From Across The River And Under Shade Trees

"Captain, my religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me. That is the way all men should live, and then all would be equally brave" -Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson

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Location: Texas, United States

Rhode Islander by Birth, Texan by the grace of God.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Wiley Hilburn
HILBURN: Civil War historian Shelby Foote: The Southern Churchill
July 18, 2005

There are at least six good reasons to idolize Shelby Foote, the great novelist and Civil War historian.1. His biblical three-volume, 2,934-word "The Civil War; A Narrative" favors Confederate arms.2. Foote wrote the work entirely on yellow legal pads, using an old-fashioned dip-pen.3. The narrative gives almost book-length treatment to campaigns in Louisiana with interfacing battlefield maps highlighting Monroe, Shreveport and Natchitoches. We fought in the Civil War, too, not just the Army of Northern Virginia.4. Foote was a native Mississippian who did not faint at the sight of the Southern flag.5. Foote drank bourbon whiskey in the daylight hours and scotch at night. I'd trust him with my life.6. He wrote the three volumes in rich, rolling prose that calls up the cadence and power of Churchill, Faulkner and Proust. Foote read Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" six times.The Pulitzer prize-winning Foote would object to the characterization of his Civil War volumes as pro-Southern. So would other historians, calling his treatment of North and South even-handed. In my mind, however, Foote wrote the epic American Civil War story in shades of gray, not in black and white, or blue.The handsome three-book collection occupies the most honored shelf in my Choudrant library in all its big, hard-backed glory. The set was the best Christmas present I ever got in 1978. I proudly wrote my own name in each volume at the time, basking in the reflected glow of a really great writer.Among the passages that caught at my heart was Foote's description of Robert E. Lee's slow surrender canter:"Grief brought a sort of mass relief that let Traveller (Lee's horse) proceed, and as he moved through the press of soldiers, bearing the Southern commander on his back, they reached out to touch both horse and rider, withers and knees, flank and thighs, in expression of their affection."It would be manifestly wrong to think Foote glorified or romanced the Civil War. His tale fairly drips with gore and grief. For instance: "'June 3, Cold Harbor, I was killed,' read the red-stained diary of a dead man later taken from the field."It would be wrong, also, to assume that Foote felt the South was correct in its cause (he was glad the Union won the war) or that Foote sympathized with Southern segregationists while he penned the narrative in the 1960s and 1970s."I'm beginning to hate the one thing I really ever loved -- The South," Foote wrote in a 1963 letter. "No, that's (sic) wrong; not hate "" despise."The same sordid chapter that angered Foote played out bitterly in north Louisiana, when politicians switched from Democratic to Republican, pandering to white segregationists who cried "never." Robert Lee, as Foote wrote, graciously conceded defeat at Appomattox. Some north Louisiana politicians have never joined those Southern soldiers at Appomattox.I'm proud, meanwhile, that I read -- and reread to pieces -- Foote's Civil War books long before Ken Burns' famous PBS series first broadcast in 1990 made the Mississippi writer internationally famous.No doubt other Civil War historians will rise to challenge Foote's Homeric effort. But, forever, Shelby Foote leaves a blue and gray -- more gray than blue -- bruise on America's murderous subject of war with itself.Shelby Foote died June 28, 2005, in Memphis, Tenn.


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