The purpose of this project is to analyze the works of the historian and author Bruce Catton. Catton is a respected historian recognized by many as an expert in his field. Catton was also a prolific author writing over twenty books. These books covered a period of history from 1492, through the American Civil War, and America’s involvement in other twentieth century conflicts. The bulk of the books written by Bruce Catton alone and some co-authored by his son William, span a period of thirty-five years of Catton’s life. Bruce Catton’s works had a unique style. The major focus of Catton’s historical volumes is a recounting of the American Civil War. While researching and reading Catton’s writings, a definite plan must be drawn to reach a conclusion. Historians and researchers should picture a target when looking at Catton’s recordings. The outer rings of the target would be his minor works about history. The bulls eye must be considered Catton’s contributions to the history of the American Civil War.
The starting point for this task has to be an overview of Bruce Catton’s background. Historians must look at Catton’s life to be able to scrutinize and place in perspective his contributions. Bruce Catton was born in 1899 and died in 1978. Catton spent his early years in Michigan. It is important to understand that the area around the town Benzonia, in which he lived, was populated by many veterans of the Civil War. Catton would later recount some of the stories he heard from these veterans in his works. Catton began his career as a journalist and later served as a member of the War Production Board during World War II. His experience led to his first major work The Warlords of Washington, published in 1948. In 1952, Catton put his other interests aside and devoted the remainder of his life to researching and compiling his literary works. In 1954, he received the Pulitzer Prize for his book A Stillness At Appomattox. Catton was also given the National Book Award for history that same year. Catton was one of four founders of American Heritage magazine. Here he fulfilled many roles. He was a writer, reviewer, and an editor. In the very first issue of the magazine Catton said, “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.” (Note 1) Catton then began to write extensively on the military history of the Civil War. He continued serving as an editor of the magazine and writing about history until his death in 1978.
A starting point for understanding Catton’s contributions in a historical perspective must begin with one of his last works, The Bold and Magnificent Dream: America’s Founding Years 1492-1815. This book should be required reading for anyone studying and trying to understand Bruce Catton. The author, along with his son, William, narrates and analyzes these years in World and early American history. He traces the reason for exploring and discovering America back to Rome and through the years when Europe was under siege by the Mongols. The Cattons take the reader from the discovery of America, through the founding of the colonies, into the American Revolution, and conclude their descriptions with the War of 1812.
Catton has a tendency throughout the book to put an exclamation point on his interpretations. In sum, what had evolved in the millennium since Rome’s fall was by all the odds the most dynamic, aggressive, adaptive people on the face of the earth. (Note 2) His style is unique and somewhat personalized. Catton has been criticized for this work because he does not footnote any of his sources of information. While this book is historically accurate, Catton’s style comes into conflict with what many would consider the norm.
This work leaves open questions pertaining to his objectiveness in the work. In a review of the work, written in 1979, J.M. Bumsted shows this is obvious. Bumsted states, The Bold and Magnificent Dream is a combination of narrative and interpretive essay, in which the authors have not sought to break new ground, but to impose their own thoughts and order upon conventional historical methods. (Note 3) J.M. Bumsted questions whether Catton’s work is nothing more than an essay of personal opinions. He goes on to say that the publishers appear to assume the work as nothing more than an extensive essay of personal opinions. He states the book is overwritten. He also feels the authors did not remain consistent in their interpretations of the people and events they were writing about. Bumsted goes on to become accusatory of the authors, when he says George Bancroft still lives. Do Americans really still prefer their popular history in the Bancroft tradition? (Note 4) He leaves the impression of anyone reading this review that in his opinion that this is a work of history that was obviously written for the popular market.(Note 5)
In the same year, John Strassburger of Hiram College takes the opposite view. In his opinion this is one of Catton’s greatest works. Strassburger thinks The Bold and Magnificent Dream is a brilliant work. He calls the book an accurate portrayal of history. A grand and glorious story held together by the march of progress and spiced with captivating detail. (Note 6) The content of the book has enough in it to make even the professional historian pause. (Note 7) He feels that the work has a kind of present-mindedness in it.
Bruce Catton’s work, This Hallowed Ground: The Story of the Union Side of the Civil War, was written in 1956. Catton relates the period leading up to and including the American Civil War from a personalized perspective. The author gives his view of the war based on the military exploits of the Army of the Potomac. His portrayals of the events and battles are almost history being lived by the reader. Catton widens the scope of the story by including social, political, and economic matters, as they pertain to this period. Catton’s style has brought both kudos and criticism from reviewers and historians. Reading the book, one can see many accurate historical facts. However, as with his other books, Catton has a tendency to put his own unique stamp on the events. The story of the Civil War is really the story of a great many young men who got into uniform by a process they never quite understood and who hoped, every individual one of them, that they would somehow live through it and get back to nurse the great memories of old soldiers. (Note 8) Catton’s style sometimes over uses metaphors that may not be necessary and should be discounted by a historian reading the work. It had begun with flags and cheers and the glint of brave words on the spring wind, with drumbeats setting a gay rhythm for the feet of young men who believed that the war would beat clerking. (Note 9) His style uses lead-ins like this to draw the reader into historical events. Many reviews feel that the “true greatness” of this book lies in Catton’s deeply moving analysis of the issues as he searches for the true meaning of the war. (Note 10)
Kent Packard takes a unique approach when looking at Catton’s This Hallowed Ground. Packard says the book was written with the greatest historical care and it brings forth the facts based on source records and judicious selection. (Note 11) He says, “It is the best one volume approach to the war this reviewer has ever seen.” (Note 12) While the overall tone of the review is positive, Packard feels as though he must question some of the literary license taken by Bruce Catton. There is one aspect of Mr. Catton’s handling of this book which is open to argument…that is an undue psychological probing as to what the various generals were thinking and why they acted that way. (Note 13)
Author Roy F. Nichols’s review, written in 1957 for the American Historical Association, seems to concur with Packard’s analysis that This Hallowed Ground has both pertinent historical information and some failings by the author based on his personal input. Nichols states that Catton’s retelling of the campaigns and strategy of the Union command are set forth probably more clearly than by any other historian. (Note 14) On the other side of the argument, Nichols takes Catton to task about his style when describing some of the events. His technique in dealing with them has not equaled his preoccupation. (Note 15) He goes on to criticize the way that Catton seems to romanticize some of the events. In Nichols’s view, the war was more than a crusade. It was a struggle for political and economic power. (Note 16) He feels as though Catton did not hit home hard enough in making these points to anyone using This Hallowed Ground as a singular source of study about the American Civil War.
Fred W. Wellborn’s review was written in 1957, one year after Catton published This Hallowed Ground. The tone of the review starts off positive and Wellborn compliments Catton on his style of writing. Catton has no superior in his chosen field. (Note 17) Wellborn’s compliments pertain only to Catton’s style. He then goes on to be critical of Catton’s work when it comes to being detailed from a historical standpoint.
Fred Wellborn states that This Hallowed Ground shows a bias in favor of the western soldiers and their feats during the war. He feels that Catton should have provided more detail about the overall strategy of the war. Wellborn criticizes the lack of detail about the southern viewpoint. He condemns Catton for his brief excursions into southern ideology and motives in the conflict. (Note 18) He thinks that although the book is written from the Union perspective, the thesis of union and freedom is probably overdone. (Note 19)
There are three definitive historical books about Ulysses Simpson Grant and his military career. These can be referred to as the Grant Trilogy. The first book in this series was Captain Sam Grant written by Lloyd Lewis. The second book in the series is Grant Moves South by Bruce Catton. The third book, Grant Takes Command, was also written by Bruce Catton. This book deals with Grant and the Civil War from the period of 1863, when Grant led the Union forces to victory in the West, and through the ending of the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Published in 1969, Grant Takes Command was Catton’s last major book about the Civil War.
Catton personalizes the history by allowing the reader a look into Grant’s thoughts. He offers a unique perspective of Grant’s visions. The war was still to be won, and the victory lay far away, beyond the darkness, but already Grant was thinking about rebuilding the broken Union. (Note 20) Grant Takes Command gives the reader insight into thoughts of other historical figures that came in and out of Grant’s life during these years. Lincoln’s decision to put Grant in overall command of the Union troops did not have universal support; even people close to Grant had their doubts about his ability to take on the task. Lieutenant Colonel John Rawlins served on Grant’s staff and was loyal to him. However, even Rawlins questioned Grant’s abilities. I grow dizzy in looking from all the eminence he has attained, and tremble at the great responsibility about to devolve upon him. (Note 21) Grant Takes Command concludes after the assassination of Lincoln. Looking at the end quote from Catton, a historian can reach the conclusion that Catton probably planned to continue the Grant saga in future books. The war was over and now everything would be different. One of these veterans, moving along a shadowed new path after living in a world where he had seen the path so clearly, was General Grant. (Note 22)
The overall reception to Grant Takes Command was positive. However, some historians called into question Catton’s style for relating history. Catton was challenged by academicians. (Note 23) Some historians repeatedly said that Catton was guilty of being over sympathetic toward his subjects. In a review of Grant Takes Command written in 1969, Hal Bridges reaffirms this outlook. Catton, of course, is not immune to the charge so frequently leveled against the biographer, namely, that he is overly sympathetic towards his subject. (Note 24) He feels that throughout the work, no matter what the situation, Grant is portrayed by Catton in a favorable light. Bridges criticizes the book because it does not reach a summation or evaluate Grant’s performance with that of his peers.
Thomas Robson Hay reviewed Grant Takes Command for the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography in 1969. Hay treats the work as a positive historical retelling of the life of Grant. Grant, the man, dominates the narrative and he has been explained more clearly than in any other previous account of his leadership in the war. (Note 25) He goes on to say that the author gives an interesting account of Grant’s relations with other generals, leaders, politicians, and people who came in and out of Grant’s life during these years.
A number of current sources available treat the work positively. As any good history should, it there by answers the crucial questions concerning its topic. (Note 26) Grant Takes Command gives us invaluable assistance in untangling the enigma of this remarkable Union warrior. (Note 27) The publisher’s synopsis could very well serve as an almost universal interpretation of the way the majority of people feel about Grant Takes Command. It is a classic work of military history, follows the enigmatic commander in chief of the Union forces through the last year and a half of the Civil War. It is both a revelatory portrait of Ulysses S. Grant and the dramatic story of how the war was won. (Note 28)
Bruce Catton’s style and personalization of history generated controversy and compliments from fellow writers and historians. Catton’s works about the Civil War are without equal. His dedication to this important period of American history can be summarized in the following quote by the writer and historian. “The Civil War was the biggest thing that ever happened to us. It was our Iliad and our Odyssey --- and it remains our least understood war.”(Note 29)
Bruce Catton’s unique style of historical writing draws the reader in. The interest, generated after reading and reviewing The Bold and Magnificent Dream: America’s Founding Years 1492-1815, This Hallowed Ground: The Story of the Union Side of the Civil War, and Grant Takes Command, causes a researcher to go a step beyond these three books. Catton’s The Civil War (Unabridged) is a must read for anyone looking at this period in American history. This book sparked an interest in further research by this student of history about the American Civil War.
As a history student, Catton’s works, his style, and attention to detail, led to further research about the Civil War. In all probability, the interest in pursuing this research would not have taken place prior to reading Catton’s books. The information gathered after going through the door opened by Catton relates the writer’s personal perspective on the American Civil War.
The American Civil War was an event that set the course of the history of our country for the next century and beyond. Some effects of this conflict can still be felt today. The Civil War is one of the most interesting, heartbreaking, and misunderstood periods of American History. Thousands of books have been written about this war. The battles, leaders, and causes are still studied and analyzed by our military, historians, and teachers. However, there are many little known facts and misconceptions about this historical period.
Ask the average person about the stated cause of the Civil War and the most common answer would be to abolish slavery. That was not the “official” reason for the Union States declaring war against the South. The United States Congress met in July 1861 to pass a resolution and set down a written purpose for the aims of the North. The result was called, the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution. (Note 30) Crittenden was a Congressman from Ohio. Andrew Johnson, who was to follow Lincoln as President after his assassination, was a Senator from Tennessee. The resolution stated that the war was not being fought to end slavery. It said that the only purpose for going to war was to defend the Constitution and to preserve the Union. (Note 31)
Northern abolitionists were very unhappy about this language, because they wanted their Congress to state that abolishing slavery was a primary cause for action. A leading abolitionist from Pennsylvania, Senator Stevens, fought against the bill, but it passed. He later got it repealed in December of that year. Senator Johnson and Representative Crittenden did not oppose this. The resolution had served a purpose. They had sought passage without including slavery as a reason, because they wanted to keep the slave states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri from joining the Confederacy. Crittenden-Johnson gave the people of these swing states assurance that their slaves were not at risk. Keeping Maryland a part of the Union was very important. If Maryland had joined the other states in seceding, Washington DC would be completely surrounded by Confederate territory.
Three of the greatest military leaders were Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. There are many unknown facts about these “military geniuses.” Uncovering some of these facts will shed some light on the true makeup of these generals.
The average citizen is aware that Grant led the Northern armies to victory. Grant later went on to become President of the United States. U.S. Grant was a man in the right place at the right time. The majority of his victories can be attributed to the one sided advantage the North had over the South in men, arms, equipment, and supplies. Grant was a general who was not afraid to take the offense. It is believed he had a drinking problem, which may have led to his aggressiveness.(Note 32)
Had Grant run for office today based on some of the blunders he committed, he would be lucky to be elected dogcatcher. A move like the one Grant made in December 1862, would end any politician’s hopes. Grant decided to expel Jews from the territory he controlled in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. He wrote a letter to the Secretary of War explaining his reasons. Grant felt that trading violations had taken place by Jews and other traders. He said the Jews seemed to be a privileged class that can travel everywhere.
Cesar Kaskel was a Jewish merchant who would have been forced out of his home in Kentucky. Luckily, Kaskel had met Abraham Lincoln when he was a young attorney. They had become friends. Kaskel couldn’t believe Lincoln would support Grant’s orders. He went to Washington and met with the President. Lincoln moved fast. He delivered instructions to Grant to immediately revoke this order. Now the question is, was Grant anti-Semitic? Probably not. Grant more than likely, was given bad advice by an officer who was anti-Semitic or he signed an order without reading it. Later, after becoming President, Grant’s administration was one of the most inept and corrupt ever to lead this country.
Robert E. Lee was a competent general and leader. Lee was Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Jefferson Davis did not give Lee leadership of all the Confederate forces until the last few months of the war. By then it was too late for Lee to use his skills to turn the tide. Lee’s tactics in the battles he won are studied today as a how-to for our military. In many of the battles in which he defeated the Union forces, Lee was outnumbered by two to one but he was able to “out general” the opposition. Unlike Grant, Lee went into a civilian career. He became President of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. Robert E. Lee instituted this college’s first classes in business and journalism. After his death, the college was renamed Washington and Lee.
Thomas J. Jackson had more ability as a general than either Lee or Grant. However, Stonewall Jackson was a psychotic. Jackson was a hypochondriac who complained of bad vision, lost hearing, stomach pains, and constant aches. (Note 33) He studied medicine and anatomy and convinced himself he was suffering from the many of the things he read about. Jackson would treat himself. His cures included taking mercury and inhaling silver nitrate. (Note 34) In some ways Jackson was ahead of his time. He exercised everyday. Many of his contemporaries thought this was odd. Even given all these mental problems, Jackson was a military genius. Jackson was accidentally killed by his own troops at the Battle of Chancellorsville. When told of Jackson’s death, Lee said, “I have lost my right arm.” (Note 35)
Works by Catton and other historical sources can be eye-opening. Many people are not familiar with the fact that the events of the Civil War helped form the personalities and views of the men who would lead the country as Presidents for the next forty years. In addition to Grant, five other future Presidents served the Union during the conflict with the South.
Rutherford B. Hayes was almost forty when the war broke out. Hayes was wounded in 1861 and almost lost his left arm. While recovering from this wound, he nearly died. Hayes survived and went on to see further action in the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns. He ended the war as a major general. In 1877, he became President.
James Garfield was an officer under General Buell in Kentucky and fought at the Battle of Shiloh. In 1862, he personally led a charge that caused the Confederate troops to retreat and leave the Eastern part of the state. Garfield fought in the Battle of Chickamauga then left the army in 1863 to take a seat in Congress. He was elected President in 1880. Garfield would be the second President to be assassinated while in office.
Chester A. Arthur was elected Vice President in 1880. He became President upon James Garfield’s death. Arthur served the Union cause during the war. However, he was nowhere near the front lines. He served as quartermaster general for New York. He was responsible for obtaining and delivering supplies to the soldiers from that state. His efficiency led to his promotion to the rank of brigadier general.
Benjamin Harrison was the grandson of past President William Henry Harrison. Harrison joined the conflict by raising a unit of volunteer infantry from the state of Indiana. He served as the colonel and was later promoted to general. Harrison ran for President and was elected in 1888.
William McKinley was a wagon driver and first sergeant from Ohio. The bloodiest day of the Civil War occurred at Antietam in 1862. McKinley bravely drove his wagon into the field under heavy enemy fire to give food rations to the hungry troops. These actions led to his promotion to second lieutenant by his commanding officer Rutherford B. Hayes. He was elected President in 1896 and 1900. Interesting is the fact that both Lincoln and McKinley who survived the Civil War went onto meet death at the hands of assassins.
Ask a student of history when the Civil War ended. The majority would respond that it ended with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. In fact they would be wrong. The last battle between the North and South was really fought in May 1865, a full month after open conflict ended. (Note 36) An ambitious Union Colonel Theodore Barrett had seen very little action during the war. He was afraid his political career would never start, because of all the war heroes who would be running for office. The war had ended and he had nothing to show for it. Barrett thought about Andrew Jackson whose victory at New Orleans after the War of 1812 led to his becoming of President of the United States. Barrett started the Battle of Palmetto Ranch in Texas. He attacked the Confederates who knew the war was over, but wanted to fight the Union soldiers. Led by Major John Ford, the Southerners repelled Barrett’s attack without losing a single life. Colonel Barrett, the would-be hero, lost one hundred eighteen dead or wounded. About a month later, all Confederate forces in Texas were disbanded. Barrett faded into his obscurity.
There is no doubt in this writer’s opinion that Bruce Catton is one of the most important historians of the twentieth century. Catton’s mission statement could be found in the closing sentences of a review written by John Strassburger. For many historians there is an alternative rationale for what we do, and the Catton’s work forces us to rethink it once more, perhaps with new clarity. (Note 37) Catton accomplished this mission by opening the door, in the quest for knowledge, and leading this researcher through it. His works generated an interest that made this reader go a step beyond in researching the American Civil War.
Bruce Catton’s style of writing will always remain a topic of ongoing debate between historians. There can be no debate that the way his analysis of events are written, they stimulate discussion. Catton’s works should not be regarded as a destination, but must be viewed as a starting point for any research pertaining to this great American conflict.
1. "Bruce Catton - Winner of the Pulitzer Prize - Grant Takes Command."
2. Bruce Catton and William Catton, The Bold and Magnificent Dream: America’s Founding Years 1492-1815. (New York, NY: Gramercy Books, 1978), 40.
3. J.M. Bumsted, “Book Review: The Bold and Magnificent Dream: America’s Founding Years, 1492-1815.” The Journal of American History 66, no. 3 (1979), 629.
6.John Strassburger, “Book Review: The Bold and Magnificent Dream: America’s Founding Years, 1492-1815.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History 63, no. 1 (1979), 57.
8. Bruce Catton, This Hallowed Ground: The Story of the Union Side of the Civil War, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1956), 320.
9. Ibid., 120.
10. “Bruce Catton.” Available from Comptom’s Interactive Encyclopedia. (The Learning Company Inc., 1999) (accessed October 28, 2009).
11. Kent Packard, “Book Review: This Hallowed Ground: The Story of the Union Side of the Civil War.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 81, no. 2 (1957), 214.
Bridges, Hal. “Book Review: Grant Takes Command.” The Journal of Southern History 35, no. 4 (1969), 579-580, (accessed October 18, 2009), http://www.jstor.org/stable/2206860.
Bumsted, J.M. "Book Review: The Bold and Magnificent Dream: America’s Founding Years, 1492-1815.” The Journal of American History 66, no. 3 (1979), 629, (accessed October 18, 2009), http://www.jstor.org/stable/1890313.
Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command. Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown and Company, 1969.
Catton, Bruce. This Hallowed Ground: The Story of the Union Side of the Civil War. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1956.
Catton, Bruce, and William Catton. The Bold and Magnificent Dream: America’s Founding Years 1492-1815. New York, New York: Gramercy Books, 1978.
Hay, Thomas. “Book Review: Grant Takes Command.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 93, no. 4 (1969), 559-560, (accessed October 18, 2009), http://www.jstor.org/stable/20090374.
Graham, Martin, and Richard Sauers. The Blue & the Gray: The Conflict Between North & South. Lincolnwood, Illinois: Publications International Ltd., 1996.
Nichols, Roy. “Book Review: This Hallowed Ground: The Story of the Union Side of the Civil War.” The American Historical Review 63, no. 1 (1957), 143-144, (accessed October 18, 2009), http://www.jstor.org/stable/1847162.
Packard, Kent. “Book Review: This Hallowed Ground: The Story of the Union Side of the Civil War.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 81, no. 2 (1957), 214-216, (accessed October 18, 2009), http://www.jstor.org/stable/20088976.
Reardon, Carol. “Bruce Catton.” Twentieth-Century American Historians. Ed. Clyde Norman Wilson. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 17. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983.
Strassburger, John. “Book Review: The Bold and Magnificent Dream: America’s Founding Years, 1492-1815.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History 63, no. 1 (1979), 56-57, (accessed October 18, 2009), http://www.jstor.org/stable/4635378.
Wellborn, Fred. “Book Review: This Hallowed Ground: The Story of the Union Side of the Civil War.” The Journal of Southern History 23, no. 3 (1957), 395-397, (accessed October 18, 2009), http://www.jstor.org/stable/2954901.
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