- Historic Sites
Notes about the famous historian and American Heritage editor
Spring 2012 | Volume 62, Issue 1
For decades, Yale history professor David Blight, an award-winning author and a preeminent scholar of the Civil War, has studied the legacy of Bruce Catton, the historian/writer who significantly shaped our understanding of the Civil War by bringing it into exhilarating, memorable relief through his books and magazine articles. “Few writers have grasped the transformative effect of the war so well,” says Blight, “along with understanding that it is ultimately a great human story.”
Catton became the first historian Blight read as a teenager. During summer recreations jobs during college, he remembers praying for rain so he could sneak away and read Stillness at Appomattox or Coming Fury. It was Catton's prose that drew him in, “his uncanny ability to tell stories that made the past so immediate.” He chalks Catton up as a major impetus to his first wanting to teach history teacher in Flint, Michigan, and then to go on to become a historian. Some of that narrative punch comes out in Blight’s A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation (Harcourt 2007), an excerpt of which appeared in our Fall 2008 issue. (To see that article, go to www.americanheritage.com and search under “authors” for David Blight.)
We’re particularly in debt to Catton here at American Heritage because he served as our founding editor in 1954. In the first issue he wrote: “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.” His effective storytelling and narrative style still influences the magazine.
Bruce Catton, who would become the most prolific, popular historian of the war, the Pulitizer-prize-winning author of Stillness at Appomattox and many books, “soaked up Civil War history” as a child in the early 20th century of northern Michigan, in the “cut-over lumber country” almost 300 miles northwest of Detroit. His father, George R. Catton, was the devoutly Christian principal of Benzonia Academy, a local private school. The small town of Benzonia, wrote Catton in his autobiography, “was a good place to wait for the morning train.” Surrounded by books, readers, and educators, but especially under the spell of some elderly Union veterans who spent time waiting for the “morning limited” in the company of impressionable young boys, Catton cultivated a lasting, romantic imagination for the Civil War. The veterans “made it a living thing,” Catton recalled privately in 1954, “which, in my youthful imagination, had somehow happened . . . just over the next hill and just five or ten years ago. It was very real and terribly important, and probably I never got over it.”
Indeed, he never did. And he made sure, in the centennial years of the 1950s and 1960s, that his millions of readers never got over the war either. Catton almost always wrote about the Civil War with a sense of the epic, and of romance and an appeal to the nostalgic, as well as his own brand of realism. In a 1972 autobiographical remembrance, he acknowledged his roots in small-town innocence, a place where people actually believed “the big wrongs were all being righted.”
“My boyhood,” he wrote, “was a slice of the town, with its quaint fundamentals greatly magnified.” Even “on the eve of the terrible century of mass slaughter . . . of concentration camps and bombing raids, of cities gone to ruin and race relations grown desperate and poisonous, of the general collapse of all accepted values and the unendurable tension of the age of nuclear fission . . . it was possible, even inevitable, for many people to be optimistic. The world was about to take off its mask, and our worst nightmares did not warn us what we were going to see.” No matter what he saw, the boy from Benzonia wrote about the nation’s greatest historical nightmare with lyrical optimism.
The festivities and cemetery rituals for Memorial Day—then called Decoration Day—left the most indelible impressions on the young boy’s memory. When every returning spring brought lilacs blooming in everyone’s yard, each family would march behind veterans to the cemetery and drop blossoms near the homemade monument to the war dead; the old soldiers could not afford an official, factory-produced memorial. For the rest of his life, wrote Catton, he could never see or smell lilacs in bloom without remembering the old men “in blue uniforms with brass buttons and black campaign hats”—Elihu Linkletter, “who had lost his left arm in the Wilderness,” John Van Deman, who once told the wide-eyed young Catton he had “been wounded in some battle in West Virginia,” and Lyman Judson, “his horse being shot out from under him” while serving in Sheridan’s cavalry.