SHELBY FOOTE: Novelist-turned-historian brought Civil War to life

Our Gibbon
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Pick up one of the three volumes of The Civil War: A Narrative, open to any page and begin reading. Before long, you will run across sentences, paragraphs, whole chapters that read like an epic novel of the first rank.

These few lines, for example, picked at random, introduce Union Gen. Henry W. Halleck:

"In manner he was irritable and sometimes harsh, not inclined to allow for the smaller brains of lesser men. Interviewed, he would hold his head sideways and stare fishily, directing one goggle eye toward a point somewhere beyond his interviewer. This caused one disconcerted officer to remark that conversing with Halleck was like talking to someone over your shoulder."

The writer of those lines, Shelby Foote, was a Southern novelist of modest renown when he was approached by Random House in the 1950s to write a one-volume history of the Civil War. Two decades and nearly 3,000 pages later, he completed a work, which, for majesty of language and command of subject, comes within range of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, another 20-year labor, published in 1776.

Foote's rendering of the war is deeply researched but contains nary a footnote - it is, he firmly pointed out, a narrative history.

Foote had long since resumed writing novels when he was enlisted by Ken Burns to provide commentary for Burns' landmark 1990 television documentary series "The Civil War." With his white beard, piercing blue eyes and voice as smooth and unhurried as Mississippi molasses, Foote appeared on camera 89 times, and it is his vivid story-telling that is the thread that binds together the whole. It made him an instant, if reluctant, celebrity.

Shelby Foote's death four days ago at 88 seems appropriately fixed within the Civil War calendar. Today is the 142nd anniversary of the opening salvo of the war's defining battle, in and around the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, "from which," Foote wrote, "no less than ten roads ran to as many disparate points of the compass, as if it were probing for trouble in all directions."