Is Foote's writing on the Civil War authoritative?
December 7, 2006 9:53 AM   Subscribe

Is Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative widely considered to be authoritative?

The hardcover edition of Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative has quietly gone on sale for $32.99 at Amazon, and I'm thinking of picking it up with the intention of reading it sometime. I'm willing to read a 3,000-page historical work if the reward is worth the effort, but I have so many books lying around that I can't afford the space for it unless I'm eventually going to read it.

However, a number of people accuse Foote of having a "Southern bias," and others claim that Foote's skills lie more in his ability as a writer than as a historian. So. Assume, for the sake of obtaining the best answer to the question, that I know little more about the Civil War than someone who grew up in the United States, but didn't actively research it. I have the following questions. You can answer any or all of them, or say something else that you feel is relevant if you feel these questions entail false assumptions.

1. Is Shelby Foote's work considered by historians to be an authoritative representation of the history of the Civil War?

2. If not, why not?

3. If it isn't authoritative, what works would best be considered as supplementary, or corrective, to Foote's account?
posted by Prospero to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I am a historian, but I am not a civil war historian, so my expertise in this subject is limited to an upper level undergraduate history course. That being said Shelby Foote is pretty respected, and for the most part civil war historians tend to be a bit biased towards one side or the other, and by and large they are a somewhat contentious bunch. I would say that fact that he is a good writer, and is accessible to lay people such as yourself (no disrespect intended) is a large part of why you should read his book. Honestly the only sources deemed authoritative in the study of history are well vetted primary sources, by people who were there. And while Foote is getting on in years, and he has the beard for it, he was not there.
So unless you are reading primary sources, you are not going to get authoritative information, that being said there is nothing wrong with reading a well regarded author's magnum opus, you will probably get more out of it then trying to wade through a pile of journals.
There are some fantastic primary sources from that period from both sides, academic library at southern colleges usually tend to have a good selection of them.
posted by BobbyDigital at 11:19 AM on December 7, 2006

I agree with the opinions of this writer, especially his view that Foote's work is limited in that it covers the military aspects of the Civil War but not the social/cultural aspects. Foote was quick to admit his own Southern bias, which always struck me as a good remedy for my own Yankee education.

James McPherson's 'Battle Cry of Freedom' is another very-well regarded work. McPherson gives more attention to politics and social background; he shows a Northern bias, in my opinion.
posted by wryly at 11:36 AM on December 7, 2006

Foote's an entertaining writer and a real historian, so by all means read him, but he's not "authoritative" in the sense that his word is final, and if you read him you've got the Civil War covered. You'll never begin to understand the Civil War (or any other important historical event) without comparing at least a few different accounts; everybody has their own point of view and emphasizes different things. (Let me put in a plug for Jeff Hummel's Emancipating slaves, enslaving free men: a history of the American Civil War [fairly detailed review here]; you almost certainly won't agree with everything he has to say, but he brings up facts that many writers ignore and that have to be taken account of in any meaningful account of what happened and why.)

Also, try to get hold of a good atlas of the war (this one is excellent); it's really important to understand the geography, and the little maps in most histories aren't enough.
posted by languagehat at 11:43 AM on December 7, 2006

As wryly notes, The Civil War is primarily a battlefield history. However, it is almost a required read for anyone wanting to know about the Civil War. Happily, Foote's skill as a writer also makes it an easy read. Besides its value as a history, the trilogy is very entertaining. It won't be a waste of your time unless you dislike history books.

Foote does have a Southern bias -- he lived his life in the Deep South, after all. What I've never understood is his almost worshipful admiration for Nathan Bedford Forrest. There are others that deserve that admiration more.

while Foote is getting on in years
Foote died last year. Stunned me when I heard the news.
posted by forrest at 11:49 AM on December 7, 2006

If Foote had a major Southern bias, he might have entitled the book 'The War To End Yankee Arrogance', which is what I always call it. Well, that and 'The Late Unpleasantness'.

Kidding aside, what history can one read that's not biased? There or not, primary source or not, history is as much analysis as raw presentation of data and in analysis, we are usually prisoner to our biases, are we not?

Further, you can't possibly have all the primary sources.... hundreds of thousands actually DIED in the war, milions took part, either as citizens, soldiers, relatives, mere standers-by. Their perceptions are relevant, and innumerable. Foote's stuff is limited, seemingly balanced, entertaining, educational and stimulating. What else do you want?

My wife (history undergrad), used to have a real problem with a book I had called "American Negro Slavery", by Ulrich Phillips. I think she objected to the title. I found it fascinating and full of info on the institution (sic), and useful to understanding... biased or not. I am an adult and can tell when something is shaded.

I'd say one just has to assume minor bias everywhere. It does not completely invalidate a work. The challenge is to develop your own bullshit filter and calibrate it frequently.
posted by FauxScot at 2:04 PM on December 7, 2006

When I studied the Civil War, Foote's narrative was used and held to be a high quality account of the campaign. But having said that, the other more 'academic' books I read for the course didn't cite or refer to his account as much as you would expect for a book thought to be 'authoritative'.

Many historians have noted that Foote didn't cite any sources for his work. Whilst there haven't been any major inaccuracies found in the book it is something to note.

But having said that, Foote's work is an amazing feat, and easily one of the best histories ever written. I think it is perfect for a person like you who doesn't really want to concern themselves with the historiocity of period as much as reading a lucid, but still accurate, account of the war.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 2:29 PM on December 7, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for your answers--I'll think I'll go ahead and pick it up. It is only $33, after all, and it doesn't seem as if it's the nonfiction equivalent of Gone with the Wind that I fear it might be.

I've been getting into the habit of reading one long historical work of this nature each year--this year, it was Francis Parkman's France and England in North America, which I quite enjoyed, except for the part when I'd run into history grad students in town who'd actually get angry when they'd see me carrying it around. But in my particular case (since I'm reading for literary reasons more than simply to acquire information) entertainment trumps absolute historical fidelity (whatever that might be) and I'll get more out of something novelistic with detectable biases than a comparatively unbiased work that's somewhat dry and academic. (Even if what I know about Cortez's exploration of Mexico comes primarily from William Prescott.)

BobbyDigital's comment reminded me to check to see if the Library of America has any volumes of contemporary Civil War-era writing, and of course they do--they carry volumes dedicated to Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, and Frederick Douglass. So perhaps I'll pick one or more of those up, and the MacPherson book recommended by wryly as well, in time.
posted by Prospero at 3:23 PM on December 7, 2006

Just as an aside, Shelby Foote was a completely charming commentator in Ken Burns' The Civil War. His spry southern tone, really turned me on to writings.

Others of note: Edwin Bearss & James McPhearson
posted by allthewhile at 5:22 PM on December 7, 2006

I've taken a few undgraduate classes in Civil War History (History Major focus on American History) and did a Senior Project (interactive CD) on the Civil War. While not a published expert, most of my research for the Senior Project was primary source material. One of the author's I used to help me find primary material was Shelby Foote's books. His writing looks fairly biased now, but his research was pretty darn good. McPhearson is also quite excellent. There are also some very good resources on the web for finding some interesting primary material. This reminds me to try to put some of that to use for a FPP someday.
posted by Numenorian at 11:56 AM on December 12, 2006

Langugagehat has got it wrong on this thread.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:09 PM on February 12, 2007

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