Book Review

Bruce Catton's America

October 2017

We celebrate one of America's greatest historians with an anthology of his writing.

“No one ever wrote American history with more easy grace, beauty, and emotional power or greater understanding of its meaning than Bruce Catton,” writes Oliver Jensen, the former editor of American Heritage, in his introduction.

Proving that statement, this book is a collection of excerpts from Canton’s various writings, mostly about the Civil War but also some poignant recollections of his boyhood in Michigan.

There is a magical power of imagination in Catton’s work. More than any other historian, he was able to create cinematic scenes that make you feel that you are by the campfire, in the forest, or on the dusty, smoke-filled field of battle. If you want to learn to write great history, starting by retyping passages from his books.

For example, here was what Grant’s soldiers saw just before the Wilderness slaughter: “It was the fourth of May, and beyond the dark river there was a forest with the shadow of death under its low branches, and the dogwood blossoms were floating in the air like lost flecks of sunlight, as if life was as important as death.”

Or the moonlit scene when Confederates wait in trenches on Missionary Ridge near Chattanooga, with the Union Army in the valley below getting ready to attack, and the moon goes dark with an eclipse. “There had been a great silver light over mountain and plain and rival battle lines, and it died and gave way to a creepy rising shadow as the moon was blotted out, so that the armored ridge was a silent, campfire-spangled mass outlined against a pale sky, with darkness coming up out of the hollows. Both armies looked on in awed silence, and the sight seems to have been taken as an incomprehensible omen of ill fortune.”

Early in the book there is an amazing chapter on the pivotal week in May 1856 that set the nation on the path to war. First, Sen. Charles Sumner inspired the North and outraged the South with his impassioned speech against the evils of slavery. Then pro-Southern “Border Ruffians” burned and looted Lawrence, Kansas; Sumner was caned almost to death in the Senate for insulting the South; and John Brown’s gang murdered five people in Pottawatomie in retaliation for the Lawrence atrocities. All in one week. You can feel the country spilling out of control.

Perhaps the most moving passage, about the death of Catton’s father, came at the end, as a night train stops in the station to pick him up. You have to read it.