Sunday, May 19, 2013

Bruce Catton and Ulysses Grant

Grant Takes Command, Bruce Catton

It was Bruce Catton who really introduced me to the American Civil War, though in a sense I grew up with the war.  As a child living in Georgia, I camped with my Girl Scout Troop at Stone Mountain, the Confederate Mount Rushmore, with its giant bas-relief of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis.  When family visited, my parents took them and us to every battlefield and plantation historic site within driving distance.  But it was finding Catton's three-volume history of the Federal Army of the Potomac on my parents' shelves many years later that brought the war alive for me, introduced me to military history, and made me a student of this four-year fratricidal conflict.

Catton, who was born in 1899, also grew up with the war, hearing stories from the veterans in his small Michigan hometown. After serving in the First World War, he became a journalist, working in newspapers before he became the founding editor of American Heritage magazine in 1954.  He was not an academic historian, but his many books about the Civil War were meticulously researched and documented.  Though he won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1954, his work was often labeled "pop" history (a dismissive term still sometimes used for historians who aim at or accidentally reach a wider non-academic audience).  Catton wrote in a relaxed, colloquial, but never sloppy style, and his narrative voice is unmistakable.  To my mind, he is the Anthony Trollope of historians.  He wrote complex narratives with a large cast of characters, moving his central story forward with frequent digressions to follow subplots, all of which come neatly back to the main theme.  He had a journalist's eye for description, for the telling detail, for the apt anecdote.  Writing about a war unprecedented in the slaughter of young men, he wasn't afraid to include the lighter moments that came even in the midst of desperate battles, while never playing for jokes.  He constantly brought in the common soldier's point of view, quoting diaries and letters as well as reminiscences written many years later.

Grant Takes Command is the final book in a three-volume biography of Ulysses S. Grant, focusing on his military career.  (Catton was chosen to complete the trilogy after the author of the first volume died.)  When I was reading John Jones' A Rebel War Clerk's Diary, my confusion with the lack of maps or notes led me to read with my National Geographic Atlas of the Civil War close at hand.  Its brief summaries of major battles made me curious to read more, particularly about the last years of the war, and there on the TBR shelves was this book, just exactly what I wanted.  (I had read the second volume, Grant Moves South, in my pre-blogging days.)

This book covers Grant's military career from late 1863 to the end of the war.  It opens in July, just after his great victory at Vicksburg.  With the equally important Federal victory at Chattanooga in November of that year, Grant became the military hero of the North, its most successful general and its best chance of winning the war.  Congress voted to revive the rank of Lieutenant General, last held by George Washington, and in March of 1864 Grant was promoted and made general-in-chief of the Federal armies. Following his career in 1864 and 1865 really gives a good overview of the war in general, because even when he wasn't in the field, as with Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas, he was still in charge, in frequent contact with his commanders across the entire front.  But Grant did spend most of his time in Virginia, facing Robert E. Lee and his army, taking his own men into some of the worst fighting of the war, at the Wilderness, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg.  He famously said that he would "fight it out on this line if it takes all summer."  It took much longer than that, and many thousands of deaths, before he finally brought Lee to surrender in April of 1865.

Here Catton was writing a life, not strictly military history, and like all good biographers he wanted (in the words of  historian Paul Murray Kendall) "to elicit, from the coldness of paper, the warmth of a life being lived."  First, Catton let Grant speak for himself, quoting frequently from Grant's own words, his letters and dispatches as well as his later Memoirs, and his reminiscences in Around the World with General Grant.  Catton also paid close attention to the people around Grant, his "military family."  Whenever possible, his wife Julia joined him in camp, bringing one  or another of their sons with her.  Grant's aid Colonel Horace Porter wrote that they "were a perfect Darby and Joan," who in the quiet evenings sat together holding hands, "looking shy and mildly fussed if anyone noticed that they were doing it."  Grant was an attentive father, as much as he could be while absent in the field, constantly worried that his children weren't getting a proper education.  He didn't want his sons wasting their time on music or dancing, though he didn't object to it for his daughter Nellie.

Grant's marriage to Julia and their family were the center of his life, the balance for everything else.  Catton gave equal attention to two other crucial partnerships, with Abraham Lincoln and William T. Sherman.  In Grant, Lincoln found the general that he and the country so desperately needed. He told one of his secretaries, "I'm glad to find a man who can go ahead without me . . . He doesn't ask me to do impossibilities for him, and he's the first general I've had that didn't."  Grant later said of Lincoln, "He was incontestably the greatest man I have ever known."  The second partnership, with Sherman, became a major factor in the eventual Union victory.  After Grant's promotion, Sherman took over his command in the western theater, but they continued to coordinate their military movements in Virginia and Georgia. Sherman once wrote Grant," I knew wherever I was that you thought of me, and if I got in a tight place you would come if alive."   Or as he once more bluntly put it: "He stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now, sir, we stand by each other always."

Bruce Catton was probably never near the cutting-edge of Civil War scholarship, but his books are well-researched, neatly organized, and eminently readable.  I'm glad to have them on my shelves, and to see that so many are still in print - now considered classics.


  1. The Anthony Trollope of historians! Love it. This looks really interesting -- the quotations you give are wonderful.

  2. We have quite a few American Civil War books of our own but not any by this author. My library only has one of his books: This Hallowed Ground. I think I'll borrow it as it sounds like it might be more readable than some others. I admit that I've only watched the Ken Burns film on the subject. Thanks.

  3. elizabeth, I hope Mr. Catton would have appreciated the comparison! I've just discovered that he wrote an autobiography & put in an ILL request for it - maybe he talked about his own favorite authors.

    Katrina, I think that's considered an excellent one-volume history of the war. I haven't read it myself yet.

  4. I use the term "pop history" quite freely, meaning history written for general readers, not for specialists. Not intending to be dismissive. This week I put aside an academic history of China when the author started banging on about "indexicality." Mutter mutter. No. Not for me.

  5. Fay, I agree - I think it's used dismissively more within academia. I have to look up "indexicality" !

  6. 'Readable' is the word that catches my eye. I rarely read historical non-fiction because it is so dry and confusing, especially war accounts. I think pop history is the kind of history I would like :-)

  7. Anbolyn, I avoid the dry & dusty histories too! Bruce Catton was never guilty of that, at least in the books I've read.

  8. I read this post last week, but have been so busy I never commented, but I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading it. I like reading about the Civil War but haven't read any of Bruce Catton's books...yet.

    My dad had all his books, and I'll be asking my mom if I can borrow them.

    The more I learn about Lincoln and Grant, the more impressed I am. I still struggle to admire Sherman, however.

  9. Jane, you have a treat ahead, with the Catton books! I'm ambivalent about Sherman myself. I appreciate his leadership, his support of Grant, their great military partnership - but he wasn't a great man, certainly not to compare with Lincoln. I bought a copy of his Memoirs but haven't been inspired to read them yet.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!