Yet some modern historians and their students delight in trumpeting errors—no matter how inconsequential—that they discover in his three-volume narrative. Among the most vicious are those that attempt to discredit Foote because he was not a “trained historian” and was merely a novelist. (They say “novelist” like Mozart might have said “disco.”) But as Winston Churchill replied when told it was grammatically incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition: “That opinion is arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put!”
Provided below are examples of two technical errors by Foote that don’t invalidate his fundamental points, although some critics imagine that they do.
First, Foote mistakenly writes that General John Buford’s Union cavalry division that met the initial Confederate advance on Gettysburg was armed with repeating carbines. It was instead armed with various models of breech-loading carbines that were loaded one cartridge at a time. But Foote’s point—that the Federals were armed with faster firing weapons than the approaching Rebel infantry—is valid.
Thus, Buford’s Division was more powerful than a single Confederate division from a firing rate perspective. Whereas a Spencer repeater’s firing rate was twice that of a breech-loading carbine, the breech-loader was still three times faster than the Confederate muzzle-loaders.
Second, when explaining the value of speed in the design of ram warships to be used at the Naval battle in the Mississippi River near Memphis, Foote jumbles the applicable physics equations. He mistakenly writes that the force of the ram is equal to the ram’s mass multiplied by the square of its velocity. The correct equation matches the kinetic energy of the ram with its destructive power as follows:
Kinetic Energy = (½) x (mass) x (velocity)^2
Nonetheless, Foote’s basic point is correct. Doubling the mass of a ram merely doubles its destructive power. But doubling the speed of a ram quadruples its destructive power.
While I have observed online discussions involving both of the above examples that included participants who portrayed themselves as “trained historians” they failed to grasp, or concede, Foote’s significant points. Although they readily disparaged him for wrongly writing that Buford’s men had repeating carbines, they failed to admit that Buford’s breech-loaders still gave the Federal division a big man-for-man firepower advantage. Similarly, none seemed to understand why ram-velocity is a more important variable than ram-mass.
 That’s because two-squared equals four.