“Bruce Catton’s Civil War and Ours”

David Blight at Gettysburg CollegeI just finished watching David Blight’s Fortenbaugh Lecture at Gettysburg College, which took place back in November. His lecture, “Ambivalent about Tragedy:  Bruce Catton’s Civil War and Ours” is well worth watching. His thoughts on historical writing and tragedy are particularly interesting. As usual I could have listened to him for another 75 minutes. Definitely check it out when you have the chance.

Congratulations to fellow Bostonian Nina Silber for being selected to deliver the 2014 address. She is currently researching a book on Civil War memory during the New Deal, which I can’t wait to read.

2 comments… add one
  • Chris Evans Jan 13, 2014 @ 18:07


    I have always admired Catton’s writing. I think that he really got things right. I believe that he is excellently spot on when it comes to Grant and the Army of the Potomac.

    Catton’s little vignette from ‘U.S. Grant and the American Military Tradition’ about Grant writing his memoirs is just brilliant. Catton mentions in that piece looking over Grant’s notes and seeing that Grant had written to mention Joshua Chamberlain when talking about brave officers (maybe Chamberlain deserves a little of his credit, after all).

    Fascinating that now Catton is being discussed now like he once did for his Civil War figures. I just hope the memory of Catton and the men (and the war) he wrote about goes on and on.


  • Ben Allen Jan 13, 2014 @ 16:30

    For someone who extols Catton’s prose, I find it contradictory that Blight was hard on Allen Carl Guelzo’s recent work (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/30/books/review/allen-c-guelzos-gettysburg-the-last-invasion.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0), which has a very similar writing style from what I’ve gathered (I read Guelzo’s Gettysburg study; I haven’t read much of Catton, unfortunately). He talks of Guelzo’s “romantic urge to add one more panegyric to the epic of Gettysburg.” Catton, while largely portraying the conflict as tragic, seemed to have had a bit of a “romantic urge” to sing praises of the Civil War himself at times. He applauds Catton’s detailed narrative that brings the war to life, yet criticizes Guelzo’s “array of recorded descriptions of how soldiers were shot, where bullets penetrated their bodies or those of their horses — ‘through the left lung,’ ‘entered the left side of the stomach, perforating his sword belt and lodging in the spine’ and the like. Such passages seem awkwardly clinical when overused, even if garnered from a soldier’s remembrance.” Did not Catton use the “Zap-Blatt-Banzai-Gott im Himmel-Bayonet in the Guts” technique in his battle narratives, too, as Blight suggested? (It’s curious that Blight would use a term coined by the late John Keegan, whose prose are very verbose and sometimes incoherent, and who probably would not have gained the immense renown he did were it not for the copious amounts of work he gave his capable editor.) It appears Catton did.

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