Shelby Foote, Noted Israelite

Members of minority groups take a perverse pleasure in finding people who have a connection, no matter how distant it is. I know; I grew up with the Jewish version. He or she is one of us, we like to say.

Most people remember Shelby Foote as the Civil War historian who became well-known as the most compelling of the narrators in Ken Burns’ documentary of the Civil War, who recounted the past as though he had been there to witness it. Few people know that in 1936, he was blackballed by a fraternity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because his mother’s father was a Jew.

His father’s side of the family was archetypically Southern. His great-grandfather Hezekiah, originally from Virginia, was an early settler in Macon, Mississippi, where he prospered as a planter and slaveowner. His grandfather, Hugh, was similarly situated in Washington County, near Greenville, a prosperous man until he gambled away his fortune. His father, also named Shelby, was raised for a rich man’s life of leisure.

It was a different story on his mother’s side. Foote’s mother Lillian was a Greenville native, but her father was a Jewish immigrant from Austria. Morris Rosenstock arrived in the United States at seventeen and by 1880 was working as a bookkeeper for a planter named Peters in Washington County, Mississippi. In a 1979 interview, Foote said that the planter had a “red-headed daughter who was a true belle, a beautiful woman. How a Jew bookkeeper managed to marry the daughter of a planter I don’t know.” Foote’s mother Lillian was the middle daughter.

Rosenstock, an enterprising man, became a planter himself, then a cotton factor and broker, and until he lost his fortune in the early 1920s, he was a man of consequence in Greenville, Mississippi. He remained dedicated to his religion. In tolerant Greenville, where, as Foote recalled, “the Country Club had more Jews than Baptists,” Rosenstock wanted his daughters to marry within the faith. When Lillian secretly married Shelby Foote, Sr., who was indolent as well as Gentile, Rosenstock was furious.

But he couldn’t turn his back on his own flesh and blood. He helped her husband get a job, and when Lillian was widowed, her family, including her father, welcomed the widow and her little boy, Shelby Foote Jr., back to Mississippi. Foote grew up close to his grandfather and his mother’s older sister, whom he called Mama Maude, who had married into the Moyse family, another Jewish family of consequence in Greenville. Foote attended the local Reform synagogue and did so well in the religious school that he won a prize, a copy of David Copperfield that entranced him and helped to set him on his path as a writer.

After his snub at Chapel Hill, Foote became an Episcopalian, saying that it was easier to be an Episcopalian than a Jew. He never denied his Jewish ancestry. But as he became renowned as the historian of the Civil War, and famous as the narrator of the documentary, the Southerner came to the fore, and the Jew receded far into the background.

There you have it: Shelby Foote, consummate Southerner and noted Israelite. One of us.

For more information, see:
C. Stuart Chapman, Shelby Foote: a Writer’s Life (University Press of Mississippi, 2003) pp. 21-56.

Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (Vintage Books, 1999), pp. 147-156.

John Griffin Jones, “Interview with Shelby Foote,” in William C. Carter, ed., Conversations with Shelby Foote, (University Press of Mississippi, 1989) pp. 151-195.

Jay Tolson, “Art, War, and Shelby Foote,” in Jon Meacham, ed., American Homer: Reflections on Shelby Foote and His Classic Civil War: A Narrative, pp. 14-36.