13-15: Bruce Catton's Civil War

Go down

13-15: Bruce Catton's Civil War

Post  Patguy on Sat Dec 19, 2009 12:50 am

“Those fanciful old ideas about the glory of the waving flag, the shame of running from danger, the high importance of dying with one’s face to the foe—since that war they have come to seem as out of date as the muzzle-loaders that were used for weapons in those days. The American soldier of later, more sophisticated eras may indeed die rather than retreat, and do it as courageously as any, but he never makes a song about it or strikes an attitude. His heroism is without heroics, and fine phrases excite his instant contempt, because he knows even before he starts off to war that fine phrases and noble attitudes and flags waving in death’s own breeze are only so many forms of a come-on for the innocent; nor does he readily glimpse himself as a knight of the ancient chivalry. But in the 1860s the gloss had not been worn off. Young men then went to war believing all of the fine stories they had grown up with; and if, in the end, their disillusion was quite as deep and profound as that of the modern soldier, they had to fall farther to reach it.”

Despite the title, this is not Bruce Catton's history of the Civil War (he did write one, but that's a different trilogy); it's his history of the Army of the Potomac—a one-volume edition incorporating the three individual volumes:

Mr. Lincoln's Army
Glory Road
A Stillness at Appomattox

It’s all here, from the army’s organization under George McClellan to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. There’s nothing about the war in the West, or the guerilla or naval battles, or Sherman’s march. I understand that modern historians tend to think of the Western theater as the defining area of the war, and Grant’s victory at Vicksburg the decisive point after which the South no longer had any chance of winning. But the actions in and around Virginia, the monumental human cost of them, and the outsized personalities of the generals who fought there ensures that the Eastern theater is what people think of when they think of the Civil War. This book continues that long tradition, and as a Pulitzer prizewinner in the 1950s, Catton is probably as responsible as anyone for keeping that image at the front of our minds.

His history focuses mostly on military maneuvers, army life, and the politics surrounding the various generalships of the Army of the Potomac. Somewhat surprisingly, individual soldiers are not much discussed, although we hear a lot about the life of the “typical” soldier. The unit of focus tends to be the regiment or brigade, such as Michigan’s famous Iron Brigade, or the Irish Brigade. Details of camp life, food, casualties, shelter, clothing and sickness, as well as the prevailing attitudes among the soldiers are discussed in fine detail, and this book, even more so than James McPherson’s amazing Battle Cry of Freedom, really cemented in my mind what the war would have been like for the men on the front lines.

Catton doesn’t neglect the wider historical points, such as Lincoln’s difficulties with his Cabinet, and he’s also refreshingly lucid when describing the major set piece battles of Antietam, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, etc. He spends a lot of time explaining how the psychologies of the generals affected the battles, and he’s especially good when talking about General McClellan, to whom history has not been kind. Catton depicts McClellan as a man with, essentially, too much compassion for the men under his command. So his failure to pursue Lee’s army after Antietam is explained in this way: “McClellan’s capacity for sending his men in to be hurt had simply been exhausted. So they were hurt no more that day—and were to go on fighting until 1865.”

This is in contrast to Grant, who, as later commander of the Army of the Potomac, would throw his men against Lee’s over and over, win or lose, always pressing south toward Richmond until, at immense human and moral cost, he won the war. McClellan maintained the affection of the Union soldiers well after his dismissal, but he still wasn’t able to dislodge Lincoln when he ran against him in the 1864 election, and in the end was not even able to carry the vote of the soldiers who loved and almost worshipped him:

“Talking thing over, the veterans agreed that they had been a better, stronger army in 1862, when McClellan commanded, than they were now in 1864, under Grant. Yet they also agreed that if Grant had commanded in 1862 the war would have been won in that year, while if McClellan had commanded in 1864 ‘he would have ended the war in the Wilderness—by establishing the Confederacy.’”

Catton loves the anecdote and the unexpected detail, which makes these books a joy to read. I loved hearing about the Army of the Potomac’s informal Kearny Medal, which was granted to “little Annie Etheridge, who had served hot coffee and cheered gunners under fire at Chancellorsville.” And at Gettysburg Catton makes sure we have enough time to hear about Union Lieutenant James Stewart, who was “on his horse amid his guns, facing always toward the enemy—partly because he was a brave man and partly because his horse was a veteran with certain fixed ideas about battle. In some previous action a shell fragment had cut off most of the horse’s tail, and ever since then the beast steadfastly refused to expose his rear to the foe when the shooting started.”

And, focus on the Army of the Potomac notwithstanding, Catton can’t resist the interesting and the outrageous wherever they’re located, so we get the occasional side-trip, such as a discussion of the Molly Maguires, or the Indiana Copperhead conspiracy, whose membership tricked themselves out with Masonic hoo-hah like secret handshakes and a vow to grant any member who violated his obligations a ‘shameful death’ and to cast his quartered body out at the four corners of the temple—the temple being whatever random place they were meeting at the time. It doesn’t seem as if this ritualistic punishment was ever carried out, or surely Catton would have informed us of it.

(The Copperhead conspiracy, and indeed all Union opposition in Indiana, seem to have been expeditiously suppressed by Governor Morton, who used every political and constitutional trick in the book to set up what Catton plausibly describes as a dictatorship in Indiana. I will definitely read more about this man.)

At Antietam, there is even, unless I’m terribly mistaken, an appearance by Doctor Who:

“The battery withdrew readily enough, as ordered, getting into a more sheltered spot where the Rebel fire wasn’t quite so bad; and, apparently from nowhere and by magic, there appeared a well-dressed civilian with a two-horse carriage, who drove up without paying any attention to all the bullets, pulled up his horses, alighted, and began to hand baskets of ham and biscuits to the dumfounded gun crews. This done, he invited the wounded men to get into the carriage so that he could carry them back to a dressing station. As they got in he walked forward to inspect his team, a shell fragment having slightly wounded one of his horses. Satisfying himself that the animal was not badly hurt, he saw that the wounded men were comfortable, waved his hat cheerily to the astounded battery commander, and rove off—an unnamed man of good will who shows up briefly in the official reports and then vanished as mysteriously as he came.”

Catton is good with dry humor too. Concerning Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia: “Lee was the one soldier in whom most of the higher officers of the Army of the Potomac had complete, undiluted confidence.” Occasionally he can strike somewhat Mark Twain-like notes, seemingly diagnosing America itself, as in this passage, discussing (obliquely), the Union troops who ransacked Fredericksburg:

“This was the country of the boisterous forty-niner, the hell-roaring lumberjack, and the riverman who was half horse and half alligator. Without rancor (and also without the slightest hesitation) it annihilated Indian tribes so that it could people a wilderness, asserting that the only good Indian was a dead Indian and remarking casually of its own pioneers that the cowards never started and the weak died along the road. As it faced the cathedral aisles of endless virgin forests it shouted for immediate daylight in the swamp, even if whole generations must be brutalized for it. It was the country that invented the bucko mate and the Shanghai passage, and if the skysails of its incredible clippers gleamed on the farthest magic horizon they were taken there by men under the daily rule of clubs and brass knuckles. This nation accepted boiler explosions as the price of steamboat travel and it would boast presently of a dead gandy-dancer for every crosstie on the transcontinental railroad. It wore seven-league boots and scorned to look where it planted them, and each of its immense strides was made at immense human cost. And the army of this country, buckling down to it at last in a fight which had to go to a finish, was going to be very rough on enemy civilians, not because it had anything against them but simply because they were there.”

Admittedly, it doesn’t always work for me. There’s a sentimental admiration in that paragraph above, thinly disguised as cynicism, which I personally don’t find entirely appropriate when talking about the rape and brutalization of civilians and their property—war crimes as boyish high spirits. In the next paragraph Catton calls it “plain hooliganism.” To my admittedly amateurish understanding, the whole subject of Civil War atrocities against civilians, especially rape, has been underexplored, and it’s one of my pet projects for the next year to find one or two good books on the subject.

That said, Catton’s lyric sentimentality does go along with a highly realistic and unsentimental view of the realities of warfare, as seen by the common soldier of the Potomac. Civilians might be excluded, or finessed out of, most of Catton’s account, but the grinding brutality of the soldier’s life is explored with intelligence and compassion.

I’ve quoted Catton at some significant length in this review because his prose is his great indisputable strength. I’m not a historian, so I can’t evaluate how his historical judgment has stood up. I imagine there have been significant reevaluations of the war since these books were published in the 1950s. And even I can recognize the dangers in leaning heavily on regimental histories, as Catton does here. But I don’t think I’ve ever read a history with such sheer novelistic power. If it’s not already obvious, I think these are great books. Not only do they provide a clear history of the Eastern campaigns, they explain a great deal about the attitudes and mind-sets of the men who directed this area of the war, as well as being roomy enough to incorporate all the other topics I briefly touched on above. This is the American Civil War written as a great American novel, and while there might be some historical objections to such an approach, its artistic merits are tremendous and undeniable.

“It is recorded that during the long winter after the battle of Fredericksburg, when the two rival armies were camped on opposite sides of the Rappahannock, with the boys on the opposing picket posts daily swapping coffee for tobacco and comparing notes on their generals, their rations, and other matters, and with each camp in full sight and hearing of the other, one evening massed Union bands came down to the riverbank to play all of those songs, plus the more rousing tunes like ‘John Brown’s Body,’ ‘The Battle Cry of Freedom,’ and ‘Tramp, Tramp, Tramp the Boys are Marching.’ Northerners and Southerners, the soldiers sang those songs or sat and listened to them, massed in their thousands on the hillsides, while the darkness came down to fill the river valley and the light of the campfires glinted off the black water. Finally the Southerners called across, ‘Now play some of ours,’ so without pause the Yankee bands swung into ‘Dixie’ ‘and ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag’ and ‘Maryland, My Maryland.’ And then at last the massed bands played ‘Home, Sweet Home.’ And 150,000 fighting men tried to sing it and choked up and just sat there, silent, staring off into the darkness; and at last the music died away and the bandsmen put up their instruments and both armies went to bed. A few weeks later they were tearing each other apart in the lonely thickets around Chancellorsville.”

2011 (0-5) Expendable Red Shirt
2011 (0-5) Expendable Red Shirt

Posts : 88
Join date : 2008-12-28

View user profile

Back to top Go down

Back to top

- Similar topics

Permissions in this forum:
You cannot reply to topics in this forum