- Historic Sites
Notes about the famous historian and American Heritage editor
Spring 2012 | Volume 62, Issue 1
Catton remembered these graybeards as “men set apart” by a mystical experience, but also as “pillars . . . of the community” and the “embodiment” of all the values of a slowly dying, small-town America: Christian steadiness, patriotism, the “nation’s greatness and high density,” and especially a rock-hard belief in “progress” and the “future.” Writing at the time of Watergate in the 1970s, and, more important, during the depths of the bloody debacle of Vietnam, Catton saw these Civil War veterans as his lilac-scented wellspring of inspiration.
These heroes from the Grand Army of the Republic’s E.P. Case Post No. 372 were one living source of a Michigan boy’s historical imagination and dreams of escape from the stultifying backwater in which he came of age. At least, it was so until 1916, when the local GAR post sponsored a performance by a traveling duet: the “Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock” and his storytelling sidekick. The drummer, a “professional Civil War veteran” who roamed the Midwestern states entertaining audiences for a living, possessed a “set line of patter, memorized and carefully rehearsed.” The routine included bad jokes only the veterans seemed to enjoy, and “Taps” as well as other military standards played on a drum. The rousing drum beat of the finale simulated the clamor of battle, from a roaring infantry charge to the collapse of the enemy in full flight, “down finally to scattered sniping by rear-guard parties—then silence.” The awful “racket,” Catton remembered, filled the auditorium; but this whole event had disturbed the young Catton. “Instead of looking heroic,” he wrote, “. . . giants from the magical mist of an age of greatness, they suddenly looked pathetic.”
This was 1916 and “Verdun,” he said, had no place in the nostalgic gatherings of old Civil War soldiers and their youthful acolytes. For Catton, this disturbing episode was the “pinprick that exploded the toy balloon.” Pity now diminished the veterans in his eyes, and that vaunted sense of “permanence” and “progress,” which was the lifeblood in his small universe of Civil War lore, was “subject to revision.” Amid the Cold War culture of the 1950s, and through a penchant for grassroots research and an extraordinary gift for narrative prose, Catton would try to reclaim, even reinvent, that “magical mist” of the Civil War era that he had temporarily lost in 1916.
At the beginning of the 1950s Catton began a very long and successful publishing relationship with Doubleday. Mr. Lincoln’s Army (1951), Glory Road (1952), and A Stillness at Appomattox (1954) appeared in rapid succession and, practically overnight, made Catton the most popular and celebrated writer about the Civil War. Stillness garnered him the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, massive sales, and a regular place in the Book-of-the-Month Club. Living in Washington and making daily use of the Library of Congress, he found time to write a short study, Ulysses S. Grant and the American Military Tradition, in the Library of American Biography, published by Little, Brown and edited by Oscar Handlin, a professor of history at Harvard. Handlin wanted writers who could make the series “accessible to the common reader,” and after reading Mr. Lincoln’s Army, he asked Catton to capture Grant as “a symbol of the strength and weaknesses of the American common man” and the “dynamic aspect of life in the middle west.” Catton, the Midwesterner who had not really wanted to write biography, devoted the final third of his book to Grant’s presidential years and, following in the footsteps of the late Lloyd Lewis, helped revive Grant studies. Handlin wanted Catton in his stable of biographers, but in his detailed editing of the Grant manuscript, he noted that the ending was “too triumphal.” This was not the last time someone would so characterize Catton’s work, and yet, by the mid-1950s, Catton had become a unique publishing phenomenon in the field of history. How did he do it? What was the “Catton touch,” the “Catton secret”? It lay in the storytelling, and in the author’s uncanny ability to plant his flag in the North while writing about the war as a profound, national experien
ce, somehow unifying in the depths of its division. But his magic, knowingly or not, may have begun where Catton himself began. He decided to write the history of what seemed to be the neglected Northerner, the common Yankee soldier in that most famous and yet so often maligned army—the Army of the Potomac—initially losers, but the ultimate big winners. Catton set out to chronicle everybody’s loss and then everybody’s victory, in his reconciliatory narrative. That he did so through the lens of the Northern enlisted man is an extraordinary achievement of both literary and marketing skill. The South’s story of heroic defeat in a noble Lost Cause, laced with simultaneous denials and embraces of white supremacy, had cried out for a popular counterpart. This was especially the case in the midst of the Cold War and as the civil rights movement took hold in a divided and turbulent South. In the Army of the Potomac, whose veterans Catton had known in his youth, he found his story, the piece of history he most wanted to research and write; but he quickly learned that as the centennial of the Civil War approached, he had tapped into an expanding public appetite for military honor and glory in the wake of World War II.