Shelby Foote in a photograph published in Mid South Magazine March 19, 1978. Novelist and historian Foote inspired millions to read his multi-volume work on the Civil War.

He was relatively unknown to the general public for most of his life until his appearance in Ken Burns's PBS documentary The Civil War in 1990, where he introduced a generation of Americans to a war that he believed was "central to all our lives."

Foote worked for 20 years, writing 500 words a day. The Civil War: A Narrative, published in three volumes between 1958 and 1974, was hailed by critics and historians as a unique masterpiece.

Foote told the Lexington Herald-Leader in a 1997 interview: “I learned to love my country, in two ways. I began to learn the geography of the South-the mountains, the rivers, the valleys. The other thing was the incredible heroism on both sides. It’s hard to believe men were as brave as those men were. Somehow sense of honor was stronger than fear. God knows, they felt fear. I would really like it to be stressed that my work helped me to love my country. I hope my work does that for other people, learning both our virtues and our vices.”

Some historians complained that Foote didn’t pay enough attention to the political and economic factors behind the war. Others were offended that he’d dare to write history without footnotes. Looking back, was it merely a case of Northern empiricism scorning Southern charm? Part of what made Foote so beloved in his native region, and a folk hero for millions of PBS viewers, was that he seemed to embody the Old South: an erudite, liberal-minded Rhett Butler with a Robert E. Lee beard and a courtly drawl. 

Foote died in Memphis on June 27, 2005, aged 88. He had had a heart attack after a recent pulmonary embolism. Foote was buried on a tree-covered hill in Elmwood Cemetery, one of the South’s most historic graveyards and the burial ground for more than 1,000 Civil War soldiers, including 22 generals. His grave is beside the family plot of General Forrest.