If Foote, who died last week at 88, had never written "Shiloh," his terse, unsentimental novel about the 1862 Civil War battle, he might not have gone on to become the best-known narrative historian of the Civil War. He certainly would not have become an unlikely celebrity as a result of his involvement in Ken Burns's 1990 PBS documentary about the war. But when "Shiloh," the fifth of Foote's seven novels, was published in 1952, it caught the eye of Random House publisher Bennett Cerf, who asked Foote to write a one-volume history of the Civil War. Foote replied that he couldn't do it in one book; it would take three. And at that point, Foote began a project that would consume 20 years, produce 1.5 million words and secure his reputation as one of the finest nonfiction writers of the 20th century.
Foote acted and spoke like a Southerner from Central Casting--the beard, the drawl and the habit of writing with a dip pen all made him look and sound like someone who'd been in the Civil War. But in fact Foote was the very model of a modern major writer. As a youth, he sought out fellow Mississippian William Faulkner and introduced himself. He worshiped Proust; the magisterial three-volume "The Civil War" is clearly written by a man who'd read "Remembrance of Things Past" nine times. It is also the work of a man who admired Tacitus and Gibbon and deeply respected the historical record. Foote was such a stickler for the facts that he timed his research visits to battlegrounds to coincide with the anniversaries of battles, the better to understand the precise weather in which the fighting took place. His trilogy, however, is not discernibly the work of a Southerner, nor of a man with any willingness to romanticize war. Foote believed the Civil War "defined us," but at a terrible cost. "It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads," he said. Of all the books about that conflict, none has ever brought the past to life more vividly than Foote's account. Written by hand, it reads as if it were etched in blood.