The Histories, Writings, and Pipe Smoking of Shelby Foote

Shelby Foote found himself elevated to celebrity status following his multiple appearances in Ken Burns', The Civil War in 1990. In that 11-hour documentary, Foote was seen in 89 segments, dominating substantial screen time. His gravelly southern drawl and compelling storytelling made him a favorite with the public. He had spent 20 years of his life writing his three-volume, 1.65-million word The Civil War: A Narrative, which had been well received, but criticized for its lack of footnotes and omission of economic and racial themes. After the documentary, though, each volume started selling 1,000 copies a day. By the next year, his history of the war had sold 400,000 copies. "Ken," he said to the filmmaker, "you've made me a millionaire."

A Southern novelist, Shelby Dade Foote, Jr. was born in 1916 in Greenville, Mississippi, and his upbringing and family background were entrenched in the Mississippi Delta. His great-grandfather, Hezekiah William Foote, was a confederate colonel at the Battle of Belmont and the Battle of Shiloh, as well as an attorney and district judge who also served in the state legislature and senate, and he owned four plantations.

Foote's Early Years

Foote edited his high school newspaper in Greenville and learned about administrators who take themselves seriously. He would often satirize his principal in print, and found his application rejected when he applied to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because of a negative reference letter from that principal. Despite that petty revenge, he was finally accepted after taking a strenuous series of admissions tests. He dropped out after only two years. He preferred investigating subjects that interested him to the classes required for graduation.

He returned to Greenville in 1937, taking jobs in construction and with the local newspaper, and began work on his first novel. In 1940, he joined the Mississippi National Guard and was promoted to Captain of artillery before his battalion was sent to Northern Ireland in 1943. It was there that he was court martialed. He was charged with falsifying documents after he used a vehicle from the motor pool to visit his girlfriend in Belfast and falsified the paperwork regarding the return of that vehicle.

After returning to Greenville, he started writing and completed five novels in six years, all set in Mississippi. Tournament, his first book, is loosely based on the life of his grandfather, who was a southern planter. Follow Me Down is a fictionalized version of the story behind a murder trial that he attended in Greenville, while his third novel, Love in a Dry Season explores themes of the Mississippi upper classes durning the Great Depression. Shiloh uses 17 different narrators to tell the story of the bloodiest battle, up to that point, of the Civil War. It has been argued that Shiloh favored the Confederacy as a cause for constitutional freedoms while disregarding the core subject of slavery, a criticism that would apply to much of Foote's work.

he started writing and completed five novels in six years

His fifth novel, Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative, is a collection of stories set in the mythical southern county, similar in some ways to the Yoknapatawpha County of William Faulkner's work. Faulkner seemed to have noticed it too. Stuart Chapman reports in Shelby Foote: A Writer's Life, (2003) that Faulkner once told a class that Foote "shows promise, if he'll just stop trying to write Faulkner, and will write some Shelby Foote."

Shelby Foote and the Civil War

The Soldier in our Civil War - a pictorial history of the conflict, 1861-1865, from sketches drawn by Forbes, Waud, Taylor

In 1954, the centennial of the end of the Civil War was approaching and Bennett Cerf, the president of Random House publishing company, was looking for someone to write a relatively short (200,000 words) history of the war. He had noticed Foote's style and detail in his writing of Shiloh and contacted him. After a meeting and a $400 advance, Foote's plan was to finish the project quickly and return to fiction writing.

After a meeting and a $400 advance, Foote's plan was to finish the project quickly and return to fiction writing

Foote read history after history, visited battlefields, absorbed the 128-volume Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, and decided that the project could not be done to Cerf's specifications. He proposed a three-volume treatment of 1.5 million words to be completed in nine years.

It took him 20, and the result was a narrative-style history unlike previous publications about the war, employing novelist's sensibilities rather than those of historians. That style made the work very approachable for readers, though historians felt it somewhat unprofessional. He deliberately omitted footnotes, saying that they would "detract from the book's narrative quality by intermittently shattering the illusion that the observer is not so much reading a book as sharing an experience." ("The Conflict is Behind Me Now," Douglas, 2003.)

Foote and Tobacco

During the 20 years of writing his magnum opus, Foote was smoking his pipes, just as the soldiers who fought in that war smoked pipes. In his 1997 interview with Pipes and tobaccos magazine, he relates how important tobacco was to soldiers:

Tobacco was a prized object. The Confederates had tobacco and the Northerners had coffee, and they used to swap whenever there was a truce. There were some informal ways to exchange things, without killing each other .... They [Confederate soldiers] were crazy for coffee and, as the war went on, it got even rarer and rarer. There was never any coffee grown in the South, and the Northern blockade kept the South from getting it.... Anytime there was some kind of truce ... when there were burial details out, that would be an occasion, or when the armies had been in position for a long time on opposite sides of a river. They'd even make little boats with sails on them that they would sail back and forth to each other to make the exchange.

Also in that interview, Foote provided some detail about his own pipe smoking history: "I started smoking when I was 13 or 14 and I wanted to be grown-up. I actually started with a pipe, which was kind of strange."

The Confederates had tobacco and the Northerners had coffee, and they used to swap whenever there was a truce

Writer Richard Alley is a former tobacco shop owner who provided tobacco for Foote, and he describes his experiences with the famous novelist in a 2011 post on his blog,

I inherited Foote as a customer. His routine was that every six weeks or so he'd call and tell me he would be down that day, and I'd put his order together — two pounds of a tobacco I called Mello Mix and a few canisters of Edward G. Robinson pipe tobacco. He handled the blending himself. Sometime that afternoon, he'd pull up to the curb in his little white BMW, come in and pick up his package and then leave. I'd include an invoice and he'd mail a check within the week.... I count myself lucky having known Mr. Foote, as much as I could know him. There was the odd time or two that he lingered in the shop and we talked. We talked, not of writing or the Civil War, but about pipes. He loved his pipes — the Canadian was his preference with its short mouthpiece and long, straight shank — and, by his count, he had thousands, many sent to him by fans.

The Paris Review interview more specifically identifies Foot's tobacco: "During the interview, Foote sat at his desk or paced to and fro in his slippers, frequently refilling his pipe from a humidor with a mixture of Half & Half and Edward G. Robinson tobacco."

Foote sat at his desk or paced to and fro in his slippers, frequently refilling his pipe from a humidor with a mixture of Half & Half and Edward G. Robinson tobacco

In a thread on, Jim Amash, cartoonist extraordinaire and among the most accomplished pipe tobacco reviewers ever to strike a match, and who personally lead the campaign that saved Edward G. Robinson tobacco from discontinuing production, reveals his own story of further identifying Foote's tobacco:

[A former member of the forum named Eric] was getting Shelby Foote's Mixture from the same shop Foote had. That shop closed, and Eric was trying to figure out what Foote was mixing with Edward G. Robinson's Pipe Blend to get what he was smoking. He called Foote, and Foote wasn't entirely sure what the addition was. The shop (Memphis Tobacco Bowl) called the blend "Swinger" (later known as "Mellow Mix"), and according to [Eric], sold it as a house blend. [Eric] sent me a sample of the "house blend" to see if I could determine what it is. He managed to get a sample of the "other" component from the shop, so I had both at my disposal. As soon as I smelled the "other" component, I realized it was Barking Dog, which I have smoked a lot of in the past. Smoking a bowl confirmed that for me. I smoked the "Foote Mixture," and of course, it was Barking Dog that was used.

According to Jim, Foote's mixture evolved from two-thirds Edward G. Robinson and one-third that varied between Sir Walter Raleigh and Half & Half, to eventually becoming the same proportions of Edward G. Robinson with Barking Dog. Foote himself said in the 1997 P&T interview, "I've used exactly the same tobacco for over 50 years. It's called Edward G. Robinson.... Edward G. is such a fine tobacco that it packs too tight in a pipe, so I mix it with a rough-cut tobacco, about one-third of the rough cut, two-thirds of the Edward G, which makes just what I like."

About Pipe Smoking

Foote didn't smoke a pipe while writing, but instead smoked cigarettes, saving his pipes for off-work hours. He told Pipes and tobaccos about the number of cigarettes he smoked: "I spent 20 years writing those three volumes of the Civil War and I calculated one day, just for the fun of it, that at the rate of a pack and a half a day — which is really a rather low estimate because I nearly always had a cigarette in my lip and a pen in my right hand while I was working — that I smoked 150,000 regular, unfiltered Chesterfields. And I'm here to testify to it.... With a pipe I try never to smoke while I am writing because the thing goes out every now and then. But it's a pipe I smoke while I'm reading or studying or doing anything like that."

In 1989, Foote was told to stop smoking by his doctors. "I said I'd quit cigarettes, but I wasn't about to give up my pipe. They said that was a decent compromise. So I smoke nothing but a pipe and a very occasional cigar."

While the author is often shown smoking a pipe in photos and even in his own books, he professed in 1989 in "Conversations with Shelby Foote" by William C Carter to disliking the image: "But to Shelby Foote, the image of himself as the pipe-smoking writer is particularly distasteful. 'I hate it so much,' he says, in a voice made in the Mississippi Delta, 'I hate it so much that I have refused to be photographed with a pipe in my mouth.'"

He smoked straight pipes and didn't like bents. "For some reason I don't really understand," he said in the P&T interview, "saliva collects in a curved pipe. For me anyhow. Then it gets to bubbling, like a stew." He also states that his collection is "mostly Comoy's and Dunhills, and that Italian one, I never can remember the name of them." He started, though, with Kaywoodies, and then became infatuated with GBDs, "then finally moved up to Dunhill. I've got perhaps 100 pipes. A lot of them have been sent to me by people who liked my work on the Civil War."

The Civil War is what Shelby Foote will be most remembered for, despite his insistence that he was a novelist rather than a historian. His southern drawl was smooth and his personal charm did much to elevate the documentary that made him famous. Foote passed away in Memphis in June of 2005 at age 88. While his views will remain controversial, he succeeded in making the individual and personal stories of the Civil War accessible and brought those tales of tragedy and triumph into the modern world with the skills and insights one would expect of a talented pipe smoker.


  • "Civil Discourse," Pipes and tobaccos, (Fall 1997), by Larrry O'Connor.
  • Conversations with Shelby Foote (1989), by William C. Carter
  • "Shelby Foote, The Art of Fiction No. 158," The Paris Review (Summer 1999), by Carter Coleman, Donald Faulkner, and William Kennedy.
  • "The Conflict Is behind Me Now: Shelby Foote Writes the Civil War," The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 36, no. 1 (2003) by Mitchell, Douglas.
  • URF! Blog
  • Civil War Wikia
  • Real Clear History
  • Civil Rights Museum
  • Pipes Magazine


    • Charles “Duke” Morris on June 26, 2021
    • If you have a subscriber list, pleased add me! :)

    • Fred Brown on June 27, 2021
    • Another masterful contribution to pipe history and literary genera by Chuck Stanion.I knew the great Southern author, Shelby Foote and purchased the Civil War volumes as they emerged from the printers.Well done, as usual, Chuck. And excellent journalism, btw.Fred Brown

    • Michael Cherry on June 27, 2021
    • Chuck; Shelby Foote is one of my favorite writers/pipesmokers/historians. Thank you so much for your article. Always done with excellence!!Your Obedient Servant;Mike

    • nathan meek on June 27, 2021
    • Thanks for sharing that article. Makes me want to watch the civil war documentary and read his books. Always nice to hear about a good pipe smoker.

    • Patsy Sellitti on June 27, 2021
    • I have enjoyed reading biographies of many fellow pipe smokers in your daily readers digest series 😊…(keep up the good work!)

    • abcbill185 on June 27, 2021
    • Being both a pipe smoker AND a fountain pen user (not collector...USER) I'd like to offer this little tidbit. Shelby Foote wrote every word of the three-volume Civil War narrative with a dip pen, specifically an Esterbrook nib. Unlike Shelby--I will cite my source

    • Joe Thornton on June 27, 2021
    • This was an excellent read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you Chuck!

    • Dan on June 27, 2021
    • God knows I'm not a writer, but I remember having to cite my sources or references in MLA format when I wrote a paper in college...or you could possibly be accused of plagiarism. I never heard of Shelby Foote until now. Most interesting. My dad (we were estranged) passed this past May, he would have turned 70 this July. As a child I remember when a carton of Marlboro Reds cost $10, my father told me that he started smoking when he was 10 yrs old. When I was in Middle School he told me that he smoked 3 to 4 packs a day. My sister spoke with the doctor (old doctor who has been in his profession for years) who did the autopsy, he told her that my dad's lungs were the worst that he had ever seen. Strangely enough, he didn't die of lung cancer ( complications with diabetes). So, I believe that someone like Shelby could smoke cigarettes like that and keep truckin' on.

    • John R on June 27, 2021
    • Thanks for a great article. I learned about Foote through my love of Walker Percy, another renowned writer and one of my favorites. They were lifelong friends and had a wonderful relationship.

    • Travis Wolfe on June 27, 2021
    • Excellent article... Thank you for making my Sunday a little more enjoyable... ^_^ *tips hat*

    • Mark G. on June 27, 2021
    • I saw the pipe in his hand in a interview with Ken Burns, in the civil war documentary, A classic Southern gentlemen.

    • Walkman on June 28, 2021
    • Great article, Chuck. I'm a fan of both Shelby Foote and yourself.

    • David Zembo on June 28, 2021
    • Thanks, Chuck. Great arrival. Mr. Foote is indeed a most talented and likable pipe smoker. I watched every minute of Ken Burns,’ The Civil War, mainly to hear Mr. Foote’s very interesting, and engaging, anecdotal comments about the war, generals, and strategy.. Perhaps others, like me, also gained more historical insight than usual from his uniquely Southern perspective.Anybody interested in Shelby Foote would greatly enjoy Bryan Lamb’s in-depth three hour interview with Mr Foote on “Book TV” on C-Span. All aspects of his entire life were discussed from his Memphis office within his home rather than in a network studio.David Zembo

    • David Zembo on June 28, 2021
    • Second sentence typo: arrival = article.

    • ... on June 29, 2021
    • Mathew 7:6

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