Answering Shelby Foote Critics

(November 18, 2016) Although it’s been forty-two years since Shelby Foote finished the final volume of his three-volume Civil War narrative, some less popular authors still reach for axes to grind. Perhaps their biggest complaint is his avoidance of footnotes, although each volume contains a short bibliographic essay.

Prior to accepting the assignment from Random House in 1954, the thirty-seven year old author was a promising novelist, whose style was influenced by Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Dickens, Keats, Faulkner, Thackeray, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Wolfe, Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust, among others.


Foote admitted from the beginning that he avoided footnotes because they distract from storytelling, which he felt is the best of all educational tools. We understand narrative, for example, long before we do trigonometry. We may not be able to recite the Ten Commandments, but we can explain the moral of The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg. “Thou shalt not” is soon forgotten, but “Once upon a time” lives forever. Shelby Foote elaborated in an interview:

A fact is not a truth until you love it. You have to become attached to the thing you’re writing about…No list of facts ever gives you a valid account of what happened…[Some] historians…think good writing gets in the way…I believe the opposite. Facts told with narrative [are] absorbed into your being and understanding as [with] a great novel…

Now it sounds as if I’m making an all-out attack against academic historians. I am making some attack on them for their lack of concern about learning how to write. It is as if they thought it an onerous waste of time…The result sometimes is a prose that’s so dismal that the footnotes are…a welcome relief.

Although Shelby Foote never provided footnotes, the evolving Internet increasingly enables us to check his sources. Googling a phrase from a direct quote, for example, often leads to its source. Thus, Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature” is easily found in the President’s first inaugural address. Similarly, an obscure quote by a wounded Arkansas Lieutenant who tells his captors after the Battle of Corinth “…we gave you the best we had on the ranch” is taken from a battle account written by the commanding Union general.

Perhaps because of his disregard for footnotes, some less popular historians delight in finding errors in Foote’s work, no matter how inconsequential. One example is his claim that Union cavalry commander John Buford’s division had repeating rifles at the start of the battle of Gettysburg, enabling the division to significantly delay the advance of larger Rebel infantry units.

To be accurate, Buford’s men were equipped with breach-loading carbines that enabled quick reloading with cartridges, instead of repeaters that need not be reloaded until a seven-shot magazine was empty. Thus, even though the breech-loaders did not have a firing rate as rapid as repeaters, Buford’s soldiers could still fire and re-load about two-to-three times faster than the opposing Confederates. Foote’s point that Buford’s unit had a per-man firepower advantage over the Rebels is the pertinent conclusion. Yet one critic at an online discussion group complains that Foote’s erroneous echo of “…the Buford repeating rifle legend…means I now mistrust everything he wrote.”

While my own books conform to the footnote convention, I am impressed with Foote’s overall accuracy, which Internet searches can often verify.

(This post was prompted after learning that Foote’s entire three-volume narrative is apparently available on the Internet at no charge.)

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6 thoughts on “Answering Shelby Foote Critics

  1. David Connon

    Hi, Phil.

    I appreciate Shelby Foote’s insight, “Facts told with narrative [are] absorbed into your being and understanding as [with] a great novel …” Your review has made me want to read his books.

  2. Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    “The result sometimes is a prose that’s so dismal that the footnotes are…a welcome relief.”

    Indeed, I have read books by professional historians where the footnote explanations are the best-written and most interesting aspect of the entire work. I will occasionally wonder why the author didn’t employ the style used in the footnotes throughout the entire book – it would have made for a much more entertaining read.

    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      Shelby Foote would object to most of the Civil War novels I’ve liked. He thought is was a great wrong to put words into the mouth of any historical figure, even in a work of fiction. Yet it is the power of his storytelling that sustains the popularity of his 1.5 million word narrative.

  3. josepharose

    I think that people sometimes attack Foote for his lack of footnotes or minor errors when they really dislike some of his conclusions. My book didn’t utilize Foote because of his lack of footnotes, but that doesn’t mean that his scholarship is lacking. His trilogy is probably more accurate than the works of many of the academic historians I have read.

    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      Thanks, Joe.

      Your passion for *Grant Under Fire* shines through as well, but the nature of the work compels footnotes.


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