Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Shelby Foote's Legacy


In the February 2013 issue of Civil War Times, Gray Gallagher critiques the late Sheby Foote.  Foote is famous for his The Civil War: A Narrative.

Shelby Foote
Gallagher's comments will draw the ire of fans especially those in his native Mississippi.  Gallagher begins his examination by saying that he "was not overly impressed" when he "first encountered The Civil War in the mid-1960s."   Gallagher writes that, "The three volumes [Foote's The Civil War] reveal  what a gifted stylist can do with even well-known episodes."  The first "left-handed compliment" offered by Gallagher who illustrates Foote's prose with several quotes. 

In Gallagher's eyes, one of Foote's sins is that the author "relied almost entirely on published primary materials - especially memoirs and the 128 thick volumes of the Official Records - and on secondary works, many of which would be described as quite dated."  I fail to see how using the Official Records diminishes an author's scholarship.  They are edited first hand accounts of officers who were at the battle.  They include errors and self-satisfying comments that must be evaluated, but they remain an excellent research tool.   

Following on this appraisal, Gallagher says Foote's "research did not approach what most contemporary scholars who spend a great deal of time combing through unpublished manuscripts, consider an acceptable standard."  What makes these "unpublished" writings more valid than other resources?   Secondary sources should not be so quickly dismissed.  Does that mean that if I am doing research I should ignore Gallagher's books [The Library of Congress Civil War Desk Reference, The Confederate War, The Fredericksburg Campaign, and others]?  Using secondary sources says that the student values the  research done by the author.

Gary Gallagher
Not all of Gallagher's column is negative.  He praises Foote for creating a more balanced picture of the war's eastern and western theaters.  "He succeeded very well indeed in this effort, and untold readers have been the beneficiaries."  However, Gallagher rescinds this compliment when he writes that "academic historians did not go down this interpretive path because of Foote's work." Then as a sort of academic coup de gras, Gallagher concludes, "I believe his trilogy has had almost no impact in terms of shaping scholarship - just as Bruce Catton's has not."  

Gallagher also blasts Foote for a narrative that "fits too comfortably within the Lost Cause tradition."  Gallagher also condemns Foote for saying that the north won because of the North's overwhelming numbers and material.  This inequality in industrial might and manpower is widely accepted as the reason the South lost.  Foote looked at the numbers and simply stated the obvious. 

Foote is also criticized for his Southern bias.  I should hope that a Mississippian would have respect for the bravery shown by his ancestors.  Gallagher also quotes Foote's comment, "I yield to no one in my admiration for heroism and ability, no matter which side of the line a man was born or fought on."

My regard for Shelby Foote remains undiminished after Gallagher's attack.  His persona and storytelling remains inspirational.  He remains the perfect Southern gentleman with a grace and style that lives on in the Ken Burn's documentary.  If I may paraphrase Shelby, I yield to no one in my admiration for him.

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