A Few Thoughts About Bruce Catton

I am about half-way through Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox and I am enjoying it immensely.  While I’ve read a few essays and sections of various books this is the first Catton book that I will read in its entirety.  It is easy to see why he is so popular and I have a much better sense of how he excited the imagination of an entire generation.  Catton was an incredibly talented writer and his sense of narrative is infectious.  On a number of occasions I found myself completely immersed in Catton’s world.  At the same time I can’t help but reflect on the book as a product of its time.

Given its publication in 1953, Stillness functioned as a wonderful example of a national history of the Civil War.  The narrative would have appealed to a wide range of Americans, who had experienced the horrors of WWII and the emergence of the United States as the most powerful nation and self-proclaimed leader of the free world.  Increasing tensions during the early Cold War period and a conscious self reflection that emphasized freedom and democracy constitute an important cultural and political backdrop necessary to understand this book’s influence.

Even in the final year of the Civil War Catton manages to maintain a clear focus on the emergence of a stronger nation.  While the reader absorbs the horrific scenes from the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor, Catton steers clear of any moral responsibility.  And while he works to bring the reader close to the precipice of a nation teetering on self destruction the reader is not allowed to lose sight of the war as a national struggle that will be resolved one way or the other.  Consider the following passage:

For of all the men who controlled and directed the war, Lincoln was the one who most deeply shared the spirit that moved across the steaming trenches at Cold Harbor–fight to the limit as long as the fighting as to go on, but strike hands and be friends the moment that fighting stops.  Before the war even began, in that haunted springtime when its dark shape was rising, Lincoln had tried to warn North and South that they could never travel on separate roads.  Win or lose, someday they would have to get along with each other again, and whatever they did before that day came had better be done in such a way that getting along together would still be possible.  The soldiers had got the point perfectly, and they expressed it very simply: Hang a few troublemakers and we’ll go home.  Mysteriously, the fighting seemed to be bringing them mutual understanding, and they may almost have been closer to each other, in spirit, than they were to their own civilians back home.  Yet there was nothing they could do about it.  They had not made the war and they would not end it.  They could only fight it.  [pp. 175-76]

The passage – as well as other sections of the book – betrays a strong conviction that Civil War soldiers were not politically engaged.  The cause of the war was “born of anger and misunderstanding” and was now being directed by politicians, but Catton’s soldiers don’t seem to give these issues much thought at all.  This has as much to do with maintaining as close to a consensus history as possible in 1953 as it does with the state of Civil War historiography.

An appreciation for the title of this book clearly emerges from the above passage.  Catton anticipates an easy reconciliation once the necessity for hard fighting has ceased.  That “stillness” is the sound of a nation reunited.  The Civil War that emerges from these pages is the great American story.  There are heroes, tragedy, great sadness, and an emerging national greatness.  In the end, the war is self contained and divorced from the fierce political debates of the 1850s as well as the consequences of the war that were only beginning to re-emerge in Catton’s postwar society.

Now, if you will excuse me, the Army of the Potomac is about to cross the James River.

22 comments… add one

  • Nick Jun 6, 2011

    Bruce Catton was one of my earliest introductions to Civil War non-fiction. I bought one of his books in middle school and then devoured a used hardcover set of the Army of the Potomac Trilogy. His prose is so accessible that it’s hard for anyone not to be an engaged reader.

  • cg Jun 6, 2011

    Seconded. Catton’s AoP series hooked me on the Civil War.

  • Bob Huddleston Jun 6, 2011

    To a lot of us who were grown or nearly so during the Centennial, Catton’s _American Heritage Picture History Of the Civil War_ was the introduction with its “aerial” views of the battlefields, showing the marching armies and his incomparable prose.

    BTW, his _Centennial History_ is the least satisfactory of his works, heavily stacked to the early years then rushed to the end in the last volume.

    See also http://www.mynorth.com/My-North/June-2009/He-Rewrote-History/

    “Catton wrote as though he owned the Civil War.”
    Mark Grimsley on World Wide Radio

    • Kevin Levin Jun 6, 2011

      I am definitely going to get to the other two volumes in the Army of the Potomac series. Thanks for the link.

    • Phil LeDuc Jun 6, 2011

      It’s a remarkable testament that so many people – historians both professional and amateur, “buffs”, and others – were captivated by the Civil War thanks to Catton and that “American Heritage Pictorial History of the Civil War.” Ask a group of enthusiasts of a certain age what first brought the Civil War to their attention and that’s the book many – maybe most – of them will recall. If I remember correctly, I once heard Gary Gallagher mention it as his own starting point.

      • Andy Hall Jun 6, 2011

        David Greenspan’s illustrations of battles in the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (along with similar illustrations by Richard Schlect of the American Revolution) were captivating for me, and remain so today.

  • TF Smith Jun 6, 2011

    Catton is and was an excellent writer and researcher, and given the times (still dealing with the impact of the Dunning School) was pretty progressive.

    He was also a New Dealer, who despite doing a lot of his work during the DDE administration (highwater mark of the postwar consensus), still, I think, wrote from that perspective.

    Best,

    • Kevin Levin Jun 6, 2011

      I highly recommend David Blight’s new book on the centennial, which includes an entire chapter on Catton. I wanted to read Catton first before Blight’s analysis.

      • TF Smith Jun 7, 2011

        I will pick it up; good historiography is always a joy.

  • John B. Jun 6, 2011

    This was the first book I ever read about the Civil War. It is still my favorite book on the War and still one of the best ever. I don’t know about all the “cultural and political backdrop” stuff, it’s just a good, well written and entertaining book.

  • Woodrowfan Jun 6, 2011

    I remember finding them on my parent’s bookshelf in the late 60s and reading them. He is a wonderful writer and a laymen reading about the war could quite easily do worse than rely on him for their understanding of the war. It’s a consensus “lets avoid some of the toughest issues” history, but it’s a far cry better than the old Moonlight and Magnolias apologists..

    • Kevin Levin Jun 6, 2011

      Agreed!

  • Keith Jun 6, 2011

    Kevin, one of my projects for the summer has been to read the Army of the Potomac Trilogy. I read Mr. Lincoln’s Army last month and am now halfway through Glory Road. There is a whiff of Cold War triumphalism in his tone, but his work holds up surprisingly well. There has been a lot piling on to Bruce Catton in recent years, but our understanding of the war would be greatly reduced if he had never picked up a pen. Not to mention how many people he inspired who themselves went on and took the scholarship further. What I am most impressed with is the empathy he has for the people involved. Not a bad thing in a historian.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 6, 2011

      All good points.

  • Josh M. Jun 6, 2011

    Kevin,
    Like you I’m reading Catton (as well as James Baldwin and Robert Penn Warren) to prepare myself for Blight’s new book. I’m currently reading the first volume of Catton’s The Centennial History of the Civil War, The Coming Fury, and I highly recommend it. I also recommend Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time for his essay/letter on the 100th anniversary of emancipation.

  • Charles Bowery Jun 7, 2011

    My Bruce Catton introduction must have been in about 1977 or so, when browsing in the B. Dalton Bookseller (how’s that for retro!) at our local mall. My mother took a copy of “Gettysburg: The Final Fury” off the shelf and said, “I’m buying this for you. Everyone should have a book about Gettysburg.” Still on the shelf in my old bedroom at home.

  • John Maass Jun 7, 2011

    But is it not “Centennialist”?!?!? ;)

    • Kevin Levin Jun 7, 2011

      :-)

  • Greg Taylor Jun 7, 2011

    I first read the Bruce Catton trilogy on the AOP as a teenager. His description of the Battle of Antietam in “Mr. Lincoln’s Army” remains the single most vivid reading experience I had as a young boy and launched a lifelong interest in the Civil War.

  • George Lamplugh Jun 9, 2011

    I was in high school at the time of the Civil War centennial, and making the acquaintance of Bruce Catton, through his “Army of the Potomac” series, was one of the highlights of a period when I read so much about the Civil War that I sort of overdosed on it–and thus lost interest in it, at least until graduate school. I still remember being brought to tears by Catton’s powerful description of the Wilderness campaign. The thing to remember about Catton and his impact on the “Civil War memory” of the Centennial years was that, compared to other works available then–whether reprints of Civil War memoirs or more recent “popular” accounts aimed at the “Centennial Crowd,” is that Bruce Catton could–and did!–write circles around his competitors. Perhaps Douglas S. Freeman was his closest rival in producing an engaging narrative, but I don’t believe Freeman was considered a “popular historian.” At any rate, I think that Catton’s trilogy did more than any other single source to shape my view of the Civil War, the interpretation I passed on to my students over nearly four decades in the classroom. I’m currently debating whether to try to find his series and re-read it. (I recently purchased Shelby Foote’s trilogy in paperback, so I suppose I need to give that priority. My Civil War professor in grad school praised Foote as a stylist, but he also admitted that, given the man’s background in fiction, he wasn’t sure how “history” would treat his interpretation of America’s Iliad.)

  • Brooks Miles Barnes Jul 12, 2011

    Those who admire Bruce Catton might also try his beautifully written memoir of growing up in northern Michigan – Waiting for the Morning Train: An American Boyhood (1972).

    • Kevin Levin Jul 12, 2011

      Thanks for the reference, Brooks.

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