Who is your favorite Civil War historian? I have several historians whose works I always look for on the book store’s shelves, including James McPherson, Jeffry Wert, Gary Gallagher, and William C. Davis. However, one historian holds a special place in my heart: the late Bruce Catton. As a boy, his were the first histories I read and he had an amazing talent for bringing the people and events of the Civil War era alive. I realize that for many younger readers that name may not be as familiar as the other, more contemporary luminaries I listed. With the passage of time since his death in 1978, Bruce Catton's books no longer fill the shelves as they once did. But, at one time, Catton was, arguably, the most popular writer of Civil War histories.
Certainly, some academicians might dismiss his body of work as mere “popular” histories. For those who are not familiar with that term, it is a description often used derisively by academicians when referring to any history written by someone who does not possess their lofty credentials, as well as any history written for the general public. To be sure, Catton was no academician, but he was one thing that they, typically, are not: a masterful and passionate storyteller. I think the more appropriate term for Catton was that of a “narrative historian,” a writer who emphasizes the color and character of events over a mere recitation of facts, dates, and statistics. So, who was Bruce Catton?
Catton was born October 9, 1899 in Petoskey, Michigan, but grew up in the small community of Benzonia in the northwestern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The son of a Congregationalist minister, young Bruce first learned about the war through the reminiscences of the aged veterans of his town who had fought in the Civil War. Their stories made a lasting impression upon him, and all his work seems to have been, in some way, an attempt to maintain the connection they provided to that time in their youth and the faith which sustained them during this great American tragedy:
The old men, simply because they were veterans of the Civil War, gave a color and a tone, not merely to our village life, but to the concept of life with which we grew up. They seemed to speak for a certainty, for an assured viewpoint, for a standard of values that did not fluctuate, that put such things as bravery, patriotism, confidence in the progress of the human race, and the belief in a broadening freedom for all men, at the very basis of what men moved by. That faith, in those days seventy years ago, was a very real, strong thing. It shaped our lives. I think it was a good thing for the country to have had such a faith; it has grown a little thin in more recent years. We have become, perhaps, too wise for our own good–or if not too wise, too sophisticated. We find it harder to believe in the things the Civil War veterans stood for, in the things the war itself won for the entire country. And I think we’ve lost something that we need very much to regain.
As a young boy, Catton was a voracious reader, devouring everything remotely related to history that the Benzonia Public Library had to offer. However, for him, history truly came alive when he listened to the veterans tell their stories. To Catton, these were men who had not merely witnessed history, they had lived it. There was Elihu Linkletter, who lost his arm in the Wilderness, and old Lyman Judson, who had ridden in the cavalry under General Philip Sheridan and had a horse shot from under him. And there was John Morrow, who would relate the time that General Sherman yelled at him in “language that would make a mule driver blush.”
However, like all of us, the young boy would grow up. But, he would never lose the passion and the unique insight the old veterans gave him. In 1916, at the age of 17, Bruce Catton left Benzonia to attend Oberlin College in Ohio. However, he would never finish his degree. With the U.S. entry into World War I, he joined the Navy. When the war ended, he married, started a family, and began work as a newspaper reporter and, then, editor, first at the Cleveland News, then the Boston American and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He soon left Cleveland and, from 1925 until 1941, he worked for the Newspaper Enterprise Association, a Scripps-Howard syndicate, writing editorials and book reviews while serving as a Washington, D.C. correspondent.
When World War II broke out, he was too old for military service and, starting in 1941, he served as Director of Information for the War Production Board and later held similar posts in the Department of Commerce and the Department of the Interior. This experience in Washington prepared him to write his first book, War Lords of Washington, at the of age 50 in 1948. Although the book was not particularly successful, it inspired Catton to leave the Federal government and become a professional author. In doing so, he began to focus his passion for the Civil War into a full-time occupation.
In 1951, he published Mr. Lincoln’s Army, the first volume in what would become a trilogy about the Union’s Army of the Potomac. A year later, the second volume, Glory Road, would hit the bookshelves and readers began to see something new in his writing. Here was an author who, while detailing the major historical events and figures of the time, still delved into the life, death, and experience of the soldier in the line. For Catton, the story of the war was as much about the private as the general, and, perhaps, even more so. As a result, his books contained a unique humanity about them that most historians failed to provide and this remarkable quality resonated with his growing population of followers, many of whom had been privates themselves in World War II.
Then, in 1953, Catton published the final volume of the trilogy, A Stillness at Appomattox. For me, that title alone has always had a compelling sort of magic to it. Apparently, it did for many people then as well. This book would be Catton’s first commercial success and, with it, came the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for history. Shortly thereafter, he would become one of four founders of American Heritage magazine, serving initially as a writer, reviewer, and editor. In the first issue, he wrote:
We intend to deal with that great, unfinished and illogically inspiring story of the American people doing, being and becoming. Our American heritage is greater than any one of us. It can express itself in very homely truths; in the end it can lift up our eyes beyond the glow in the sunset skies.
He certainly lived up to that challenge. He would continue to write for American Heritage while producing more books on the Civil War, including the three-part Centennial History of the Civil War (The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat) published in 1961, 1963, and 1965; a two-volume work on Ulysses S. Grant (Grant Moves South and Grant Takes Command), published in 1960 and 1968; and This Hallowed Ground, a history of the war told from the Union perspective, which received a Fletcher Pratt award in 1957. In 1959, he would be named senior editor of American Heritage, a post he held for the rest of his life.
In 1977, a year before his death, Bruce Catton received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford. In presenting the award, the president stated that Catton was an author and historian who “made us hear the sounds of battle and cherish peace.” I believe, however, Bruce Catton did far more than that. He approached his work with such an intense devotion because he saw a greater story in the Civil War than one merely of great men and titanic battles, and a greater lesson for the nation and the generations that would follow. He saw the war as the first chapter of a story that might never end and one that posed a challenge for all of us who would follow as Americans. In his 1958 book, America Goes to War, Catton titled the final chapter, “The Heritage of Victory.” In the closing pages he wrote that all Americans, both north and south, had failed to understand the real meaning of the war:
We have all failed to grasp it. It was not a closed chapter in a bloody book of history: it was a commitment, a challenge to everything that we believe in and live by, a point from which we must measure our progress within our own hearts. Let us begin by understanding just what was bought by that tragic expenditure of life and hope, ninety-odd years ago. Let us try to see just what sort of door into the future was flung open by that fearful war between brothers. Then let us try to make the most of what was gained.
For the enduring legacy of the Civil War is an unending challenge; a challenge to the world's greatest democracy to establish itself on a foundation so broad and solid that it will endure through the great world upheaval of the twentieth century. Democracy will survive only if it lives up to the promise that was inherent in its genesis. The fulfillment of that promise is in our keeping.
For all those who do not believe that the Civil War has meaning and relevance in the 21st century, I would ask you to ponder Bruce Catton’s words. I believe their essential truth cannot be denied. Like those who were fighting the war when Lincoln spoke of “the great task remaining before us,” we also have much unfinished work. And, as Catton would also write:
Like Lincoln, we are moving toward a destiny bigger than we can understand. The dark, indefinite shore is still ahead of us. Maybe we will get there some day if we live up to what the great men of our past won for us. And when we get there, it is fair to suppose that instead of being dark and indefinite, that unknown continent will be lit with sunlight.