Shelby Foote: A Great American Storyteller

It has been 23 years since Ken Burns released his Magnus Opus documentary on the Civil War, but it left a lasting impression on how Americans view that war. No single individual in the series made more of an impact on those who watched it than the great Civil War historian, Shelby Foote.

American audiences were captivated by the Southerner who spoke and acted as if he personally had witnessed the war and knew all of the figures involved. In many ways, Foote became the star of the series, bridging the gap between the Civil War generation and our own.

Foote toiled for years in obscurity, and his works never took off until the Ken Burns documentary made him a household name. Foote’s incredible ability to make the amazing characters come to life made him a master at his craft. The Civil War was in large part a battle of ideas, but to truly understand it, we need to connect to the experiences of the people who lived through it.

The great historian was such an admirer of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest that he was buried next to him when he died in 2005. But Foote had an appreciation for the individuals involved on both sides, and despite his distinctly Southern outlook, greatly admired men like Abraham Lincoln. He also militantly defended the flying of the Confederate battle flag that has become politically incorrect in modern times. Foote denounced the “yahoos” that used the flag for racist and malevolent purposes. Foote believed that the flag represented courage and honor, and decried those who sullied what it meant to him.

What should be obvious from Foote’s descriptions of the Civil War is how deeply American it truly was and how important it was for the future of America and of liberty to heal the open wounds that had developed over years of open warfare between the two sides.

One must remember that an overwhelming number of Southerners served in Iraq and are currently serving in Afghanistan. They served on the beaches of Normandy and in the jungles of Vietnam. The descendants of those who fought for the Confederacy, like General George Patton, served the United States with absolute devotion. That was due to national healers like Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, who probably would have both appreciated Foote’s description of their experiences. 

Today, it is thanks to the great storytellers like Shelby Foote that we know the sacrifices of the great men and women who came before us. It is thanks to Foote that we can put into perspective the events that happened 150 years ago.


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