- Historic Sites
Notes about the famous historian and American Heritage editor
Spring 2012 | Volume 62, Issue 1
As Catton set up a contrast between the beguiling romance and the destructive reality of war in the opening chapter of Mr. Lincoln’s Army, he drifted back to personal memory. “In the end,” he rhapsodized, the Army of the Potomac would become the stuff of “legend, with a great name that still clangs when you touch it. The orations, the brass bands and the faded flags of innumerable Decoration Day observances, waiting for it in the years ahead, would at last create a haze of romance, deepening spring by spring until the regiments . . . became unreal—colored lithograph figures out of a picture book war, with dignified graybeards bemused by their own fogged memories of a great day when all the world was young and all the comrades were valiant.” In such long sentences, Catton seduced readers who needed, perhaps demanded, their reality coated with a little romance. It was the 1950s: the economy was booming for the middle class; America had just been the least damaged and most unequivocal victor in the biggest war ever fought; families with automobiles were “seeing the USA in a Chevrolet” as they traveled to historic battlefields; and millions of readers, largely male and conditioned by their own military experience, were eager for great war stories. Like the works of Francis Parkman in America and Thomas Macaulay in England before him, Catton’s works became a kind of national siren song into the past, to the scenes of a distant but deeply resonant war.
The three volumes of Catton’s original Civil War trilogy could be read as stand-alone books, but they were also connected thematically and chronologically. Few of Catton’s readers ever read one without moving on to the next. Mr. Lincoln’s Army cast its main focus on General George B. McClellan, who built and commanded the Army of the Potomac from August 1861 almost continually until the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. Still, the narrative’s driving force came from the host of young men from all over the North, whose voices and experiences Catton recovered from regimental histories and collections of letters sent to him by dozens of ordinary citizens. Those common soldiers were heroic, even in the defeats in which they were so often led by fumbling generals.
The second book, Glory Road, is the riveting, bloody story of how the Civil War became an all-out affair, fought entirely either to sustain an older order or to make the nation new once more, a struggle from which neither side could ever “call retreat.” Glory Road takes the story from the wintry slaughter of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862, into the year of Emancipation, through the extremity of Gettysburg the following July, and finally to a subtle, moving conclusion as Abraham Lincoln prepares to deliver an address at a cemetery on that battlefield four grim months later.
And in A Stillness at Appomattox, to this day probably his most widely-read work, Catton lays out the war from the point of view of what was now Grant’s army, from February 1864 until the surrender of April 1865, hauntingly and beautifully rendered in some of Catton’s most remarkable prose. Even a modern cynic, appalled by war and its more recent and all-embracing horrors, can hardly help but being seduced by the opening chapter of Stillness, which portrays a Washington’s Birthday gala ball held in winter quarters for the officers of the Army of the Potomac’s Second Corps in northern Virginia. Impending doom hangs over the occasion, which is deceptively bright with the fancy dresses of the women and the polished brass and boots of the men. Handsome men in blue had “swords neatly hooked up to their belts” and “wore spurs.” “Escorts and guests seemed to make a particular effort to be gay, as if perhaps the music and the laughter and the stylized embrace of the dance might help everybody to put out of mind the knowledge that in the campaign which would begin in the spring a considerable percentage of these officers would unquestionably be killed.” The dancers “quoted Byron to themselves and borrowed . . . the tag ends of implausible poetry describing a bloodless, bookish war. It was born of a romantic dream and it was aimed at glory, and glory was out of date, a gauzy wisp of rose-colored filament trailing from a lost world.” Elegiac, and reaching for tragedy, Catton drew his readers into his orbit. How better to set the scene for the bloodiest campaign of the war than with the sights and sounds of a consciously elegant ball just before the serious killing began? Readers now had to stay with Catton on that road, to see just how much and how irredeemably the notion of “glory” might be out of date.
By any measure, Stillness is great war literature. If by the 1950s the United States still awaited its Tolstoy of Civil War fiction, it no longer had to wait for one in narrative history. Catton wrote with a matchless sense of realism and redemptive tragedy.
Many traditional academic historians as well as famous writers admired and befriended Catton during his years of success, especially after 1954, when, at the urging of Columbia’s Allan Nevins, Catton took up the editorship of the newly reconstituted American Heritage magazine in New York. Somehow, he coped with the demands of the position—the daily grind of soliciting articles, conceiving ideas, and editing the glitzy, popular hardcover magazine about a triumphant American history—while still finding the time to write his own books. Catton also contributed a review to nearly every issue of American Heritage, which soared in readership numbers and brought its editor widespread acclaim. One avid reader of both the magazine and the books praised Catton in a 1957 letter for connecting with his audience like “no one else . . . since Stephen Crane,” and asserted that his gift for ending a story was “much like that of Dickens.”