Shelby Foote was born and raised in Greenville, Mississippi. His father died when he was only five, and his mother raised him alone. When he was thirteen he became friends with another Greenville boy, Walker Percy, and the two remained friends until the end of Percy's life, 60 years later. They shared a love of books, and encouraged each others' literary ambitions.
After serving as editor of his high school newspaper in Greenville, Foote attended the University of North Carolina, where he contributed to the literary magazine. When the Second World War began in Europe, he dropped out of college and joined the National Guard, two years before the United States was drawn into the war. Foote began to write fiction while waiting for his unit to be mobilized. He was working at a Memphis radio station in 1946 when he sold a short story to the Saturday Evening Post and quit his job to write full time.
Foote published five novels in rapid succession, beginning with Tournament in 1949. His next novels, Follow Me Down and Love in a Dry Season won admiring reviews, but sold indifferently. The popular success of Shiloh, a fictional recreation of the Civil War battle, inspired Random House publisher Bennet Cerf to ask Foote to write a short history of the Civil War. Foote agreed, on one condition. The story was too big for a single volume, Foote insisted, and Cerf agreed to publish a monumental trilogy on the subject. 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's other books include Jordan County (1954) and September, September (1978), a novel set amid the turmoil surrounding the integration of Little Rock's Central High School in 1957. A volume of Shelby Foote's correspondence with his lifelong friend, novelist Walker Percy, was published in 1998.