by William H. Benson
April 12, 2001
My favorite writer on the Civil War is Bruce Catton. He wrote easy-to-read and popularized versions of the Civil War that still line the shelves of most libraries.
At age 49 Bruce chucked aside his career as a newpaper reporter and did what he really wanted to do–write Civil War history. He quickly published three books on the Army of the Potomoc–Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road, and A Stillness at Appomatox, none of which sold very well. However, the Pulitzer Prize committee noticed them, and he was awarded a prize. Suddenly, his trilogy became an overnight success.
Bruce grew up in Benzonia, Michigan, where his father was a Congregational minister. As a boy Bruce remembered going to the services in the Town Hall on Decoration Day and seeing the Civil War veterans dressed in their blue uniforms, sporting white beards. They would then walk out to the cemetary and put lilacs on the graves of the veterans who had already passed on. Those old men gave a color to village life, and Bruce wanted to know what made them tick.
He later realized that those old men in 1910 were either teenagers or in their twenties in the 1860’s and that they had passed through a fire then unlike anything else that had ever happened to them since. It was an induction into adulthood that surpassed all others. Bruce began writing to seek out what it was that drove those young men of the 1860’s so relentlessly forward.
Through the narrative, the attention to detail, and even the maps, Bruce brings the battles and the war to life. Always Bruce Catton ended up astonished at the courage those farm boys and small town sons from both the South and the North displayed on a battlefield in places like Shiloh, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, where the carnage was so ugly and emotionally overwhelming.
Elbow to elbow in a line one and two miles long they marched forward with their muskets raised, their bayonets poised, their swords rattling while overhead the colorful flags waved and whipped in the wind. And the enemy, just across a few hundred yards of open field, had lined up in a similar fashion and was coming at them. They met in terrible clashes. What strength of desire can propel a young man forward when the odds are so firmly stacked against him?
After years of studying the Civil War, Bruce concluded that despite the ugly cost of lost men, the war was worthwhile, for it did accomplish something. It gave to Americans a geographic and a political unity. It kept the country from fragmenting into a number of separate and independent and uncooperative states. The North American continent was not Balkanized. And this single geographic and political unit made possible the prosperity and power of later days.
Ulysses Simpson Grant was Bruce Catton’s favorite Civil War character. Bruce admired Grant for his tencity. No matter how ferocious the battle, no matter how slim the chances of victory, Grant never faltered. He revealed the qualities of a great military commander in that he took the initiative, fought aggressively, and made quick decisions.
On a Sunday, April 9, 1865, Grant met Lee in a farmhouse owned by Wilmer McLean at Appomatox Court House, Virginia. Grant offered generous terms; the soldiers of the defeated Southern Confederacy could keep their horses for spring plowing. Lee dressed in full military dress uniform accepted the terms.
On the evening of Good Friday, April 14, Abraham Lincoln went to Ford’s theatre to see the play, Our American Cousin, and there John Wilkes Booth, an actor and a Southern sympathizer, shot President Abraham Lincoln. He died at 7:22 a.m. on Saturday morning, April 15. Those dramatic events in our nation’s history appear to us now like a tragedy of Shakespearean quality, all acted out on a national stage and replayed again and again in the history books.
Bruce Catton captured in words and detail the battles, the surrender at Appomatox, Lincoln’s assassination, and the “great lost cause” which the Southern Confederacy had so relentlessly pursued for four bloody years.
Once Bruce was asked how he knew about a certain detail of the war, and he wistfully replied, “I don’t know. Maybe I was there.”