The Civil War era has attracted more than its share of gifted writers. Unexcelled political drama, compelling individuals in and out of uniform and storied battles provide rich material for anyone seeking to tell a gripping story.
Each generation since Appomattox has produced splendid authors, beginning with participants such as Ulysses S. Grant and E. Porter Alexander. Winston Churchill explored the conflict in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, the last volume of which, completed in the 1950s, devoted considerable attention to military events and personalities. Readers interested in the coming of the war have profitably turned for more than 30 years to David M. Potter’s The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, a masterwork completed after Potter’s death by Don E. Fehrenbacher. In our own time Shelby Foote and James M. McPherson, whose appealing prose styles differ markedly, are probably read more widely than any other historians in the field.
Bruce Catton and Douglas Southall Freeman command far less attention now than when they drew me into the world of Civil War history more than 45 years ago. This is much to be lamented, for few authors have written so movingly and perceptively about the war. Between the mid-1930s and the mid-1960s, the pair produced a number of classic titles and achieved wide recognition. Freeman appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1948, and Catton received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.
A native of Michigan, Catton (1899-1978) cast the wider net in selecting subjects. He wrote a trilogy on the Army of the Potomac—Mr. Lincoln’s Army (1951), Glory Road (1952) and A Stillness at Appomattox (1953)—that heralded his appearance as a major author and won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1954. Catton’s other books include The Centennial History of the Civil War—a second trilogy composed of The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword and Never Call Retreat—published between 1961 and 1965; three volumes on U.S. Grant; a one-volume history of the North during the war titled This Hallowed Ground (1956); and The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (1960), which earned a Pulitzer Prize special citation in 1961. The last of these, with Catton’s graceful text and well-chosen illustrations, remains unexcelled as an enjoyable introduction to the war.
Catton’s narratives abound with memorable passages. In Glory Road, for example, he dramatically brings the Iron Brigade’s five Midwestern regiments onto the first day’s field at Gettysburg where they would lose roughly two-thirds of their 1,800 men. “The Westerners fell into step and came swinging up the road,” he writes in setting the stage for a bloody day’s work on McPherson’s Ridge and Seminary Ridge, “their black hats tilted down over their eyes, rifle barrels sparkling in the morning sun….On the ridge to the west there was a crackle of small-arms fire and a steady crashing of cannon, with a long soiled cloud of smoke drifting up in the still morning air, and at the head of the column the drums and the fifes were loud—playing ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me,’ probably, that perennial theme song of the Army of the Potomac, playing the Iron Brigade into its last great fight.”
Catton’s description in A Stillness at Appomattox of the explosion of the mine at Petersburg on July 30, 1864, is equally superb: “First a long, deep rumble, like summer thunder rolling along a faraway horizon,” caught the attention of waiting Union attackers, “then a swaying and swelling of the ground up ahead, with the solid earth rising to form a rounded hill, everything seeming very gradual and leisurely. Then the rounded hill broke apart, and a prodigious spout of flame and black smoke went up toward the sky, and the air was full of enormous clods of earth as big as houses, of brass cannon and detached artillery wheels, of wrecked caissons and fluttering tents and weirdly tumbling human bodies;…the landscape along the firing line had turned into dust and smoke and flying debris, choking and blinding men and threatening to engulf Burnside’s whole army corps.”
Freeman (1886-1953) focused more narrowly on Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. The son of a Virginia Confederate veteran and longtime editor of the Richmond News Leader, he published R.E. Lee: A Biography (four vols., 1934-35), a Pulitzer Prize winner that remains the most detailed life of Lee, as well as Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command (three vols., 1942-44), a combination of battle narrative and biographical portraits of key officers in the Confederacy’s most important army. Freeman’s last project, a multivolume biography of George Washington, garnered a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1958.
Modern readers should keep in mind that Freeman embraced some Lost Cause interpretive conventions—scarcely surprising considering his background. Yet his descriptive prose and character sketches remain engaging and informative, as when he deals in Lee’s Lieutenants with the artillery fighting at Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863. “At Hazel Grove, in short, the finest artillerists of the Army of Northern Virginia were having their greatest day,” he observes of cannoneers conditioned to face a more powerful foe. “They had improved guns, better ammunition, and superior organization. Officers and men were conscious of this and of the destruction they were working. For once they were fighting on equal terms against an adversary who on fields unnumbered had enjoyed indisputable superiority in weapons and in ammunition. With the fire of battle shining through his spectacles, William Pegram rejoiced. ‘A glorious day, Colonel,’ he said to Porter Alexander, ‘a glorious day!’….[T]here might be much more of hard fighting and of costly assaults; but if those gray batteries could continue to sweep the field, the Federals must yield!”
Bruce Catton and Douglas Southall Freeman stand up very well alongside more recent narrative specialists. Their literary gifts evoke events and individuals in ways that justify more than one reading and place them on any short list of distinguished chroniclers of the Civil War.