Another View of Shelby Foote

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It has become almost cliche of late to blog on the subject of Ken Burns and his monumental PBS documentary The Civil War. The rebroadcast of the remastered nine-part series has caused a flurry of activity among online commentators who seem to either malign Burns and his magnum opus for its perceived flaws or praise it unsparingly for spawning a resurgence of interest in the conflict that hadn’t been seen since the Centennial of the 1960’s.

To be perfectly honest, I’m in no position to dispassionately critique the series. In 1991, at the age of eight, my parents presented me with a used VHS copy of the entire production as a Christmas present. Over the course of the next four days I watched it unfold, enraptured by the images and story line along with the expert narration of David McCullough, who I’d still argue is the unsung hero of the series. When I finally reached the end of the last VHS tape I experienced a sadness that to an eight year was akin to losing a Burns and Footefamily member. Subsequent viewings over the course of the next decade reduced the tapes to dust. Fortunately a DVD version has been acquired as a replacement.

Re-watching it twenty five years later has engendered a similar feeling – one that has nothing to do with the enhanced picture quality, which to be honest is lost on me. The
documentary is at once a poignant reminder of my youth and simultaneously an affirmation of everything that I love about my profession. It remains, to me at least, inherently watchable.

The success of the series was due in no small part to the contributions made by the historians, writers, and talking heads that appeared throughout the film. Of these
individuals, none had a greater impact—or more screen time—than the famed Shelby Foote, author of a massive trilogy of the war that is still widely read today. It’s difficult to
imagine the series without Foote. His folksy appeal and southern drawl lent the film a kind of warmth that it would have otherwise lacked. That being said, no aspect of the documentary has been criticized as heavily as Foote’s contributions – and perhaps rightly so. Foote, at least in the Burns series, pays scant attention to the centrality of slavery as a cause of the war and perpetuates a Lost Cause narrative throughout his commentary.

On November 19th, 1993, Foote spoke at the Rostrum in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery for the 130th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. His remarks that day confirmed, and to a degree conflicted, with his contributions in Ken Burns’s The Civil War. Shelby Foote’s Gettysburg Address appears in full below. We invite you to read over his remarks and comment. It is well worth the time.

– C. Gwinn, Gettysburg National Military Park

Shelby Foote
Dedication Day Remarks
November 19, 1993

It is an awesome, indeed a daunting thing to stand here where perhaps the greatest American—in or out of public office, high or low—stood, 130 years ago, and delivered what he later called ‘my little speech.’ His predecessor on the rostrum, the distinguished orator Edward Everett (former governor of Massachusetts, ambassador to England, president of Harvard, successor to Daniel Webster as Secretary of State under Millard Fillmore, and recently a candidate for Vice President on the Constitutional Union ticket, which had carried Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee) spoke for two solid hours by the clock. Lincoln, in a black, full skirted suit, a tall silk hat, and white gloves, spoke for two minutes… I hope to hold my time closer to the latter’s—especially since Everett afterwards said to him: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as close to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

I do not hope to achieve his eloquence—no one has. But I intend to emulate his brevity—though even that I cannot quite match.

The President in fact had done something beyond communicating any ‘central idea,’ no matter how noble that idea was and is. He created something more permanent than if his words had merely been cast in bronze or engraved on brass. The speech he read, and in part improvised, on that November day as he stood here, and later in Washington touched up in response to requests for copies, now are [is] recognized as an imperishable page in the highest rank of American prose. Lincoln as a writer is up there with Hawthorne, Twain, James, and all the distinguished men who followed them and him. Sometimes the strength and beauty of his language—as in the King James Bible, from which he learned a good part of his craft—mask and dominate his meaning. The Gettysburg Address is a case in point, particularly in its closing words, in which he declared that if the Northern case fell short of victory, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ would ‘perish from the earth.’

My great-grandfather, who commanded the Noxubee Cavalry at Shiloh, would have denied fervently that he and his compatriots were out to destroy government of or by or for the people. In fact he saw it as being rather the other way around, and so did those who served under and over him in the Confederate ranks. Yet, such was the force and beauty of Lincoln’s words, that I, along with my fellow students in the public schools of Mississippi, fifty-odd years ago, were required to memorize those and all the other words of that Address in reverence for the man who spoke them, here at Gettysburg, in dedication of the Union dead who found their ‘final resting place’ in the hallowed ground on which we are gathered in observance of this anniversary of that utterance.

(Incidentally, I have been informed that this memorization is no longer universally required in our schools. If so, I am sorry indeed to hear it—for, if so, this is a signal milepost in the decline of American education. For me, it’s hard to imagine a group of young folks milling around without the cadences of the Gettysburg Address pulsing in their young brains.)

But the truth is, Lincoln did not come here (or exercise his craft) to cast aspersions on those who were doing their best to tear the fabric of the Union, even as he spoke. He did not think they were wicked, in the main; he simply thought they were wrong. At ‘four score and seven,’ the nation was in its adolescence, nearly half a century closer to the Revolution than we today are to the Civil War, which he saw as a test as to whether this country could ‘long endure.’ Democracy, as established and practiced here, was still in its experimental stage, suffering as it were from growing pains. If the Union split, secession succeeded, the experiment failed as a model others might decline to follow down the years. The dream, he was saying, would ‘perish,’ and with it what he had earlier called ‘the last, best hope of earth.’

In time, even those who had opposed him most fiercely during the four-year conflict would come to agree in large part with Lincoln’s war-scorched vision. That would be part of what became known as the Great Compromise, whereby Southerners agreed that it was best, all round, that the Union had been preserved, and Northerners agreed—although some with equal reluctance—that the South had fought bravely for a cause it believed was just.

In the light (or shadow) of that Compromise, I suggest that we remember here today that roughly half of the 50,000 casualties on this field were Confederates, many of whom also gave ‘the last full measure of devotion.’ We would do well to remember that they too were Americans—deserving, as well, of our remembrance, our admiration and, if need be, our forgiveness. One man I know would give all three of these, and had even begun to do so before he was martyred, three days after Appomattox. That man was Abraham Lincoln, who spoke here all those hundred and thirty years ago.

I thank you.*

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Foote, along with President and First Lady Carter and Park Ranger Bob Prosperi, during a 1978 visit to the Gettysburg battlefield.

 

* Special thanks to Ranger Daniel Vermilya who transcribed Foote’s remarks.

About The Staff

Staff of Gettysburg National Military Park
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9 Responses to Another View of Shelby Foote

  1. Paul v rolf says:

    What wonderful remarks! I so loved Ken burns work on the civil war! I have watched it, over,and over again,and never tire of it..a masterpiece!

  2. Richard Goedkoop says:

    No mention of what the “compromise” entailed: a movement back to African-American repression in the South after 1876. No mention of slavery or ” a new birth of freedom. “

  3. Jim Douglas says:

    Perhaps I’m missing something. As someone who has been heavily involved in Civil War circles for many years, and now make my living writing about it, I fail to clearly see the point being made here. Is it meant to be an indictment of Shelby Foote? It’s well known that the Ken Burns movie has numerous errors throughout, some have said there are hundreds. That being said, it’s still the greatest Civil War film ever made by far. And yes, David McCullough’s narration is superb, and the main background music featuring “Ashocan Farewell,” is absolutely haunting. As far as Shelby Foote’s contributions, you say they have been criticized heavily. I ask, by who? By those in academia? Those so called keepers of history who look down on us common folk? I’ve dealt with, talked with, and done business with Civil War professionals on every level for decades and I cannot remember one person criticize Shelby Foote, in fact quite the opposite. So perhaps it’s just “the clique” in Gettysburg that can’t abide his reluctance to utterly trash everything Confederate. I find Foote’s comments very fair, criticizing Confederate as well as Union, and giving credit where credit is due. If I misunderstood the point of the blog post, my apologies.
    J.D.

  4. Nice backhanded slam at Mr. Foote, Gwinn. Where are your sources for the accusation?

  5. John D. Rohal says:

    All of this indicates to me that the interpretations of the Civil War have evolved over time and continue to do so; sometimes in a manner that mean different things to different people. I’ve observed this personally in my 65 years of existence and the ability to watch video recordings and read books or opinion pieces from past decades seem to confirm my observations and memories.

  6. Pingback: 9/11 White House emails; Shelby Foote @ Gettysburg; Jeff Davis in KY; a newly discovered species of human?; key moments in Elizabeth’s reign | History Headlines

  7. Jeannine Trybus says:

    I was considerably older than 8 when I first viewed Ken Burns’ Civil War. I also have worn out tapes, now replaced. I have heard Ken Burns read “Letter to Sarah” in person twice. He does it beautifully, as he says it reminds him of his late mother. I have seen Shelby Foote in Dawagiac, Michigan back in the 90’s. His talk was spellbinding. I have close and long time friends who are Southern born and bred, so I relate to him on a personal level. I could listen to him read the phone book!

  8. The impact of the Civil War is still not being analyzed thoroughly enough. i While we rightly focus more attention on the slavery and racism we do so while ignoring other significant developments like the emergence of a powerful centralized government, the establishment of an American way of war that would focus as much on civilians as on enemy combatants, and the notion of self-determination for minority groups within a larger political entity.(Woodrow Wilson was child when the Civil War was being waged. His home was in fact set alight.) All of these have had great impacts

    I think we do history a disservice if all we talk about is slavery because the war left an impact much more than a single(albeit incredibly important) element of American society.

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