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Shelby Foote’s Civil War History Defends America Against Insatiable Haters Like Ta-Nehisi Coates


White House chief of staff John Kelly’s interview Monday night with Laura Ingraham, in which he expressed the mundane and historically straightforward view that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War,” has produced a spasm of simple-minded and myopic commentary. Our intellectual class, unable to think about the war between North and South in anything but the most reductive terms, has decided not only that Kelly suffers from “nostalgia” about the Confederacy, but that Ken Burns and Shelby Foote should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Specifically, Kelly has been excoriated for daring to call Robert E. Lee an “honorable man” and expressing the same view of the Civil War put forward in Burns’ enormously popular 1990 Civil War documentary. Up until this week, Burns’ series had been a celebrated work—a restored version of the series aired on PBS just two years ago. But now, at least according to Jonathan Chait of New York magazine, Burns’ masterpiece is a “disaster,” mostly because it relied heavily on interviews with Foote.

Foote is, of course, the author of his own celebrated Civil War masterpiece, a three-volume narrative history of the war, each about a thousand pages long, that stands as a triumph of American history and literature. The trilogy, which began as a contract with Random House to write a short one-volume history to mark the war’s approaching centennial, took Foote 20 years to write.

The volumes, published between 1958 and 1974, were almost immediately hailed as a seminal contribution to American letters. Writing in The New Republic, literary scholar and critic Louis D. Rubin Jr. said Foote’s trilogy “is a model of what military history can be.” The New York Times Book Review called it “a remarkable achievement, prodigiously researched, vigorous, detailed, absorbing.” (Presumably by today’s standards these reviewers would be upbraided for praising Foote.)

So no wonder that Foote, who died in 2005, figures prominently in Burns’ documentary (all told, he’s featured in about an hour of the 11-hour series). His deep southern drawl and magnetic on-camera presence make him captivating figure for the screen, but Foote is compelling above all because he’s an abiding authority on the Civil War.

For the Left, Compromise Was a Crime

But because we live in an ignorant age, Foote’s reputation is getting dragged through the mud. In an article noting that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Kelly’s comments by citing the Burns documentary, Chait writes that Burns relies heavily on Foote, and “Foote presented Lee and other Confederate fighters as largely driven by motives other than preserving human property, and bemoaned the failure of the North and South to compromise (a compromise that would inevitably have preserved slavery).”

This should be dismissed as a simple case of historical ignorance, especially since it’s been repeated so often by a Wikipedia-reliant press corps over the past few days. Even someone with a cursory knowledge of the Civil War should know that the war came about, as all wars do, because of a failure to compromise.

In our case, the entire history of the United States prior to outbreak of war in 1861 was full of compromises on the question of slavery. It began with the Three-Fifths Compromise written into the U.S. Constitution and was followed by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which prohibited slavery north of the 36°30’ parallel, excluding Missouri), the Compromise of 1850, then the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and eventually led to the election of Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent secession of the southern states. Through all this, we inched toward emancipation, albeit slowly.

In other words, the breakdown of all those decades of compromise did indeed lead to the Civil War. This is a point that Foote and other historians have made many times and that Kelly tried his best to paraphrase. Compromising on slavery had been part of how America stayed together, and staved off war, from the beginning. No historian disputes this. But for writers like Chait and The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, compromise was a bad thing because it preserved slavery. That such compromises limited slavery’s spread and put it on the path to extinction carries no weight with them.

In a widely shared thread on Twitter, Coates joined in lambasting Kelly’s remark about compromise, but managed to turn the question on its head. For Coates, each compromise that preserved the Union and prevented war prior to the Civil War was morally bankrupt. He also rails against the compromises struck after the war to restore the Union, as well as the compromises Lincoln offered during the war to bring rebellious southern states back into the fold.

Coates’ initial line of criticism—that Kelly should know about all these compromises because the relevant history is “easily accessible, not tucked away in archives somewhere”—gets to something deeper. For Coates and his ilk, the entire idea of America is indefensible. Our original sin of slavery can never be extirpated—not by the Civil War, not by the civil rights movement, not even by the remarkable fact that a black man became president of the United States, even as he has become one of the most celebrated and influential writers in America. Coates’ entire project is fundamentally anti-American. To speak of compromises that could have prevented or delayed the war is to speak of a great crime—slavery—for which there is no suitable punishment, except maybe extinction.

In Coates’ reading of history, even Lincoln is culpable. “Lincoln’s own platform was a compromise,” he writes. “Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He proposed to limit slavery’s expansion, not end it.” Of course, Coates is wrong in a larger sense about Lincoln’s view of the matter. In his famous 1858 House Divided speech, Lincoln said the United States “cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”

Here, Lincoln was echoing the sentiments of the drafters of the Declaration of Independence, who conceived of that document as a kind of poison pill for slavery: if all men are created equal, then eventually slavery must be abolished. Perhaps it might even be abolished without war. This was Lincoln’s hope, right up until the Confederate batteries fired on Fort Sumter.

Coates doesn’t believe any of that. He believes the Declaration is a cynical document, just as he believes the entire American constitutional order is a massive fraud designed to preserve white supremacy. There’s no use arguing with such a man about history, because it’s all an immense crime, a racist conspiracy from the outset. His complaint with Kelly, much like Chait’s complaint with Foote and Burns, isn’t with a particular interpretation of the causes of the Civil War but with the belief that America as such is worth fighting a war to preserve.

To Whom Should We Turn to Understand the Civil War?

Alas, Coates is said to be one of the brightest lights of our time. A generation ago, we looked to men like Foote for insight on the Civil War, and their knowledge and compassion revealed to us something about ourselves beyond the nihilism of Coates and Chait. Foote spoke often about compromise in the context of the war because he understood that after such an unfathomable bloodletting—620,000 dead—there would be no way to reunify the country without compromise.

Part of that compromise was allowing the South to honor their war dead, which soon led to the construction of Confederate memorials across the south. (Later, of course, monuments would be erected for different reasons, not in mourning but in defiance of the civil rights movement.) Today, we’re engaged in great debate about what to do with those reminders of our past. But it’s not an entirely new question.

In the early 1990s, the Confederate flag and statue controversies that have now engulfed us were just emerging. In Memphis, where Foote lived most of his life, there was a push to remove the statue and remains of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest in the city’s Forrest Park, a push that’s recently been revived. In a 1991 interview, Foote said: “I think to remove Forrest from Forrest Park would be as if the women of France were indignant over the way Napoleon treated the ladies and wanted to remove his body from Les Invalides. I really don’t think that’s an exaggeration. I think this is just as serious, and I hope they’ll never be able to do it.”

For Foote, preserving history and, if not honoring then at least trying to understand our forebears, is how we move forward as a people and a nation. In 1994, when objections to the display of the Confederate symbol were gaining momentum, he told another interviewer that banishing such symbols was a mistake.

Quite the opposite of the case of the Jews in the Holocaust, the blacks seem not to want to be reminded of history… In this Disney project that was announced—‘we will show you what it was like to be a slave’—what a great outcry went up. ‘We don’t want to see that kind of thing.’ Almost the opposite of the Jews having Holocaust museums. I regret that. I think they ought to celebrate their past the same way the Jews did about bondage in Egypt. They’re not ashamed of it, they say, ‘We came out of it, we conquered it.’ I wish there were more of that… I wish my black friends could do the same thing.

But if you’re Coates, celebrating the emancipation of southern slaves or the end of Jim Crow is impossible, because in his telling, black Americans never really came out of their bondage. The great white supremacist project of the United States persists to this day, as evidenced by the election of Donald Trump. There are still grievances to settle, reparations to be paid. No wonder you want to tear down statues, and not just of Confederates.

In that 1991 interview, Foote spoke of the war as a great trauma that has stayed with us, in one form or another, and continues to fascinate and disturb us:

I think the Civil War in our history corresponds to a horrendous event that happened in your adolescence. You may even forget it, but anything that comes up to bring it to mind, it’s there. So people, even though they don’t know a thing about the Civil War, it’s in their blood somehow. And anything seriously and well-done about it will immediately call up all this unconscious memory. It’s sort of a Jungian thing.

This unconscious memory of ours has been coming up a lot lately. To grapple with it, we can listen to the likes of Coates or we can turn to Foote, whose deep understanding of the war we need deeply. The novelist Walker Percy was a lifelong friend of Foote. In 1974, after reading the proofs of Foote’s epic Civil War history, Percy wrote to his friend that the work was “as good as you think… I’ve no doubt it will survive; might even be read in the ruins.”