Friday, 20 November 2015 13:38

Writers for Conservatives: 18 -- Bruce Catton and the Meaning of the Civil War

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Writers for Conservatives: 18 -- Bruce Catton and the Meaning of the Civil War

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

We do not realize how much we, individually and collectively, are shaped by the history of our country. The ways we think and behave, how our actions as community members, our social and political expectations, all grow out of our past. We did not know this until we went to live in Canada, where our efforts to understand the habits and thinking of our neighbors made us see, in action as it were, how our differences were determined by our contrasting histories. The elements that went into the making of Americans began to appear even before the Pilgrims landed, when they drew up the Mayflower Compact aboard ship, but it is a mistake to think that the deepest currents of history are always to be found in treaties and covenants and compacts; that the frontier, with all that it implied, was but a few day's distance from tidewater until after the Revolution, was one of the greatest formative influences. My point is not an analysis of the origins of American character, but an assertion that the shaping forces were at work from the beginning. If we would perpetuate American character and culture, each rising generation must be taught anew the old lessons, but we know that since the 1970s this task has been so neglected that historical illiteracy is rife. Another development has been the success of radical historians in taking over the curriculum. Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is a favored text, read now by countless numbers of high school students. That at least one generation of Americans have had their minds poisoned against their own history is a disaster; that they have also been deprived of some of the most moving and profound stories in any national history is a tragedy.


It may seem hard to believe today, but until the l950s there was not a lot of interest in the Civil War, and its historiography was dominated by Southerners. After 1865, Northerners turned to the tasks of getting on with their lives in a dynamically developing society; they had won the war, settled its issues, and that was that. Reconstruction did not attract their attention for very long, and by 1876 that was over, too. For Southerners, however, who faced a devastated land, a ruined economy, and a drastic social upheaval, the war was a trauma not to be forgotten, and for the rest of the century and a good part of the 20th they brooded over it (witness the obsessive novels of William Faulkner). Inevitably, the Southern point of view colored these histories, especially of Reconstruction, which didn't begin to be adequately treated until the end of the l950s. The first significant general histories written from a Northern point of view were by Bruce Catton (1899-1978), the story of the Army of the Potomac in three volumes -- Mr. Lincoln's Army (1951), Glory Road (1952), A Stillness at Appomattox (1953). He followed that with the Centennial History of the entire war -- The Coming Fury (1961), Terrible Swift Sword (1963), and Never Call Retreat (1965). This is inferior to the Army of the Potomac volumes, because it lacks their incisiveness.

Bruce Catton's, of course, are not the only popular general histories. The Army of the Potomac series was followed in a few years by Shelby Steele's The Civil War, A Narrative, and its success may be due in part to the cynicism and ignorance so widespread today, because it is essentially ahistorical, the War Between the States in three volumes. Approaching the subject from a Southern point of view, he does not discuss causes and does not see the salient points; it is no more than a well-described military scrimmage. There are plenty of readers (so-called Civil War buffs) for that sort of book.

Another, much more interesting history that started coming out in the 1950s, was Kenneth Williams' Lincoln Finds a General, five volumes of a projected seven, uncompleted at the author's death. Williams concentrates on the military aspects, especially on Grant's career, and he describes all the movements from First Bull Run to Chickamauga, doing so in unusual detail, quoting the official records at great length. The footnotes are fascinating. If you want to know what was involved in maintaining armies in the field, and what qualities were needed to make a successful commander, these are the volumes to read.

For a general history, however, Catton is the choice. His Centennial history, of course, covers more ground than the Army of the Potomac volumes, but the latter makes all the essential points about the war, and it is much better written. He is superlative on the war's causes, and after a long discussion of the Northern and Southern arguments about slavery, he says this:

Perhaps the essential fact about slavery was that it could neither be kept alive nor done to death rationally. Its foundations went far down into the pit, down to blackest wrong and violence, and when the foundations were torn out, wrong and violence would surely be loosed for a season. (The Coming Fury, p. 244)

This is the truest and most succinct explanation of why the decades-long debate about slavery ended in civil war, and it is the answer to those who say that it wasn't really a problem at all, that it would have faded away by itself in a few years. All the rational people with rational solutions. But Catton sees the truth and says it, and there is no more to be said. That's what is meant by grasping a salient point.

Catton is also excellent on McClellan's failings (though not so severe as Williams, who closely analyzes his performances in the field), especially in dealing with his civilian superiors. As he puts it, "A capacity for getting along with civilian authorities is just as essential a part of [a commander's] equipment as his ability to plan campaigns and win battles."

The most striking passage occurs at the end of Glory Road. It is November 1863, and the cemetery at Gettysburg is being dedicated with a long, long speech by Edward Everett and a short one by Lincoln. While Everett is speaking, Catton mentions a few wounded veterans present who adjourn to Cemetery Ridge and talk "quietly about what they had seen and done there." A paragraph follows not in the soldiers' words, but about the things they might have spoken ("The veterans by the trees looked about them and saw again the fury and the smoke and the killing."). Then there's a paragraph, with a reference to Ezekiel 37, beginning "this was the valley of dry bones, waiting for the word, which might or might not come [in Everett's speech]." He writes about the bones and what the men had been like and their motives:

They had come here because of angry words and hot passions in which they had not shared. They had come, too, because the drums had rolled and the bands had blared the swinging deceitful tunes that piped men off to battle . . . three cheers for the red white and blue, here's a long look back at the girl I left behind me, John Brown's body lies a-moldering in the grave but we go marching on, and Yankee Doodle on his spotted pony rides off in the eternal smoky mist of war.

The next paragraph voices puzzlement at the meaning of war:

Back of these men were innumerable long dusty roads reaching to the main streets of a thousand youthful towns and villages where there had been bright flags overhead and people on the board sidewalks cheering and crying and waving a last good-by. It had seemed once that there was some compelling reason to bring these men here -- something so broad that it would encompass all of the terrible contradictory manifestations of the country's pain and bewilderment, the riots and lynchings, the hysterical conspiracies with their oaths written in blood, the hard hand that had been laid upon the countryside, the scramble for riches and the scheming for high place, and the burdens carried by quiet folk who wanted only to live at peace by the faith they used to have.

The penultimate paragraph expresses the hope that "the word," the meaning of it all, will be revealed here.

Perhaps there was a meaning to all of it somewhere. Perhaps everything that the nation was and meant to be had come to a focus here, beyond the graves and the remembered echoes of the guns and the wreckage of lives that were gone forever. Perhaps the whole of it somehow was greater than the sum of its tragic parts, and perhaps here on this wind-swept hill the thing could be said at last, so that the dry bones of the country's dreams could take on flesh.

And then the last paragraph of the book:

The orator finished, and after the applause had died away the tall man in the black frock coat got to his feet, with two little sheets of paper in his hand, and he looked out over the valley and began to speak.

That Catton does not here print Lincoln's address, because we know it or should know it, is a master stroke because he sends us back to it, makes it stand out more sharply as the answer to the quest for meaning in these paragraphs. By making it seem a meditation by the veterans, at the same time that the language transcends their articulation, he gives these passages of meditation physical grounding, the lives and experiences of actual soldiers, and simultaneously gives the thoughts a breadth and depth they could not themselves express. In these two pages Catton encapsulates the significance of the Civil War, and he does it so cleverly, so beautifully, so eloquently that once read it is not easily forgotten. No other Civil War history that I know of has done this so well.

The Civil War is a Northern story because the victory of the Federal government meant that from then on the development of the United States would be a national not a sectional story. The latter had been fostered by slavery, which made the South a backward-looking, a stratified agricultural economy peopled by slaves, a depressed class of ignorant poor whites, a ruling class of plantation owners and their business collaborators. The outcome of the war meant, as Lincoln prophesied, that the Declaration would finally be nationally fulfilled.

To read the story of the Civil War as he tells it is to know again what Americans have done to build "a new birth of freedom -- that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth," -- and to rededicate our lives to it.

Catton also wrote the two excellent concluding volumes -- Grant Moves South (1960) and Grant Takes Command (1968) -- of a trilogy by Lloyd Lewis, who wrote only the first volume, Captain Sam Grant (1950), before his death. *

"Christmas in Bethlehem. The ancient dream... the incarnation of perfect love." --Lucinda Franks

Read 2741 times Last modified on Friday, 20 November 2015 19:38
Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.

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