Friday, April 7, 2017

Friday BookReview: Bruce Catton and Appomattox

[first published May 1, 2015]


This book has had a towering impact. So, when a historian at Western Kentucky University drew up a list of the twelve best books on the Civil War, it was no surprise that Mr. Catton's work was chosen #1.

An excerpt from the professor's comments:
Published in 1953, A Stillness at Appomattox details the experiences of the Army of the Potomac during the final year of the war, but it is much more than a retelling of an often told tale. In fact, one could say this book is a prose poem to the Army of the Potomac and the men who fought in it.  
As a child growing up in Michigan, Catton knew and spoke to Civil War veterans in his small hometown. Although a good part of his career was spent as a newspaper journalist and columnist, he took up writing Civil War books in the 1950's, became the senior editor of American Heritage magazine, and gained great fame as an author until his death in 1978. Catton wrote not only with a journalist’s eye, but also with a novelist’s sensibilities (although he published only one novel on the Civil War for juvenile readers)... 
Catton forged a trail for later Civil War historians by writing his account of the Army of the Potomac from the point of view of soldiers in the ranks. By means of lilting sentences, adroit portraits of men and their peccadilloes, and iron-hard descriptions of men in battle, Catton turns the Army of the Potomac into more than a mass of men in wartime; his picture of the army and its soldiers convinces you that he was there with them, which of course he wasn’t, but you feel that anyway because his narrative carries you back into the world in which those soldiers lived and died. Beneath the surface of Catton’s chronicle runs the awful specter of the tolls of war — how war dehumanizes, stultifies, and yet breeds comradery, trust and even love among those who wage it. Long before academic historians turned to highlighting the “face of battle” in their military studies of the Civil War, Catton sketched accurately and effectively the dour features of that face.  
More to his credit, Catton discussed — in this book and in others — how slavery was the cause of the war, the plight of slaves and freedmen as the war wore on, and the importance of the Union cause as a driving force behind the determination of Northern soldiers to win the war and reunite the country. This book leaves sharp images lingering in the reader’s mind, largely because Catton expertly sets scenes, describes people in human terms, and refuses to disguise the ugly, malevolent and heartless aspects of war. Yet, in the end, the book is surprisingly uplifting, a splendid tale of victory, no doubt because Catton so adeptly uses irony and compassion to tell the Army of the Potomac’s story. Walt Whitman once famously said, “the real war will never get in the books.” He was wrong. The real war, in all its dimensions, can be luminously found in this, the best book ever written about the Civil War.
President Eisenhower at Gettysburg with the historian

This is a review posted by a reader (at Amazon):
Catton's book tells the story of the Civil War in the East beginning in the winter of 1863 following the Battle of Gettysburg. The first thing to notice about the book is the clear, lyrical quality of the prose... Also Catton has a gift for lyrical metaphors to drive home his points -- whether in describing the fields or in describing the emotions of the men. His writing at its best has a poetical, moving quality. Most importantly, Catton writes lucidly. His descriptions of the battles and of troop movements are relatively easy to follow. Many of the accounts I have read since I first tried this book are detailed and ponderous. This is never the case with Catton. He gives a good, basic picture of the battles he describes which will stand the reader looking for more detailed accounts in good stead. 
Besides the quality of the writing, A Stillness at Appomattox is notable for the story it has to tell. Broadly speaking, Catton focuses on how the Civil War changed after its first two years, and he explains why. Although the carnage of the first two years of the war was immense, the scope of the war increased markedly following Gettysburg. The Civil War became the first total war, bringing trench warfare, sustained fighting, destruction of property, and hardship to noncombatants in its wake. Many later writers have also made this point, but Catton unforgettably drives it home. 
Catton thus describes the final Union campaign in the East (there is little in the book on the Western theatre of the war) of the Army of the Potomac from the Wilderness through Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and Appomattox. He describes the desperate, harsh nature of these engagements under the leadership of U.S. Grant. Catton also pays a great deal of attention to Philip Sheridan, to the destruction he wrought in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, and to his key roles in the Battle of Five Forks (Petersburg) and the final race to the Appomattox Court House. Catton's discussion of Sheridan brought home to me the cruel all-out nature of the final stages of the war. 
Catton also integrates well the military aspects of the Civil War with the political aspects. There are good pictures of Lincoln and of the war-weariness of the North which threatened the military efforts of the armies until the last phases of the conflict... Although Catton writes from the Union side of the line, he clearly is impressed with the military and personal character of Robert E. Lee and with the valor shown by the Army of Northern Virginia under the most trying of circumstances. 
I was enthralled by the pace of the book, by Catton's writing, and by his love for and knowledge of his subject. This is a book to come to as an adult. It will encourage the thoughtful reader to reflect upon the Civil War as the watershed event in our nation's history.

April 12, 1861: Fort Sumter is fired upon by Confederate forces

April 9, 1865: General Lee surrenders to Grant at Appomattox

Appomattox Courthouse

The 150th anniversary of the surrender ceremony was re-enacted several weeks ago. Click on some of the coverage from CBS, and a short video from C-Span about the family home where the original meeting took place.

UPDATE: Another big fan of Mr. Catton's classic is Scott Johnson at "Powerline" blog.

Old antagonists at North/South reunion

No comments:

Post a Comment