It was supposed to be a brief assignment—eighteen months or so, tops. In 1954, with the centennial of the end of the Civil War approaching, Bennett Cerf, the president of Random House, wrote the novelist Shelby Foote to propose a “short history” of the conflict. In midsummer the author traveled from his home in Memphis to meet with the publisher in New York, and the two came to terms. The target was 200,000 words; the advance, four hundred dollars. For Foote the plan was to get the book done fast and return to writing novels. “Fiction is hard work,” he recalled thinking; “history I figured, well, there's not much to that.”
Foote was then thirty-seven. By the time he finished the third volume of his The Civil War: A Narrative, he would be fifty-six. In a notable case of literary understatement, Foote later observed, “It expanded as I wrote”—ultimately to just over 1,500,000 words, or, as Foote said, “a third of a million longer than Gibbon's Decline & Fall, which took about the same length of time to write.” The war had come alive to him—he heard the hoofbeats and smelled the gunpowder and felt the anguish and the anxiety of Lincoln and Davis and the hundreds of thousands of unknown soldiers. “Don't underrate it as a thing that can claim a man's whole waking mind for years on end,” Foote wrote of the war.