The Convenient Suspension of Disbelief

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The always interesting J.L. Wall digs up this interview with Shelby Foote:


INTERVIEWER 
Had you been alive during the Civil War, would you have fought for the Confederates? 

FOOTE 
No doubt about it. What's more, I would fight for the Confederacy today if the circumstances were similar. There's a great deal of misunderstanding about the Confederacy, the Confederate flag, slavery, the whole thing. The political correctness of today is no way to look at the middle of the nineteenth century. The Confederates fought for some substantially good things. States rights is not just a theoretical excuse for oppressing people. You have to understand that the raggedy Confederate soldier who owned no slaves and probably couldn't even read the Constitution, let alone understand it, when he was captured by Union soldiers and asked, What are you fighting for? replied, I'm fighting because you're down here. So I certainly would have fought to keep people from invading my native state. There's another good reason for fighting for the Confederacy. Life would have been intolerable if you hadn't. The women of the South just would not allow somebody to stay home and sulk while the war was going on. It didn't take conscription to grab him. The women made him go. 

INTERVIEWER 
What about fighting to end the institution of slavery? 

FOOTE 
The institution of slavery is a stain on this nation's soul that will never be cleansed. It is just as wrong as wrong can be, a huge sin, and it is on our soul. There's a second sin that's almost as great and that's emancipation. They told four million five hundred thousand people, You are free, hit the road. And we're still suffering from that. Three quarters of them couldn't read or write, not one tenth of them had a profession except for farming, and yet they were turned loose and told, Go your way. In 1877 the last Union troops were withdrawn after a dozen years of being in the South to assure compliance with the law. Once they were withdrawn all the Jim Crow laws and everything else came down on the blacks. Their schools were inferior in every sense. They had the Freedmen's Bureau, which did, perhaps, some good work, but it was mostly a joke, corrupt in all kinds of ways. So they had no help. Just turned loose on the world, and they were waifs. It's a very sad thing. There should have been a huge program for schools. There should have been all kinds of employment provided for them. Not modern welfare, you can't expect that in the middle of the nineteenth century, but there should have been some earnest effort to prepare these people for citizenship. They were not prepared, and operated under horrible disadvantages once the army was withdrawn, and some of the consequences are very much with us today. 

INTERVIEWER 
Bedford Forrest's picture hangs on your wall. He was an ex-slave trader, responsible for the Fort Pillow massacre of captured black soldiers, and after the war deeply involved in the Ku Klux Klan. 

FOOTE 
You could add that in hand-to-hand combat he killed thirty-one men, mostly in saber duels or pistol shootings, and he had thirty horses shot from under him. Forrest is one of the most attractive men who ever walked through the pages of history; he surmounted all kinds of things and you better read back again on the Fort Pillow massacre instead of some piece of propaganda about it. Fort Pillow was a beautiful operation, tactically speaking. Forrest did everything he could to stop the killing of those people who were in the act of surrendering and did stop it. 

Forrest himself was never a bloodthirsty sort of man who enjoyed slaughter. He also took better care of his soldiers and his black teamsters than any other general I know of. He was a man who at the age of sixteen had to raise six younger brothers and sisters after the death of his blacksmith father. He became a slave trader because that was a way of making enough money to support all those people and to get wealthy. Forrest was worth about a million dollars when the war started, an alderman for the city of Memphis. He was by no means some cracker who came out of nowhere. All writers will have great sympathy with Forrest for something he said. He did not like to write and there are very few Forrest letters. He said, I never see a pen but I think of a snake. 


He's an enormously attractive, outgoing man once you get to know him and once you get to know more facts. For instance, he was probably Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, but he dissolved that Klan in 1869; said that it's getting ugly, it's getting rough, and he did away with it. The Klan you're talking about rose again in this century and was particularly powerful during the 1920s. Forrest would have had no sympathy with that later Klan. Last thing in the world was he anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic, which is what that Klan was mainly in the twenties. I have a hard time defending the Klan and I don't really intend to defend it; I would never have joined it myself, even back in its early days. 

But I don't know what you expected men, having gone through four years of utterly savage war, to do--if you expected them to come home and put up quietly with the kind of occupation that happened in France after World War II. The French Maquis did far worse things than the Ku Klux Klan ever did--who never blew up trains or burnt bridges or anything else; they didn't even have lynchings. The Klan is as nefarious as you want it to be, but you have to understand better what they did do and they did not do. And the "massacre" at Fort Pillow, so-called, truly had better be investigated more closely. 

When word of the massacre at Fort Pillow got up to Washington, Lincoln wrote to Grant and said, This is intolerable, I want whoever was responsible for it punished. Grant passed the word along to Sherman. If you know anything about Sherman, you know he would have jumped on Forrest like a tiger if he'd been guilty. Sherman never recommended anything along those lines. They sent a committee of Congress down to investigate Fort Pillow and they took testimony from people who were obviously lying their heads off, talking about people being buried alive, women and children shot while pleading for their lives. If you read a biography of Bedford Forrest, you'll get some notion of what a fine man he was. 

INTERVIEWER 
Is there too much focus on the military in writing about the Civil War? 

FOOTE 
Well, Forrest said war means fighting, and fighting means killing. The Civil War was simply a four-year military action. The causes were so nebulous and so diverse. Lincoln said plainly: What I do about slavery I do because I want to win this war. If I could win this war by freeing all the slaves tomorrow, I'd do it. If I could win this war by keeping them all in slavery, I'd do that. I'd do anything to win this war. The emphasis was on war, "this mighty scourge." Almost everybody realized that the various bickerings and arguments and the fire-eaters in South Carolina and the abolitionists in Massachusetts, were sort of outside of things really. All they did was cause it. The real monster of the Civil War was that it cost us God knows what all, not only in young men, blue and gray, but in the recasting of what public life was going to be like. It brought a new cynicism in to us that we've lived with ever since. We began to appreciate scamps in politics, which we hadn't really done before. It was a military action and was to be studied as such--not neglecting the causes, not neglecting the arguments of what went on, but it's always primarily combat.

Forgive the lengthy block quote, but I like to err on the side of context. And given that context, I have to say that I found this interview deeply sad and deeply predictable. I've only made my way through the first volume of Foote's trilogy. I found it to be a lot of things, but neo-Confederate apologia isn't among them. It does slight slavery, but as I recall, it does not question--as Foote does here--that slavery was the cause of the War. 

There are many lies here. Some of them rather blatant--claiming that the Klan didn't "have any lynchings," is not much better than claiming that the South didn't "have any slaves."  Other are more slippery--damning emancipation by conflating freedom with prosperity, all the while ignoring the main actor in restricting black prosperity. 

But the root of this is Foote's white romanticism. In Foote's eyes, Lee is not simply an honorable man but "a noble man, noble beyond comparison." Nathan Bedford Forrest is not simply the disbander of the (presumably nonviolent) Klu Klux Klan, but "one of the most attractive men who ever walked through the pages of history." Black southerners like Harriet Tubman, Andrew Jackson Smith or Robert Smalls are met with no such laurels. 

I'm looking forward to finishing Foote's trilogy. It really is an engaging read. And yet here is the bit of sadness: He gave twenty years of his life, and three volumes of important and significant words to the Civil War, but he he could never see himself in the slave. He could not get that the promise of free bread can not cope with the promise of free hands. Shelby Foote wrote The Civil War, but he never understood it. Understanding the Civil War was a luxury his whiteness could ill-afford.

A description of the drawing is here.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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