Foote came to write the Civil War histories at the invitation of Random House's Bennett Cerf after his detailed historical novel Shiloh: A Novel (1952) was published. Foote's accuracy and detailed description of the war's bloodiest battle had impressed Cerf, who wanted him to write a 200,000-word narrative history.
Foote researched the project for several weeks and concluded that it couldn't be properly done as requested. It would take much more time and effort. He proposed a three-volume project and Cerf agreed. During the 20 years of research and writing, Foote supported himself with Guggenheim Fellowships, Ford Foundation grants and loans from his friend, writer Walker Percy.
The project became a detailed military history, though it also briefly considers political and social themes. The first volume Fort Sumter to Perryville (1958) covers the battles of Perryville, Bull Run, Shiloh, Second Bull Run, Antietam and a lot of smaller conflicts. It also includes the battle of the Monitor and Merrimac.
The second volume, Fredericksburg to Meridian (1963), covers the great battles and the efforts of General Robert E. Lee, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, and General Stonewall Jackson.
It took Foote 10 years to finally complete the third volume. Current events occupied his attention and he wasn't able to focus on the book. The third volume took as many years to complete as the other two combined. Red River to Appomattox (1974) covers the last two great battles, General Ulysses S. Grant against Lee and General William Sherman's March to the Sea. It also deals with Abraham Lincoln's assassination and Lee's surrender at Appomattox.
At first, Ken Burns had Foote's work on his reading list as he prepared his documentary but hadn't planned to interview him. However, Burns received a phone call from Robert Penn Warren suggesting he meet Foote. After an initial filmed interview in 1986, Foote emerged as a leading consultant on the project. In the end, Foote appeared in the documentary for nearly an hour of the 11-hour series, more than any other authority. The result was a huge increase in sales of Foote's three-volume series. In fact, every time the documentary was rebroadcast on PBS, sales went up.
Foote told Ken Burns: "You've made me a millionaire."