Shelby Foote’s Flawed Understanding of Slavery and the Civil War

I don’t want to get into a debate about whether or not Shelby Foote is properly described as a historian. What I can say is that after reading an interview with him in Confederate Veteran magazine in 1991, I can safely conclude that his understanding of the history of slavery and the Civil War is fundamentally flawed.

His comments were prompted by the interviewer, who suggested that the interpretation of slavery presented in Ken Burns’s PBS series, The Civil War, was problematic. Here is Foote’s response.

  • No, white southerners did not see states’ rights as a solution to slavery.
  • No, they were not handling anything related to the abolition of slavery on the eve of the Civil War.
  • No, most northerners were not looking for a quick solution to the problem of slavery.
  • No, white southerners did not believe that slavery would eventually die out.
  • The federal government dealt with slavery almost from the beginning of the war. Have we forgotten about the contraband policies?

This is not even close to a reasonable interpretation of slavery, even in 1991. Foote never had an understanding of even the basic facts related to slavery and the Civil War.

37 comments… add one
  • Ryan Trainor Aug 8, 2017

    It seems to me there are layers of the causes of the warwhich unwravel like an onion. Our onion is slavery, an evil but ancient ingredient that even the Founding Fathers wished to remove from the bowl of liberty, but was too key to the success of our American soup.

    The layers of this onion peeled at the outset of the war, revealing other layers. The first layer of our slavery onion was secession, to secure states rights and state constitutions that guaranteed its continuance and legal protection in existing states but aimed at preventing the blockade into western territories. This first layer defined the war effort as a means to preserve the union first, before the whole onion was thrown out. That onion made this country well with tears when, as it unwraveled into the war further, the individual men came to fight for their localized version of righteousness; some fought to free the slaves; some only to preserve the union hijacked by traitors, and some sought to keep their slaves or protect their way of life which may not directly have involved slaves. Some southerns resisted leaving the union, and some northerners did not support lincoln but favored the union. Onions can make a room stink, and ours muddied the perceptions of the era into some areas of moral ambiguity.

    The onion’s final peel was the emancipation proclaimation. That made the war about freeing the slaves, as a moral appeal to the world as an economic warfare on the deep south.

    The onion was the cause of the war; it was the conflict itself, an original ingredient that defined early consititional understandings of social hierarchy as much as

    In the years after the war, the fog of war’s numerous layers of this slavery onion were reinvented as not the reason; they were seen as a social ingredient to states rights, a way to preserve the social order though apprenticeships, though jim crow laws, and monuments that reinforced postwar myths and ideas of the war’s meaning. Military historians favor these as relics of a lost cause, a testament of those individual perceptions. Social historians see these monuments as a sign of a new onion in the form of racial segregation, which prospered into the 20th century.

    • Erick Hare Aug 8, 2017

      I see a minor, but basic, flaw in this summation of the causes of the War. The Southern states never ever really valued states rights with any strength or consistency leading up to secession, and in fact Southerners were strong proponents of Federal authority and enforcement when it suited them.

      The obvious example of this is the Federal enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and Southern support for the suppression of the personal liberty laws of Northern states by the Federal government in the fallout from the Compromise of 1850. In this instance (and every time it suited the Southern states) they were strong proponents of Federal Authority and enforcement and denounced States Rights. Another example is the Dred Scott case.

      So I see the secession of the Southern states as more of an open act of rebellion directly against the Union they helped to form because they no longer saw their best interests (aka the preservation and protection of slavery as an inalienable right) and the preservation of the racial hierarchy in Southern society able to be protected by the Federal government. They chose to rebel rather than accept whatever gradual restrictions and ultimately steps towards gradual emancipation the country was progressing towards.

      • James Simcoe Aug 9, 2017

        Even more texture as to the loudly professed ‘Southern Vision’ of the country’s future on the eve of the war is found in ‘This Vast Southern Empire’. I recall a statement by Mr. Foote that it saddened him that he had to be one kind of person with his Black friends and another with his white friends.

      • Joshism Aug 9, 2017

        I think you could make the argument that the Southern states valued Property Rights over States Rights, wherein property = slaves.

        • Erick Hare Aug 9, 2017

          That was the point I was implying. The Southern states were focused on maintaining their rights to own slaves and maintaining the Southern racial social hierarchy. The states rights claims try to hide the fact that there were many times Southerners were strong proponents of strong centralized Federal government when it meant the Federal government would act to protect the peculiar institution and the Southern way of life that created.

          There’s no getting around the fact that whether stated explicitly or not the Southern states were primarily interested in maintaining and expanding the peculiar institution as much as possible. Even for non-slaveholding Southerners the racial hierarchy in the South always gave them hope to obtain their highest aspirations of slave ownership and also protected them from being denigrated to the level of slaves and African Americans in Southern society in the Antebellum Era.

      • Nathan Towne Aug 10, 2017

        Erick,

        Interesting comment. You are absolutely right in stating that there is no validity whatsoever to the whole states rights argument regarding the impetus for secession. Put bluntly, it is just neo-confederate claptrap. Furthermore, the Whig-Democrat divide was a national one, not a sectional one and as the Republican Party took on former Whigs and Democrats, Constitutional and economic issues were quite contentious internally. It was simply not driving the sectional divide. Those who state that have no leg to stand on. In that, I am in complete agreement with you.

        The second aspect of your comment is a bit more problematic though. I know that it has been stated many times before, but it really is not accurate to state that someone compromised a strict constructionist position by supporting the Fugitive Slave Act. The Fugitive Slave Act simply established a Federal system of enforcement for the Fugitive Slave Clause (Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3). It was not attempting to impose a new standard upon the states. It simply established a system designed to enforce the responsibilities of the states as prescribed in the Constitution. No matter the Constitutional theory, almost all legal scholars would have agreed that that power existed via the Supremacy Clause (Article VI, Clause 2). So, it actually was not incompatible for someone holding a fidelity to a states rights/strict constructionist position to support the Fugitive Slave Act on Constitutional grounds and the overwhelming majority of members of the Democratic Party (the limited government party in 1850) agreed on that point.

        That doesn’t necessarily mean that it was good law of course and many people objected to it for a number of different reasons, but most strict constructionists, whether from free or slave states, agreed that it was entirely legitimate Constitutionally in terms of the relations between the Federal government and the states.

        • Erick Hare Aug 13, 2017

          I wasn’t questioning the Constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act. I was pointing out that both sides of the sectional divide took stances supporting and opposing a strong centralized Federal government when it suited them. The Fugitive Slave Act is an example where the North and South took the opposite stance to what they fought for during the Civil War. The North advocating for personal liberty laws on the state level promoting states rights and the South advocating for Federal enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act to suppress the states rights of the Northern states to enact those personal liberty laws in opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act.

          Even abolitionists in the antebellum era promoted the concept of secession for the exact opposite reasons the South actually did secede.

          The bottom line and my main point is is no matter how you dress it up the two primary underlying and overarching causes and driving forces in the Civil War were the concept of Union and the struggle to define liberty and freedom in the United States. (aka pro-slavery vs. abolitionism).

          • Nathan Towne Aug 22, 2017

            That comment helped me better understanding what you were saying.

            I appreciate the response.

  • Sandi Saunders Aug 8, 2017

    And the appellation of “historian” causes lots of problems when they are so clearly not dealing in true history.

    • Ryan Trainor Aug 8, 2017

      True, but if you mean the military historians, I can see their views as a means to make the meaning of so many lost lives stand for something as a good faith attempt; but the social historians, I think, win the overarching issue that this resurgence of confederate symbolism i. The post reconstruction era to be an indicator of things far greater than the war itself.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Aug 8, 2017

    I’ll always love Shelby Foote’s Scared Confederate and the Owl story that he told in Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” series. I chuckle every time I hear him tell it.

    But during that same series, I also noticed that he contradicted himself and showed he didn’t even know enough about the Civil War, either. The first thing he said in the series was that “Any understanding of this nation has to be based, I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War.” But, later in the program, he makes another statement that contradicts his own claim:

    “The South never had a chance to win that war.”

    I know many think the South never had a realistic chance but I think they did. It had chances to gain foreign recognition and it had chances to win the war on the battlefield. The South had to convince the Northern civilian population that the war wasn’t worth fighting anymore. I think Foote’s “never had a chance” comment really supports Lost Cause beliefs that clearly show up in his other writings and comments.

    • R.M. Hemingway Aug 8, 2017

      Interesting observations and cogent postulations! So few people seem to take into consideration that insurrections are not always won, solely, through the spilling of blood! I have always felt that the Southern insurrectionists, at some point and to-whatever-degree, understood they could wrest victory through political means manifested in disapprobation in the north.

  • Forester Aug 8, 2017

    What generation is he defining as “people in the South”? Older people like Lee did express that slavery would eventually fade out, if God so willed it (like in that old 1856 letter everyone quotes).

    Here in Norfolk, a young William Lamb was talking to his father about slavery in 1855. His father was a staunch advocate Colonization (moving blacks to Africa), which William “inclined towards,” but also thought there were many “happy things” associated with slavery. This was a common trend — older men thought slavery needed to be dealt with somehow, but the younger generation supported it absolutely. The young Lamb considered slavery “divine and humane,” and prided himself on defending it. He wrote editorials railings against “Black Republicans” as though they were Snidely Whiplash tying Virginia to the railroad tracks. His father was not nearly so radical. The elder Lamb was not Confederate for long, surrendering Norfolk to the Yankees in 1862, while the younger held out at Fort Fisher until the end of the war.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 8, 2017

      Older people like Lee did express that slavery would eventually fade out, if God so willed it.

      Lee is saying something different here. He is certainly not expressing a belief based on evidence that slavery was declining economically or in any other way. He was talking more broadly and perhaps vaguely about the morality of slavery.

      • Forester Aug 8, 2017

        I see what you’re saying. Yes, there was no sign of an economic decline of slavery. The elder Lamb I mentioned was speaking of morality. I wish I knew more of his views, but I only have what his son briefly wrote about him.

        The son did not agree with the father at all, and considered slavery VERY good and moral, even sacred. When the Yellow Fever pandemic hit, he wrote about slaves refusing medicine and not leaving their sick masters; he wrote whole paragraphs about how lovely and beautiful was this divine, humane institution. He insisted that they didn’t even WANT to be free.

        Ironic, given that he would later be a Republican and Readjuster, but he changed a lot as he got older.

  • Donovan Aug 9, 2017

    Agree with the blog post but am intrigued by the last sentence in the excerpt. What did Foote mean when he advised southerners to “make their own admissions about slavery”? Will have to find the full article.

  • Joyce Harrison Aug 9, 2017

    Shelby Foote was a very dear and engaging man, and I’m not at all surprised that so many people got excited about the Civil War because of his appearance in the Ken Burns series. But he really shouldn’t have gotten the air time he did; in fact, in, my opinion, he shouldn’t have been on the series at all. His books are wonderfully written, but he is not an authority on the Civil War era. Indeed, as you say, Kevin, “his understanding of the history of slavery and the Civil War is fundamentally flawed.” I would go so far as to say that his appearance on the series probably set non-historians’ understanding of the history of slavery and the Civil War back a few decades.

  • Forester Aug 9, 2017

    He would be 101 if he were still alive. I think the evergreen nature of documentaries (especially one that was recently remastered into 4K HD Blu Ray) obscures the fact that he was a very old man and a product of his time.

    He started the Civil War book in the ’50s, and later regretted not making race more important. For his time and place, he was actually progressive. Remember he was born less than a year after Birth of a Nation was released.

    • Joshism Aug 9, 2017

      I think Foote was a sincere amateur historian, but the combination of the time and place he grew up and his lack of formal training meant he simply could never really shake the Lost Cause mentality.

  • The Civil War was fought over the question of whether the Western Territories would be slave or free. The election of Lincoln suggested that they would be free, and that over time the Slave States would be outnumbered by the Abolition States. The writing was on the wall, and the South intended to maintain its “way of life”. Hence secession from the US. Had Lincoln permitted secession, he would have been impeached by the Black Republicans, since there were few Democrats left in the Congress. He had to invade the South.

    • MSB Aug 9, 2017

      IIRC The secession documents mention existing states more than territories.
      Lincoln could decide on his own what to do, rather than letting members of his party poke him forward. And you seem to be forgetting the conciliatory efforts of Seward, etc., who was as much a Republican as Lincoln.
      The name of Lincoln’s party only included the word “Black” if the speaker was a white Democrat.

      • Marvin Goodson Aug 11, 2017

        We need to understand that “Black” was not about race but character and class. The historians should inform people of that.

  • Ronnie Wald Aug 9, 2017

    Like much of the current debate tactics, you refute Foote but, don’t give the “why?” For God’s sake, “Define your terms?” That is, if you want to be considered a “serious” thinker.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 9, 2017

      How about you spend some time in the archives of this blog. The “terms” have been defined over and over and over again.

  • Craig L. Aug 9, 2017

    https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=9&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwi4gcSb3srVAhVH-GMKHaaUAKUQFghSMAg&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.newyorker.com%2Fculture%2Fcultural-comment%2Fthe-rebirth-of-a-nation&usg=AFQjCNHB92wj9TvppupnVAZitZu3TkqMfQ

    I saw quite an interesting film two days ago on the back of the seat in front of me on a flight from Montreal to Denver. It’s called ‘The Birth of a Nation’ and it wasn’t a silent film. It’s based (somewhat loosely) on William Styron’s ‘Confessions of Nat Turner.’

    • MSB Aug 9, 2017

      That is the new movie, which seems to respond to DW Griffith’s famous original, which was a silent film.

  • Rory Washburne Aug 9, 2017

    Shelby Foote is a boring old bitty. He doesn’t seem like a full blown lost causer, but according to this he certainly seemed to try to be downplaying slavery. It’s a shame because there’s a lot of folks who view his work with much authority. Also he probably didn’t get challenged much on it pre-internet. Sorry my comment is kind of trivial, but I’ve read your blog for a long time and have only commented once or twice. It’s extremely informative and interesting. Thank you for producing it.

  • hankc9174 Aug 10, 2017

    the south wanted a ‘clean, quick immediate solution’ and came up with secession.

  • Bo Jones Aug 11, 2017

    One things for sure since secession wasn’t illegal and slavery wasn’t illegal the South had a perfect right to do what they did.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 11, 2017

      At least you are honest enough to admit that secession was about slavery.

  • Brad Aug 11, 2017

    I found his folksy style irritating, almost stereotypical. I may have this wrong but I recall him saying in the series that the South and North forgot to do what they did best: compromise. I found this troubling as there are some things you can’t compromise with. I remember (I think) Ta-Nehsi Costes taking him to task about that.

  • Nathan Towne Aug 22, 2017

    The problem I have with this post has to do with the second to last sentence. All of the points that you outline in the post were understood by the historical community in 1901, not to mention 1991. We haven’t just suddenly figured it all out over the last fifty to sixty or so years regarding the secession crisis and the onset of the war. That is a pernicious notion that simply does not bear scrutiny when one has an intimate understanding of the pre-1950 literature.

  • Meg Nov 1, 2017

    Another erroneous article on the Civil War. Mr Foote actually has it correct. Have you ever heard of Emancipationsits? They were all over in the South. Henry Clay is an example of that. They were looking for a way to end slavery without sending all the slaves, whom many had a severe case of learned helplessness from their situation, out on their own where they would not be equipped to care for themselves. They were looking at many angles. Slavery was going to die out and the Southerners knew it. Read the diary of Mary Chestnut for remarks on this. Lincoln’s soul motivation of The emancipation proclamation was to keep Europe out of the war. He was directly quoted as saying he wanted to hold the union together with or without slavery though he preferred it without. I will also note that he also is quoted saying that it was preposterous to think that a black man would ever be equal to a white man, so the “social status” argument (not noted here but I’m shooting it down for arguembt’s sake) holds no water.
    Shelby Foote is likely the greasiest authoritative voice for this war and a true historian because he sought to understand the southerner/northerner mentality of the time and did not (like most “historians” do today) Judge then by what we know now. Heaven forbid in 200 years, that we be judged for what they know rather than what we know today. Even the revered today will Be reviled by then.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 1, 2017

      Shelby Foote is likely the greasiest authoritative voice for this war…

      I wouldn’t know anything about that. Thanks for the comment.

    • Sandi Saunders Nov 1, 2017

      I will have to agree, “Shelby Foote is likely the greasiest authoritative voice for this war” that we have ever had in modern history and I think your post pretty much serves as proof. He, like so many, worked to excuse the inexcusable and give “honor” where only treachery and ill will existed. I know why he is so revered, I do not know why people still think he should be accepted as an historian.

  • EliteCommInc. Nov 29, 2017

    There is not a single solitary comment by Dr Shelby Foote that is not accurate as to the state o slavery. He doe not condone it — he states what it was a it was at the time and how the federal government treated it – he is absolutely right.

    We long for something noble in the civil war beyond maintaining the union, but in fact, that is the primary case.

    And for those you clinging to the myths of the emancipation proclamation — you might actually want to read it in its entirety — especially those clauses that allow no rebel states of territories to keep their slaves.

  • Kristoffer Nov 29, 2017

    Emancipation grew into a major issue for which the American Civil War was fought. Don’t believe me? Read Lincoln’s third offer of compensated emancipation to the border states in July 1862, you can feel the pressure he was under: http://www.civilwarcauses.org/lincoln-border.htm
    “…I gave dissatisfaction, if not offence, to many whose support the country can not afford to lose. And this is not the end of it. The pressure, in this direction, is still upon me, and is increasing. By conceding what I now ask, you can relieve me, and much more, can relieve the country, in this important point. Upon these considerations I have again begged your attention to the message of March last. Before leaving the Capital, consider and discuss it among yourselves. You are patriots and statesmen; and, as such, I pray you, consider this proposition; and, at the least, commend it to the consideration of your states and people. As you would perpetuate popular government for the best people in the world, I beseech you that you do in no wise omit this. Our common country is in great peril, demanding the loftiest views, and boldest action to bring it speedy relief. Once relieved, it’s form of government is saved to the world; it’s beloved history, and cherished memories, are vindicated; and it’s happy future fully assured, and rendered inconceivably grand. To you, more than to any others, the previlege is given, to assure that happiness, and swell that grandeur, and to link your own names therewith forever.”

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