Dunce For The Confederacy: The Lost Cause of Shelby Foote
“Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.”
This statement has long been a favorite quote of mine, especially since it’s attributed to one of my favorite Americans (a triumvirate that includes Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln). But while I heartily agree with this sentiment in general, there’s one sinister exception in particular unrivaled in American history—namely, the Confederate cause during the Civil War. The Confederacy’s effort to establish a separate nation in order to preserve, protect and defend slavery is the most shameful hour in our nation’s life—an effort that must not be forgotten, but also one that should never be celebrated. If ever a cause deserved to be lost and stay lost, it’s this one. It was a cause, Ulysses S. Grant said, that “was, I believe, one of the worst for which people ever fought…”
But don’t tell Shelby Foote that. According to him, “The “Confederates fought for some substantially good things.” Yes, some good things, folks, except of course for that whole pesky preserving slavery thing. But hey, no system is perfect, Yank!
Shelby Foote (1916 – 2005) was a talented American writer from the South in the tradition of William Faulkner who started out writing novels and then spent 20 years of his life from 1958 to 1974 writing a massive, three volume narrative history of The Civil War. But Shelby Foote is probably best known for his participation and 89 cameo appearances in Ken Burns’ landmark PBS Civil War documentary, which aired in 1990. The series turned Foote into a reluctant celebrity, but it also made him a millionaire with his Civil War trilogy reaching a whole new audience.
Although I love American history, I must confess that I didn’t see Burns’ celebrated documentary until about 2 years ago. Like so many viewers, I was initially charmed by Mr. Foote. With his Mississippi delta drawl and air, he looked and sounded like the perfect Southern gentleman right out of central casting–or a bourbon ad. I enjoyed the series very much. But a day or two after finishing it, I found myself thinking about a lot of what Shelby Foote had said during those 9 episodes and something didn’t sit well with me. More about that later…
Watching Ken Burns’ documentary got me interested in checking out Shelby Foote’s celebrated three volume history of the conflict entitled simply: The Civil War: A Narrative. As a history buff since 8th grade, I’d read my share of Civil War books already and knew what had caused the war, so a narrative approach of the events appealed to me. I was genuinely looking forward to reading Volume 1 when I brought the dog-eared 800 page paperback home with me from our local library. So, that was my mindset when I opened this book.
I couldn’t get past the first 50 pages, folks.
For me, the trouble started almost right away where it seemed that Foote spent the first twenty pages doing back flips trying to make a hero out of Jefferson Davis. I suppose when your opponent is Abraham Lincoln, you do whatever you can to prop your guy up. Here’s an example: Foote relates how Jefferson Davis was selected by Franklin Pierce (routinely ranked by real historians as our 3rd worst President) to be Secretary of War. At least we were more honest about the job title back then. Anyway, Foote then goes on to say, “Whatever his reasons, Pierce chose well. Davis made perhaps the best War Secretary the country ever had…”
This declaration is made all the more absurd by the fact that there wasn’t a war going on while Davis held the office and was being all fabulous. This is kind of like saying Jefferson Davis was the best fireman the country ever had, although he never went to a fire.
Of course Davis would have a very real war on his hands less than 10 years later with less than stellar results. Still, I guess Foote could also say Jefferson Davis made perhaps the best President the Confederacy ever had.
Yet another example occurs in the same opening chapter where, within the confines of a single paragraph, Foote manages to compare Jefferson Davis to both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Davis has just become President and is assuming his duties in Montgomery, Alabama, the first capital of the Confederacy. Foote writes,
“Rising early, he worked at home until breakfast, then went to his office, where he often stayed past midnight. He had need for all this labor, founding like Washington a new government, a new nation, except that whereas the earlier patriot had worked in a time of peace, with his war for independence safely won, Davis worked in a flurry against time, with possibly a harder war ahead. Like Washington, too, he lived without ostentation or pomp. His office was upstairs in the ugly red brick State House on a downtown corner, ‘The President’ handwritten across a sheet of foolscap pasted to the door. He made himself accessible to all callers, and even at his busiest he was gracious, much as Jefferson had been.”
What a guy!
To me, it wouldn’t be any sillier if Foote had written this paragraph instead:
“Similar to Washington and other earlier patriots, Jefferson Davis walked upright and breathed oxygen. Like Washington, too, Davis required sleep every night, with possibly a harder time getting any. Davis also found that he farted on occasion, much the same as Jefferson had done.”
Oddly enough, even in a literary sense, I found this book hard to read. Foote’s style struck me as very off-putting. I guess I was expecting a little more eloquence; instead I got anaconda sized sentences that contained more twists and turns than Lombard Street in San Francisco.
But it was just two scant paragraphs later, on page 42 of my library copy, that I ran up against the sentences that made me close Foote’s book in disgust forever. As he talks about the Confederate Constitution and how similar it is to our original Constitution, Shelby Foote actually writes these words:
“One important oversight was corrected, however. Where the founding fathers, living in a less pious age of reason, had omitted any reference to the Deity, the modern preamble invoked ‘the favor and guidance of Almighty God.’”
Oh, goodie, the Confederates injected ‘Almighty God’ into their sacred Constitution—the same holy document that enshrined slavery and made it permanent. The Confederate Constitution says expressly that slavery can NEVER be abolished. NEVER. This vile document also decrees that any newly acquired territory is automatically slave territory. Yes, Mr. Foote, your beloved Confederacy certainly righted a wrong there, correcting those backward age of reason heathens. I bet George Washington and his bunch didn’t wear flag pins, either. I’m sure the Deity was pleased to be invoked in the founding document of a budding slave republic.
In the paragraph before this, Foote does mention that the Confederate constitution protected slavery in the states and any acquired territories on a FEDERAL level, but he fails to note the utter hypocrisy of this, especially since the South was supposed to be all about states’ rights. Now this is what I would call an important oversight. As actual historian William C. Davis pointed out: “To the old Union they had said that the Federal power had no authority to interfere with slavery issues in a state. To their new nation they would declare that the state had no power to interfere with a federal protection of slavery.”
Clearly we see just how little the Confederacy cared about states’ rights compared to how much they cared about protecting slavery.
I got your states rights right here, Shelby.
If I had even one iota of guilt about judging this book too quickly after reading less than 50 pages of it, that guilt was erased when I flipped to the very back and found this last sentence in Foote’s “Bibliographical Note”:
“If pride in the resistance my forebears made against the odds has leaned me to any degree in their direction, I hope it will be seen to amount to no more, in the end, than the average American’s normal sympathy for the underdog in a fight.”
Call me kooky, but I think the real underdogs in this fight were African Americans. I’d also like to think that the average American would have little sympathy for the side fighting to keep 4 MILLION souls in permanent bondage. But hey, maybe that’s just me. I guess I’ve always marched to the beat of a different drummer.
All of this brings me back to Ken Burns’ landmark Civil War documentary. Less than twenty minutes into the first episode entitled ‘The Cause’, Shelby Foote tells us that the Civil War happened “because we failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise.”
And just what was it that we failed to compromise on? Gee, I wonder. What could it be? Could it be the thing we’d been compromising on ever since the writing of the Declaration of Independence? The answer is slavery, of course, but Shelby Foote never tells us that. Just like when he uses the term “Southerners” he fails to mention that he’s talking about WHITE Southerners.
And just what form would any further compromise take? Would the slaves get weekends off? A half day for Jefferson Davis’ birthday? I’m pretty sure any new “compromise” would’ve still kept 4 million people enslaved. What an effing joke, Mr. Foote.
Slavery was the one issue that, in the end, could no longer be compromised on. That’s why it was the root cause of The Civil War. Abraham Lincoln knew this 3 years before civil war began, yet Shelby Foote still couldn’t seem to comprehend this over 100 years later. As Lincoln said in his ‘A House Divided’ speech in 1858: “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slaves and half free… It will become all one thing or all the other.”
Slavery was the lightning to the Civil War’s thunder. Without it there would have been no war, period. The same cannot be said of any other single issue or combination of issues that also caused sectional strife between the North and the South. Did John Brown try to lead a tax revolt? The Confederacy proved Lincoln right when they tried to become all one thing. Secession was the South’s final solution.
A mere twenty minutes into episode 2 Shelby Foote pops up again to tell us a little story. Foote relates that early on in the war a Union squad closed in on a “single ragged Confederate who obviously didn’t own any slaves and couldn’t have much interest in the Constitution or anything…” The Union soldiers ask Johnny Reb “What are you fighting for, anyway?” To which the rebel soldier replies, ‘’I’m fighting because you’re down here.’’ “Pretty satisfactory answer” says Foote with a gleam in his eye, like this was some sort of Confederate drop the mic moment.
Um, no, Shelby Foote, that is actually not a very satisfactory answer. It’s just another example of phony victimhood. I’m sorry, but you can’t start a war and then claim you’re being invaded. This logic reminds me of a story Lincoln told about a boy who killed his parents and then pled for mercy on the grounds he was an orphan. It makes it sound as if the South was just minding Her own business and these vile Yankees swooped down and attacked. Forget that the South defied a Constitutional election and then seceded from the Union; forget that the South didn’t even put Lincoln on the ballot in ten states; forget that the South started the war by firing on Ft. Sumter and the American flag–a Federal fort paid for and maintained by ALL the states, not just South Carolina, by the way. This was just Shelby Foote’s coded way of calling the Civil War ‘The War of Northern Aggression.’ The War of Northern Aggression… Now there’s a phrase that surely made George Orwell jealous.
As I stated in the beginning, Shelby Foote said that “The Confederates fought for some substantially good things.” In the year 2000 came the first debates on South Carolina’s display of the Confederate battle flag over their courthouse. The flag was put up in 1961 to commemorate the centennial of The Civil War. Originally there was a plan to take it down after 1961 concluded, but this proviso never made it into the final bill and the rebel battle flag flew all during the Civil Rights movement until 2000 when it was removed. But a compromise was struck and they flew a smaller one over by the Confederate monuments until July of 2015.
PBS News Hour aired a program in 2000 on this controversy and who do you think appeared as a guest on this show? Why, Shelby Foote, of course! One of the things Foote said during the program was this: “The Confederacy stood for a great many things other than slavery… It was other things, many other things.”
Wow, okay. Let’s see if we can find some things other than slavery the Confederacy stood for, shall we? I’d think a great place to start would be to look at some of the Southern states’ declarations of secession. Let’s begin with Shelby Foote’s own home state of Mississippi:
A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union
In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
It refuses the admission of new slave States into the Union, and seeks to extinguish it by confining it within its present limits, denying the power of expansion
Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent longer to remain in it. It is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property. For far less cause than this, our fathers separated from the Crown of England.
Sheesh, not really seeing too many good things there, Mr. Foote. If you want to read the entire declaration, do so. But every sentence in it is about slavery and nothing but slavery.
But you’ve got to love the part at the end where Mississippi says they have more of a cause to leave the United States than the Colonies did to break away from England. Well, they might be right, since that revolution was over taxation not SLAVERY.
Hey, let’s check out Texas’ Secession declaration… Maybe we’ll find some of those good things the Confederacy stood for in that document.
DECLARATION OF CAUSES: February 2, 1861
A declaration of the causes which impel the State of Texas to secede from the Federal Union.
Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated States to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility [sic] and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery–the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits–a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?
In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon the unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color–a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and the negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.
Nope, not seeing any good things in that document, either, Mr. Foote. Pretty hard to get past the passage where Texas is berating the Northern states for “proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color—a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law.”
Slavery is God’s Will, Yanks!
Surely we’ll be able to find some of those “substantially good things” Shelby Foote says the Confederacy stood for in Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone” speech, right? This speech was given shortly after the Confederate government was formed and just a few weeks before Lincoln tricked the Confederacy into firing on Ft. Sumter. Vice President Stephens tells us:
But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”
Ooops, well, maybe here is the good part where Stephens gives us the corner stone of his new nation:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
You see, the actual people who were doing the seceding had no qualms about telling us it was to protect the institution of slavery. They weren’t worried about legacy or how awful this might look later on. Hell, a lot of them thought they were going to win the Civil War! Nobody goes to war thinking they’ll lose. It’s pretty hard to justify any public celebration of the Confederate cause if it was all about preserving slavery, which it was—as the above documents illustrate so clearly. It’s pretty hard to take pride in such a horrible cause, so the attempt has been made ever since to pretend the Civil War was caused by everything BUT slavery. Their favorite red herring is the weasel phrase ‘states rights’. Notice they never elaborate any further on those so-called states rights. This is probably because the ONLY ‘state right’ they cared about was the right of White people to own Black people.
On the eve of secession, wealthy Mississippi plantation owner Richard Thompson Archer declared it was time for the South to stand “united… in defense of the God given right to own the African.”
Yeah, it was all really about tariffs, huh?
Saying that slavery wasn’t the cause of the Civil War is like doing Hamlet without Hamlet.
One of the most exasperating things about Shelby Foote is that he was not an ignorant, overt racist. As Tony Horwitz relates in his book Confederates in the Attic: “But Foote had bucked the Southern trend and supported integration early on. He also quit his Sons of Confederate Veterans’ chapter when it chose to honor George Wallace on a visit to Memphis, and later abandoned plans to build a home on the Alabama coast because of a strong Klan presence there.”
That being said, let’s return to the 2000 PBS News Hour program. Here’s what Shelby Foote said when asked by the host what the Confederate battle flag meant to him:
SHELBY FOOTE: “The flag is a symbol my great grandfather fought under and in defense of. I am for flying it anywhere anybody wants to fly it. I do know perfectly well what pain it causes my black friends, but I think that pain is not necessary if they would read the confederate constitution and knew what the confederacy really stood for.”
His ‘black friends’??
Talk about putting your Foote in your mouth. This sounds like something Donald Trump would say. If only Mr. Foote’s ‘black friends’ would read the Confederate constitution they wouldn’t be pained by the rebel battle flag?? Were you on acid, Shelby Foote? Seriously.
Yes, if only black people would just get off their butt and read that dandy Confederate constitution! If they did, they’d see that it’s only real difference with the original was the sentence where the glorious new Southern nation declared that “no law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”
THAT’S what the Confederacy really stood for, Mr. Foote. Sounds to me like YOU were the one who needed to read the damn thing. Boy, I just can’t imagine why your ‘black friends’ would have a problem with that. Some people are just so sensitive! Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure that anyone who uses the term “my black friends” doesn’t have any.
Oh, another difference between the two constitutions was that a Confederate president would serve but one 6 year term and have a line item veto. I’m sure this would be a great comfort to Shelby Foote’s black friends.
Continuing with his historical acid trip, Shelby Foote then says this about the Confederate battle flag:
“These things have got to be understood before they’re condemned. They’re condemned on the face of it because they take that flag to represent what those yahoos represent as – in their protest against civil rights things. But the people who knew what that flag really stood for should have stopped those yahoos from using it as a symbol of what they stood for. But we didn’t – and now you had this problem of the confederate flag being identified as sort of a roughneck thing, which it is not.”
I’m sorry, but this statement borders on the psychotic, in my opinion. I think he even manages to out Orwell Orwell with this one. Shelby Foote is actually trying to say that this wretched flag once stood for something “noble” until Southern racists of the 20th century misused it and turned it into a “banner of shame and disgrace and hate.”
But don’t just take my word for all this. Let me introduce you to William Thompson, editor of the Savannah, Georgia newspaper Daily Morning News. Thompson designed one of the Confederate battle flags that was accepted and approved by the Confederate government about halfway through the war. Here’s how Mr. Thompson summarized the Southern cause: “As a people, we are fighting to maintain the heaven ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race…” Thompson also went on to say his new flag design would “be hailed by the civilized world as THE WHITE MAN’S FLAG.” By the way, Thompson put that in all caps, not me.
I hate to break it to you, Mr. Foote, but this flag has ALWAYS been a banner of shame and disgrace and hate. As a matter of fact, this symbol was never more shameful than when it originally appeared. This notion that the Confederate flag only came to symbolize white supremacy and racism during the civil rights movement is beyond ludicrous. It’s also historically false. I mean, how much more anti-civil rights can you be than fighting a war to establish a separate America where slavery was forever? As hateful as the white supremacists were during the civil rights struggle, at least they weren’t trying to keep FOUR MILLION souls and future generations in eternal bondage. If that’s not a “roughneck thing”, I don’t know what the hell is. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley also put her Foote in her mouth when she said that the racist killer of the Emanuel 9 had a “sick and twisted” view of the Confederate battle flag. Wrong, governor, the flag itself is what’s sick and twisted and has always been. It is our American swastika.
Now before anyone says I’ve gone too far by whipping out a Nazi reference, I believe such a comparison is entirely apt. I really don’t see much difference in 6 million people being exterminated because of their race and 4 million being permanently enslaved because of their race. A holocaust by any other name is still a holocaust.
HERITAGE, NOT HATE?
But by far the biggest weasel word used by Confederate flag apologists is the word “heritage”. Of course this is just another slavery dodge like “states rights”. Those who use the word “heritage” hope like hell nobody asks the logical follow up question of “And what heritage would that be?” The heritage of seceding from America in order to preserve slavery? Nazism and the Holocaust are part of Germany’s heritage—and that was only 70 years ago, not 150. Yet you don’t see Angela Merkel declaring a Nazi History Month and you don’t see a swastika flying from a government building in Berlin, do you? It’s somehow sadly appropriate that the only state flag in the Union that still has the confederate battle flag within it is Shelby Foote’s home state of Mississippi.
Finally, here’s what Shelby Foote had to say about the original removal of the battle flag atop South Carolina’s capital in 2000:
SHELBY FOOTE: I don’t object to any individual hiding from history, but I do object to their hiding history from me. And that’s what seems to me to be going on here. There are a lot of terrible things that happened in American history, but we don’t wipe ’em out of the history books; we don’t destroy their symbols; we don’t forget they ever happened; we don’t resent anybody bringing it up. The confederate flag has been placed in that position that’s unique with an American symbol. I’ve never known one to be so despised.
How the hell was removing the Confederate flag from a state capital building hiding history from you, Mr. Foote? How is that wiping ‘em from the history books? Although no swastikas fly atop German government buildings, I’m pretty sure we all still know who the Nazis were, jackass.
Shelby Foote died in 2005, at the age of 88. In their obituary of him, The Guardian noted this about his three volume set Civil War: A Narrative:
There has, perhaps, never been a history, even a popular history, so devoid of ideas, or economic forces. Few historians today share Foote’s blindness toward the considerable role of blacks in the war. He scorns northern extremists, blames the abolitionists for provoking the war, and has a fondness for the murderous cavalry exploits of Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose granddaughter he met as a boy, and who permitted him to swing Forrest’s sabre above his head. He did not mention that the notoriously racist Confederate general became one of the founding fathers of the Ku Klux Klan.
Shortly after Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary ended, Shelby Foote said in an interview that “Black contribution to the war has been overemphasized.”
Yeah, like HE would know.
But I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on Foote for turning a blind eye to this. After all, it’s pretty hard to notice Black contribution to the war when you’re busy swinging Nathan Bedford Forrest’s sword about your head.
If anything has been overemphasized, it’s Shelby Foote.
Another thing I’m quite sure Mr. Foote never knew is that more men from his home state of Mississippi fought for the Union than the Confederacy. How’s that for heritage?
Shame on you, Shelby Foote. He couldn’t or wouldn’t face the truth about what the Confederacy really stood for. And shame on Ken Burns, PBS and any other serious outlet that treated Foote like he was some kind of authority on The Civil War.
It seems to me that the person who hid from history was Shelby Foote.