"All Life Has a Plot": An Interview with Shelby Foote

Naval History : Why do you think that is?

Foote : I strongly suspect it’s because historians, and especially good writers, haven’t paid enough attention to it.  It’s probably just that simple.

More attention ought to be paid to it.  The only Civil War naval stories that attract any real attention are the Monitor and the Merrimac fight, and maybe [Rear Admiral David G.] Farragut’s busting into Mobile Bay.  They were colorful and dramatic.

But to my mind, [Rear Admiral Samuel F.] Du Pont’s attack at Hilton Head on Forts Walker and Beauregard was also an important part of naval history.  That expanding ellipse attack he made on those forts was the first definite proof that any time the Navy wanted to take a place, it could do it.

Of course, that was disproved later at Charleston.  Both Fort Walker and Fort Beauregard were practically defenseless against those steam-driven machines that did not depend on the wind.  Expanding ellipses brought them right past the batteries and enabled them to fire end-on.  They won an early naval victory against men who were presumably well-trained in old-style defense.

Naval History : It has always been frustrating that the Western rivers get hardly any play in Civil War History.

Foote : Well, the whole Western theater gets hardly any play.  I sometimes think that the people in this country who know less about the Civil War than any other one group of people are Virginians.  They may know a little more than South Dakotans, but that’s about all.

They think that the war was fought in Virginia, while various widespread skirmishes were going on out West.  The opposite is closer to the truth.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his six or seven opponents skirmished back and forth between Washington and Richmond for three years.  But out West, whole states were falling at once.  Fort Donelson, for instance, was the first real battle of the war—not counting Bull Run, because it wasn’t much of a battle.  But at Donelson all of Kentucky and most of Tennessee was lost, and it marked the emergence of U.S. Grant as a leader.

A lot of people who call themselves Civil War buffs don’t know anything about Fort Donelson.  Nor do they know anything about Murfreesboro, another of the great battles of the war.

It’s a misconception encouraged by the fact that much more material exists about the Eastern theater, especially photographs and newspapers.  And because there’s more historical material, there’s more history.  It’s a serious mistake.  But this has been corrected a good deal in recent years.

Naval History : I know that the Battle of Shiloh is near and dear to your heart.  Why is that?

Foote : For one things, the Shiloh battlefield is within 100 miles of me.  The other reason is even better.  Shiloh is, to my mind, unquestionably the best-preserved Civil War battlefield of them all.

It has been singularly fortunate in many ways.  It’s not so close to a large city or populated area, so it is not clogged with tourists all the time.  But the main thing is, it has had only five or six superintendents, I believe, and each one has been thoroughly conscious to keep the place the way it was when the battle was fought.  It’s not surrounded by hot dog stands the way Gettysburg is.  In the Official Records Pat Cleburne’s report of the attack on what had been [Major General William T.] Sherman’s headquarters describes going through a blackjack thicket and then across marshy ground and up a hill.  You can go there today, and the blackjack thicket, the marshy ground, and the hill are still there.  It’s a beautiful experience.

Naval History : Back to naval matters, what impact do you think the Civil War navies had on the outcome of the war?

Foote : A huge impact, especially in the West, where the ironclads took the rivers.  The blockade, tenuous and penetrable as it was, still had an enormous effect on little things.  Nobody really knows the effect the blockade had on the people of the Confederacy.

The rarity of little items that you don’t ordinarily think of was hugely important.  They didn’t have needles for sewing; they had to improvise thorns to use for needles.  They didn’t have nails to repair their ramshackle houses.  By the time the war was over, after four years of being without nails, half the houses in the South were being shaken to pieces.  Things like that you don’t normally think about, but the North’s naval blockade caused it.

Naval History : The Civil War, as you know, is the most written-about period in American history.  In your research, have you found any gaps that need to be filled?

Foote : Not really.  You always wish you knew more about anything.  I think the gaps are filled.  I don’t think at this late date we’re going to find out much more.  I did find out recently from a new biography of A.P. Hill that he was ill and often indisposed.  He frequently rode in an ambulance.  From looking at his photograph and reading descriptions of him, I thought he’d probably had tuberculosis.  Thank God I didn’t say so.  I read that what he had was severe prostate trouble caused by having got clapped up when he was on his way from New York to West Point one time.  He stopped by New York and contracted gonorrhea and had prostate trouble the rest of his life.  That’s not all that illuminating, but it shows that new information can come to light.

Naval History : Should anything be done to preserve identified historic sunken ships?  Should they be disturbed at all?

Foote : Have you been to Vicksburg?

Naval History : I never have, but I certainly want to go sometime.

Foote : Well, you’ve got a great treat in store for you.  It was to me.  I’m thoroughly familiar with that place, and I’ve looked at all the photographs available on naval and river warfare.  But when you see the Cairo sitting there, you get a whole different notion.  That thing is three times as big as I thought it would be.  I can’t conceive how they got those boats down Yazoo Pass.  When you see what’s called Yazoo Pass now, it’s about as wide as a bed.  It’s incredible.  The amazing things about naval engagements are the accounts of men firing eight-inch guns at each other from a range of eight-feet.  I’m afraid that is beyond my understanding.  But they did it all the time in naval battles.  It was a very strange business.

Getting back to preserving sunken ships, certainly the raising of the Cairo was a splendid thing to do because she went down so fast.  Everything about her is the way she was.  Unfortunately, when they brought her up they didn’t do a skillful job.  She broke in two and they lost parts of her.  But her guns are there, and they’ve rebuilt those parts that were broken.  It’s worked out well.  They have part of her broken down in sections so you can really see how she was built.

I can’t recommend too strongly that you go and see her.  Having spent all that time reading about her, I had absolutely no idea of the size of the thing.  I knew the dimensions, but when I saw her it was absolutely amazing.

Naval History : Many regimental histories were written for Army units in the Civil War.  Why was that apparently not the case for the Navy?

Foote : I really don’t know.  No big Navy man even wrote his memoirs, did he?  Guns on the Western Waters was one of my main sources.  And I use the naval Official Records .  But I have found a shortage of naval material.

Naval History : As much as any other historians, you and David McCullough are responsible recently for popularizing history, as opposed to doing formal academic studies.

Foote : Yeah.

Naval History : How would you defend the way you approach your renditions of history to an academic?

Foote : I wouldn’t defend it to an academic.  I’d tell him, read it!  Just because I’m a narrative historian doesn’t mean for an instant that I have any less regard for the facts than he does.  The difference is that he thinks the facts are the story, and they’re not.  The story is in the way you put the facts together.  The average academic has no notion of how a story is told.  Too many of them have no notion of how to write a sentence.  And they’d better get to work if what they want is to have their research last.  Take a look at historians.  Go all the way back to Herodotus and Thucydides, up through Tacitus, and even Francis Parkman for that matter.  There were damn few academics in that bunch.

What the academics have done to history, equating facts with truth, is a murderous thing.  Facts are not the truth.  The truth is how the facts came into being, what effects the facts had, not the facts themselves.

Academic historians have no sense of plot.  But all life has a plot.  Any time a man dies, you’ve got a beginning and a middle and an end.  You don’t know the plot until he dies.

Strangely enough, it’s life imitating art, because once he dies, you understand his youth.  When my best friend died at the age of 24 over at Ploesti in World War II, I understood why his youth had been so reckless.  It was just as if he knew he was going to die young.  But academics don’t comprehend that.  Narrative history helps readers understand things better.

Having said all this, I think something ought to be made clear.  The academic historians can get along very well without me.  I can’t get along without them.  They’re the ones who do the necessary hard digging in dry documents.  And so I’m not scorning them as much as it sounds.  I scorn them for argumentative purposes.  There doesn’t need to be any war between us.  They just have one notion about writing history and I have another.  I’m actually indebted to all the academics.

Naval History : How can we make history more popular in the classroom?

Foote : You know, I’m not interested in popularity, being popular, or even selling a lot of books.  I like to do it, but that’s not why I write.  I’m trying to understand the damned thing and make other people understand it.  Calling it popular makes it sound as though I did something to history to make it more palatable.  I never want to do that.  What I want to do is tell as forceful a story as I know how, as true as I know how to make it.  There’s nothing popular about it in conception.  If it turns out to be popular, fine.

Naval History : Teachers often have a tough time persuading their students to study history.

Foote : Absolutely.  What I had to do when I took history—a very long time ago—was memorize dates and things.  I still remember I had to memorize the 13 steps to the Treaty of Utrecht.  I don’t remember them by a long shot, but that’s the way history was taught.  I think it was taught that way because you can grade that kind of testing easily.  If I missed two of the 13 steps I knew what my grade would be.

Teaching history is influenced strongly by teachers.  Most of them are damned poor, and it’s a great shame.  History should be the most exciting course in school.  As it is, it’s probably the dullest.

When I got to school at the University of North Carolina, I took whatever I wanted.  I still don’t quite know why I took a course on medieval history, but it was the best course I had in school.  I had a good teacher, and it was fascinating to see how many things about the modern world began in what’s called the Dark Ages.

It was a fascinating subject, and it was well-taught.  It was a lecture course.  We didn’t have any of these happy-go-lucky discussions. The man stood up there to the lectern, delivered a lecture for one hour, said, “Thank you, gentlemen,” and walked out of the room.  He was great.

Naval History : I’m sure you know about the controversy surrounding the use of the Confederate battle flag in some of the state flags of the South.  Is it really a symbol of evil, or is it an essential part of our history?

Foote : It is an essential part of our history that ought not be neglected or forgotten.  It is also a symbol of evil.  The reason it’s a symbol of evil is that people who knew better sat back and let some yahoos use it as a symbol of resistance to integration.

But the blame is not with the latter.  The blame is with people like me.  When there began to be freedom marches and civil rights workers down South, responsible and educated Southern people looked at these people and said, they’re sending riffraff down here, let our riffraff take care of it.

So what you got was a bunch of yahoos carrying a Confederate flag around opposing these people who were trying to get what the Constitution guarantees everybody.  The Confederacy stood for the very opposite, and it should have been made clear at the time.  But responsible people—and shame on them—left it up to the riffraff.

When three people were lynched in Meridian, the common comment was that they came looking for trouble and they found it.  It was a shameful, shameful thing to say.  It was like approving of lynching.  But that was the feeling about it in those days.  It’s most regrettable, but that’s what happened.

As for Senator Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) not letting the Daughters of the Confederacy use the Confederate Emblem on their stationary—not the battle flag, just an emblem of the Confederacy—she is a benighted creature.  She wants no sign that the Confederacy ever existed.  She hates it and everything that it symbolizes.  She doesn’t want to be reminded that anybody was ever in slavery.  She’s hiding from history when she does that.

I regret that in a U.S. Senator, but what I resent most is that she wants to hide history from us.  That I don’t forgive.  How she persuaded the rest of the Senate to go with her on that, I’m not sure, unless they were after whatever votes she could rally for other things.  It’s shameful.

Naval History : Back to historians.  Are today’s historians as good as the ones you read when you started?

Foote : Yes, they are.

Naval History : Should we be watching for any particular younger ones who have impressed you?

Foote : I don’t know the very young ones.  James McPherson is a fairly young historian, as far as I’m concerned, and he measures up to Bruce Catton.  He’s every bit as good a Civil War historian as Catton was.

What I’m calling young historians are people at least in their 40s or 50s.  You have to reach that age before you have enough life experience to be a historian.  I don’t think you can have a 22-year-old historian.  You can have a 22-year-old mathematical genius.  You can have a 22-year-old poet.  But I doubt you can have a 22-year-old historian.

Naval History : I understand you joined the Mississippi National Guard and went into World War II.  Where did you serve?

Foote : I dropped out of school in 1938, because I saw the war was coming and I wanted to spend some time at home.  Then in 1939, when Adolf Hitler’s Germans invaded Poland, I joined the Mississippi National Guard, and we mobilized in November of 1940.

Right after Pearl Harbor, I went to Officer Candidate School.  I was in the field artillery the whole time.  I cadred out to the Fifth Division in Patton’s Army, which had been in Iceland for two years.  We trained in Northern Ireland, south of Belfast.  I got into a personal squabble with a colonel on the artillery division staff, and that man then set out to get me in every way possible.

A brigade ruling stated that you couldn’t use an Army vehicle for recreation beyond a range of 50 miles.  Our battalion was 54 miles from Belfast, and the other battalions were within the 50 miles.  So we had the common habit of putting 49 miles down on the trip ticket.

I would go to Belfast to see my girl and routinely put down 49 miles.  I’ll be damned if he didn’t have me up on a court-martial charge of falsifying government documents.  And he made it stick!

I was court-martialed and sent home.  I came back to the states and worked for the Associated Press on a local desk in Manhattan for about four months.  I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I joined the Marine Corps and went through boot camp at Parris Island.  They had a lot of fun with me, saying, “You used to be a captain in the Army.  You might make a pretty good Marine private.”

I had been court-martialed practically on the eve of D-day.  When I was getting ready to go overseas as a Marine, we dropped the atomic bomb.  So the war was over, and I came back home.

Naval History : What was your function on the U.S. Naval Academy Advisory Board when you served on it in the late 1980s?

Foote : My function was pretty close to nothing.  They showed us how they were doing this and that, but I didn’t speak out.  I didn’t think it would do much good.  It seemed to me that the Naval Academy was concentrating almost entirely on two things—athletics and mathematics.

Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale was on the board, too.  He told me a story about the long time he was prisoner of war.  There was another Annapolis man there, a younger man who was absolutely crazy.  The North Vietnamese couldn’t do a damn thing with him.  He’d spit in their eye and say, “Hell no, I won’t do it.”  He just stood up to them every time.  Stockdale said that man did more to hold them together than anybody there.  Well, that man obviously couldn’t get into the Naval Academy today.  The admissions policy was what I objected to.  They have too many football players and mathematicians.  I want them to have a little of everything.  I wish they had a few truck drivers myself.

I’ve heard about some of the troubles they had with cheating.  Some of them were football players.  The idea that a naval officer must be an athlete seemed to me at the time a serious mistake, and I said so, but only in passing.  There wasn’t anything I could do about it.

Naval History : The controversy over the proposed “Disney’s America” theme park in northern Virginia brings up the age-old conflict between historical integrity and commercial freedom.  Aside from all the physical encroachment, how do you feel about the project?

Foote : Physical encroachment is the strongest point against it.  It’s the one most people empathize with to the most effect.  My objection is simple.  Anything that Disney has ever touched—whether it’s fantasy or fact, whether it’s Davey Crockett or whoever—has always been sentimentalized.  And every good historian, every great artist, knows that sentimentality is the greatest enemy of truth.

In sentimental things, good always prevails, evil always suffers.  The tears shed aren’t even salty.  No one suffers, and everyone knows everything’s going to be all right in the end.

That is a false picture to plant in people’s minds.  Disney asks, “Wouldn’t you rather have that than nothing at all?”  No, I wouldn’t.  Nothing is something you can build on.  A false picture is something that’s going to be distorted for the rest of your life.  So I’m against Disney for that reason.

Some say they’re not against the Disney Company if they’ll just put the park somewhere else.  I’m against Disney down the line.  When they called to ask me to be an adviser, I thought what a good thing it would be to get young people interested in history.  What a splendid thing.  Then a little red flag started waving, and I said, “Wait a minute, this is Disney.”

They said they wanted to help me get it authentic.  Personally, I think what they wanted was my name.  In any case, I do know they want to do what they want to do.  If I were to say a certain event didn’t happen, they’d argue that it would be very attractive to kids.

I remember when I was a boy, they used to have a Wild West show after the circus.  They always had a ceremony in which Lee and Grant appeared in resplendent blue and gray uniforms.  Lee turned his sword over to Grant; Grant received it and handed it back to Lee, to great applause.  Everybody was clapping and happy.  But Lee never gave his sword to Grant.  What dramatic value it had was based on an absolute fabrication.  Therefore, it was worse than worthless.  It was a lie.

How much of that kind of stuff would go on at Disney?

Naval History : When I last spoke with you, you told me that you were going to get out of narrative history and focus on writing novels.  Now, you’ve come out with a book on the Battle of Gettysburg.

Foote : This is an excerpt from my narrative history of the war.

Naval History : So you’re still working on the fiction?

Foote : Right.  Only I can’t do any real work stopping and starting.  I have to keep right straight on, and here I am talking with you.

Naval History : As I recall, you said you were going to concentrate on life in the Mississippi Delta, where you grew up.

Foote : It runs from 1948 to 1963.  It’s about a family. 

Naval History : So that’s what we can expect to see from you next?

Foote : Someday.  Someday.  I don’t know whether I’ll finish it or it’ll finish me.

 

 
 

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