In the mid ‘90s I had the great pleasure of meeting Shelby Foote. Actually, it’s more accurate to say I imposed upon him as I just looked up his phone number in the phone book and cold called him. But when he died a few years later, I’m glad I did.
At the time I was wanting to make a big, epic film about Lee and Grant. I thought it would help it get made to have someone of his stature attached as a consultant. (Little did I know at the time that Hollywood doesn’t care about accuracy.) So I sent a letter to Mr. Foote. I never got a response, which should have sufficed. But I was bound and determined to get hold of him, so I called him out of the blue.
I had half hoped to get his answering machine so I could leave a message because I knew this was a rather rude intrusion. But I caught my breath as his old, familiar, relaxed voice answered, “Hello?” I nervously asked if it was Mr. Foote, to which he simply said “Yes. Who’s this?” I introduced myself and told him what I was doing. I even apologized for calling, but I just really wanted him to be a part of this. He was extremely polite and apologized for not getting back to my letter. Then he said, “It’s like what Grant said after he became a celebrity. He was afraid that if he responded to one letter, he’d get too many more.” He went on to explain that he had already consulted on Gettysburg, and he didn’t want to do anything more than once. He wanted to have the time to do each thing he wanted to do once with what time he had left in life.
I didn’t push him, even though I wanted to. I have to admit, I understood. But to my surprise, he was interested in continuing our current conversation. I forget exactly what he said, but he initiated the continuation of our talk. He said that Grant was his favorite general of the entire Civil War. He felt that he was the most interesting in the way he changed his tactics based on the situation. He believed that the flack Grant got for being a butcher at the end of the war wasn’t justified. Mr. Foote said that Grant did what he had to do to beat Lee’s army into submission. But Foote believed the campaign of Grant’s to really study was the Vicksburg campaign, the way he so elegantly maneuvered his army even while in the enemy’s territory.
I tried to tell him how I wanted to show the way Grant used what he had learned early in his career during his time as a general. It was hard to get out. I ran out of breath a couple times and finally said to him, “Forgive me. I’m a bit in awe here.” And then I continued.
We ended the conversation with a question I asked him. I asked “If I could go to one battlefield, which one should I visit?” He told me to get lost…
Well, that’s the simple way of saying it. Actually, what he said was that I should go to Shiloh, go deep into the woods, then leave the path. He said “when you are lost, you’re exactly where you should be. It’s just beautiful there.”
A poetic answer from a poetic man. I will always value that one short conversation with one of my all-time favorite authors.