- Historic Sites
Notes about the famous historian and American Heritage editor
Spring 2012 | Volume 62, Issue 1
Catton had harnessed a good portion of those millions of Americans who still knew the Civil War as intimate family history, who had absorbed its lore from parents and grandparents. He gave them a new language for retelling an old story, revisiting documents and photographs, and singing the old songs again. Much of Catton’s success stems from the fact that he not only represented the Civil War as an intersectional, mutual tragedy with plenty of heroes on both sides and no true villains, but also as a series of mysterious evils embedded in the forces of history or human nature itself. This was the stuff of epic, America’s Iliad—a moving, bracing, if bloody rebaptism of a better America now struggling to sustain its superpower leadership and survival in the Cold War. Catton seemed powerfully motivated by the idea that America needed a redemptive history of its most divisive event that would ultimately reconcile and unite it.
But he had also read the post-World-War-II historians and adopted much of their sense of the Civil War as an “irrepressible conflict.” He declared repeatedly that the deep roots of the war lay in the “argument over slavery,” which was usually couched in an almost ubiquitous and sometimes frustratingly vague use of the term “tragedy.” Without doubt, Catton saw slavery as the war’s central cause—in the long term and the short. Southern leaders of secession, he argued, resolved that the “institution which Southern society lived by” must be preserved at all costs. Yet, oddly, he still maintained that the secessionists’ “motives,” the “fated” reasons “why” they bolted from the Union, “remain riddles to this day,” a muddling of an otherwise careful interpretation of a profound historical question.
In the long run, Catton’s approach to race and slavery seemed to stem from an odd mixture of serious engagement, selective reading and research, and a sense that such questions were preliminaries to the main event: the epic military narrative of countless ordinary, overwhelmingly white soldiers swept up in a death struggle they only half understood. In a 1956 speech, Catton said that “slavery was destroyed simply because it was in the way.” His discussion of slavery in books and speeches gives some attention to blacks generally, but very little to black Civil War leaders. He appears hardly to have known about Frederick Douglass; and while knew about the participation of black troops, he does not humanize them in the same manner or extent as that of the men of the Army of the Potomac. After acknowledging that the Civil War simply would not have happened but for the presence of enslaved blacks, Catton could conclude: “Since he was not allowed to talk, the Negro did not complain much . . . but the business was disturbing to other people because it was obvious that slavery was morally wrong and everyone knew that things morally wrong could not endure.” The Negro did not complain? Everyone knew?
Dudley T. Cornish, a historian at Kansas State College, and the author of the 1956 book The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Civil War, 1861-1865, challenged Catton to take more notice of what black soldiers had accomplished in the war, both in his books and in American Heritage. More specifically he criticized the editor for writing in the magazine that “very few facts of any real consequence still remain to be dug up” about the Civil War. Catton wrote back, admitting his neglect of black troops, a subject he deemed “quite new.” This apparent ignorance of the antebellum slave narratives perfectly represented mainstream America’s broad ignorance of the African American experience generally. Frederick Douglass’s now famous 1845 Narrative came back into print after nearly a century only in 1960, the year Catton finished The Coming Fury.
The Civil War had found its place and its popular voice in Catton, in the midst of Cold War consensus. To the overwhelming majority of Americans at the beginning of the centennial, if American history contained black people, they were still largely voiceless and invisible, despite the roar of contemporary events across the South from Greensboro to Birmingham. One might say a kind of fault line lay underneath the epic Civil War portrayed in Catton’s books and popular culture by the early 1960s—a fracture waiting to loose quakes and tremors that would peel away so many false facades. It was all a matter of forcing people to cock their ears to a different pitch. By will and by inertia, and under the numbing influence of a powerful and lingering Lost Cause tradition, most Civil War aficionados could not yet hear the new sounds from their past.
In 1972, when Catton wrote the dark endings to his memoir and reflected on the troubled and violent fate of humankind, he was perhaps entirely aware after all of the full character of the story he had told and sold so well. Remembering his innocent youth one last time, the 73-year-old accused himself of “regarding the past so fondly we are unable to get it in proper focus, and we see virtues that were not there.” And then he gave his own brand of Americanized tragedy a devastating blow: “It is easy to take the tragic view (which I proudly supposed that I was doing), as long as you do not know what tragedy really means. Pessimism has a fine tart flavor when you know that everything is going to come out all right.” After such success, was the poet and the former public relations man admitting he had enjoyed the war too much?