The Corner


Shelby Foote on the Civil War

A Union officer looks over the battlefield during “The Wheatfield” re-enactment activities recognizing the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in Gettysburg, Pa., July 5, 2013. VIEW GALLERY: Battle of Gettysburg (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

Most readers will have watched at least some of Ken Burns’s legendary nine-part documentary on the Civil War, which he produced for PBS back in 1990. (If you haven’t, cancel your plans for the weekend and hunker down in front of the television.) 

It’s the best documentary ever made, and the best parts of it are the interspersed clips of Burns’s interviews with the historian Shelby Foote. Foote was the author of a magisterial three-volume history of the Civil War, which is in itself one of the treasures of American civilization. Were it not so meticulously researched and based solidly in the historical record, it would outstrip all other contenders for the title of the Great American Novel, such is the quality of the prose. Put simply, it’s America’s Iliad.   

But even better than reading Foote on the Civil War is listening to him speak about it. Sitting opposite Burns in the library of his Memphis home, he talks through the issues, events, and personalities of the war with a voice like black velvet. He has the kind of magnificent, gravelly Southern drawl that is perfectly suited to his subject, and his storytelling powers are unmatched. 

But the great tragedy is that Foote appears only a few times in each episode of Burns’s documentary and for no longer than a minute or two, to explain or analyze the events that David McCullough so wonderfully narrates. You’re always left wanting to hear more from him. 

Happily, Foote did other, longer interviews about the war that are now widely available on the Internet. Take a couple of hours this weekend and treat yourself to his Book TV interview for C-SPAN. And if you want to go even deeper, you can watch him talk about the Gettysburg campaign here. Whether you read him, watch him, or just listen to him, you’ll come away with a deeper and richer understanding of history. 

VIEW GALLERY: Battle of Gettysburg


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