Through his pioneering histories of the Civil War, it was said, Bruce Catton “made us hear the sounds of battle and cherish peace.”
In 1923 a young reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer set out to interview Civil War veterans for a special Fourth of July feature that would appear in the newspaper under the headline “The Fading Line of Blue.” He began his series of seven short profiles this way: “There are still some of them left—old men with gray hair and beards, whose age-dimmed eyes ever look back half a century to days of battle and turmoil in the distant southland. And each one has a story to tell, a story that soon will be stilled forever.”
Leroy Williams had earned a Medal of Honor at Cold Harbor. Joseph Molyneaux outfought a Confederate officer in hand-to-hand combat at Antietam. H. C. Martindale marched with Sherman through Georgia. Charles Griswold had survived Andersonville. John Jones saw naval service against Vicksburg and Fort Fisher. James Hayford rode with the 2nd Massachusetts cavalry at Gettysburg. Abraham Goldsmith, freed from a Confederate prison in Savannah, joined Sherman’s march through the Carolinas.
Bylines weren’t freely bestowed in those days, so Bruce Catton’s name didn’t appear above his first published writings on the Civil War. Three decades would pass, in fact, before he would gain recognition as America’s preeminent author on the War Between the States.
That seminal series hadn’t been Catton’s first exposure to Civil War veterans. His hometown of Benzonia, Michigan, maintained its own Grand Army of the Republic post. A neighboring hillock bore the name Champion’s Hill in memory of a battle the post’s members had fought in the Vicksburg campaign. By simply reaching back into his own childhood, Catton recovered memories of Elihu Linkletter, who lost his left arm in the Wilderness; Lyman Jordan, who had his horse shot from under him riding with Sheridan’s cavalry; John Morrow, chewed out by Sherman himself before Atlanta; and Cassius Judson, who dismissed D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation as a pale imitation of “the real thing.”
Benzonia had been founded in 1858 as a cultural outpost in a rough lumbering region by Congregational missionaries from Oberlin, Ohio. “They brought with them Oberlin’s characteristic discontent with the things that are and its impassionate belief in the things that some day will be,” Catton would recall. Benzonia was to be the home of Grand Traverse College, open, like its Oberlin model, to students regardless of race or gender.
Before long the region’s pine stands were exhausted, and with them the founders’ high-minded intentions. The soil proved unsuitable for farming, and by the end of the century Benzonia had become a cultural backwater. Grand Traverse College, headed by George R. Catton, Bruce’s self-educated father, was downgraded to a college preparatory academy. “I suppose one reason why [the Civil War] has always seemed so real to me is that in a sense I grew up before it happened,” Catton, who was born in 1899, later recalled. “We were out of date without knowing it.” A boy’s life in Benzonia was, he said, “unhurried and unworried”—like waiting in a junction town for the morning limited.
In 1915 Catton caught that train and rode it to Oberlin, Ohio. “It was practically preordained that, at an appropriate age, I would go to Oberlin College,” he said. Catton admitted that he was never an exceptional student—fine in English, but hopeless in math. He waited tables to pay for expenses and worked on the Oberlin Review, the college newspaper. If he didn’t find himself as a student, he did find a young woman in the music conservatory who would figure in his life. He took a year off to serve as a navy gunner in World War I, returned to campus, and dropped out for good without earning his degree.
Ever since 1912, Catton had harbored the thought that he might want to be a newspaperman. It stemmed from a chance remark by his father that reporters seemed to lead interesting lives. “Maybe the moral is that fathers ought to be careful what they say to growing sons,” Catton said later. After turning his back on Oberlin, he headed to Cleveland and took a job as police reporter for the Cleveland News.
Soon Catton went east to try his hand with the Boston American. But the experiment didn’t last long, as the American was a Hearst paper, and Catton quickly acquired an aversion for “this business of nagging some poor family for pictures of the victim.” He retraced his steps and joined the staff of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Catton would later credit his editors there for demanding accuracy and clarity in his writing, just as covering Cleveland’s ethnic communities gave him an insight into human nature and values.
It was more than journalistic considerations that brought Catton back to Cleveland. That girl from Oberlin happened to live there. Her name was Hazel Cherry, and she and Catton were married in 1925. A son, William Bruce Catton, was born the following year. Deciding that the late hours required by working on a morning newspaper were unsuitable for a family man, Catton began looking for a day job.
He found one with the Newspaper Enterprise Association, a Scripps-Howard editorial and feature syndicate headquartered in Cleveland. There the hours proved to be more congenial than the work. “Writing those canned editorials damn near ruined me,” he later recalled. “They had to be innocuous enough to suit every small-town editor from Maine to California. It was a real grind.” Another irritation was having to conform to “the orthodox Republican line.” He edited NEA’s Every Week magazine for a spell and acquired an in-office reputation for his encyclopedic knowledge on a wide range of topics, from archaeology to the latest Agricultural Adjustment Administration ruling from Washington, D.C.
Outside the office, he built model boats with his son and fraternized with other journalists at a watering hole at East 9th Street and Superior Avenue in Cleveland. When reporters from the Cleveland Press and Cleveland News formed the first local of the American Newspaper Guild in 1933, Catton became a member and one of its early presidents. He also found time to browse in Cleveland’s used bookstores, where he acquired some out-of-print regimental histories from the Civil War.
Early in 1939 Catton and his family packed up those histories along with all their other belongings and moved to the nation’s capital. Just as Europe was on the brink of World War II, he had been named NEA’s Washington correspondent. After the United States entered the conflict, Catton was in a good position to enter government service as an information officer for the War Production Board. He became director of information, a post he also filled briefly after the war for the Department of Commerce.
Catton’s wartime experience with the WPB provided him with material for his first book, which was published in 1948. The War Lords of Washington described how the wartime imperatives of military production had taken precedence over postwar democratic considerations. It is likely his least appreciated book. “Catton documented in great detail the entire series of World War II power struggles,” Fred J. Cook later noted in The Warfare State, “that resulted in the enthronement of the military-industrial complex.”
After leaving government service, Catton turned his attention to the conflict that had been on his mind since childhood. His first attempt at a book on the Civil War took the form of fiction—an effort ultimately abandoned as a false start. He later destroyed all his attempts at fiction, saying that he didn’t want to embarrass his descendants. “Newspaper work is not good training for novelists,” he told an interviewer, “but it’s very good training for historians.” The reporter and the historian, he pointed out, gathered information by similar methods: talking to eyewitnesses, reading their letters and diaries, and digging tenaciously for facts. He found those regimental histories to be good sources for the experiences of the men who did the fighting as opposed to those of the generals behind the lines.
With his first Civil War history manuscript in hand, Catton faced the problem of getting it published. “Finding a publisher when you’re unknown is one of the most hopeless jobs in the world,” he recalled. Everywhere he was met by the same refrain: Civil War books didn’t sell. Finally, though, at the urging of George Braziller, an influential independent publisher, Doubleday agreed to take it on.
Published in 1951, Mr. Lincoln’s Army opened with a description of the return of the Army of the Potomac from Major General George B. McClellan’s unsuccessful Peninsular Campaign. Early in the narrative, Catton observed:
From first to last the Army of the Potomac was unlucky. It fought for four years, and it took more killing, proportionately, than any army in American history, and its luck was always out; it did its level best and lost; when it won the victory was always clouded by a might-have-been, and when at last the triumph came at Appomattox there were so very, very many of its men who weren’t there to see it.
Catton had found his theme: gaining some respect for the generally disrespected and disparaged Army of the Potomac. It would take two more volumes to do it justice.
Glory Road, published the following year, continued the saga from the debacle of Fredericksburg to the vindication at Gettysburg. No less an authority than the eminent Abraham Lincoln scholar David Donald, who noted Catton’s use of “little-used and long-forgotten regimental histories,” pronounced it “the dramatic and absorbing biography of an army.” But Glory Road sold little more than 2,000 copies, scarcely better than Mr. Lincoln’s Army. Catton had to apply his powers of persuasion to convince Doubleday to complete the trilogy with A Stillness at Appomattox, which appeared in 1953. Reviews again were excellent. “A magnificent piece of writing,” Bell I. Wiley pronounced in the New York Times Book Review. “Some of its passages have the grandeur and beauty of poetry.” It didn’t seem to help sales, as Stillness did little better than the previous two books.
Catton was surprised, therefore, when he received a telephone call early the following year inviting him to appear the next morning as a guest on NBC’s Today show. He asked what he had done to merit such attention. “Well, didn’t you win the Pulitzer Prize—or something?” the young woman on the other end of the line asked. Catton knew he was up for the National Book Award, but that wasn’t generally as celebrated as a Pulitzer. He decided to call Doubleday to find out what was going on.
“Oh, my God, nobody told you?” his editor answered. “You got the [Pulitzer] Prize for history. Congratulations.” The jury for history in 1954, Merle Curti and Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., had actually nominated another book for the prize, although they noted that “few scholarly accounts approach this one [Stillness] in re-creating the human side of the war.” The Pulitzer Prize Advisory Board overruled their choice at the urging of one of its members, Arthur Krock of the New York Times, who had been alerted to the merits of Catton’s entry only two days earlier.
Being awarded the Pulitzer was a game-changer for Catton. “It not only opened doors that otherwise would have been closed; it somehow gave me the courage to keep on going and more or less confirmed me in my notion that the kind of work I was doing was worthwhile,” he later said. Sales picked up for Stillness as well as for the first two volumes of the Army of the Potomac trilogy. He became a figure of some renown. Publishers planning to launch a new hardbound magazine of American history for general readers thought a historian with a Pulitzer and a background in journalism was just the man for the editor’s job.
In 1954 Bruce Catton became the founding editor of American Heritage, which soon garnered 100,000 readers and acquired a reputation in the historical profession for raising standards of writing as well as compensation. “Our distinguished historian had been invited, certainly in part, to lend tone to the enterprise, but he turned out to be a thoroughly professional editor as well,” recalled Oliver Jensen, one of his new colleagues. “His knowledge of history, it was soon clear, was prodigious and by no means confined to the war whose Homer he had been proclaimed.”
Doubleday put Catton to work on the Civil War volume of its “Mainstream of America” series. Published in 1956, This Hallowed Ground was considered by some to be the best single-volume account of the war—at least until the appearance, some 30 years later, of James MacPherson’s The Battle Cry of Freedom. That same year, Catton finally picked up his diploma from Oberlin College in the form of an honorary doctor of letters degree. In time, Catton would collect honorary degrees from Harvard, Maryland, Northwestern, and a score of other universities and colleges.
With the approach of the centennial of the Civil War in 1961, books about the conflict were no longer a drug on the market. In 1960 American Heritage marked the event with a two-volume, boxed, coffee-table set called The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. Lavishly illustrated, it featured a special set of pictorial battle maps and a narrative by Catton, who addressed the cause of the conflict in no uncertain terms. “Although there were serious differences within the sections, all of them except slavery could have been settled through the democratic process,” he wrote. “Slavery poisoned the whole situation….It was not the only cause of the Civil War, but it was unquestionably the one cause without which the war could not have taken place.” The overall effort earned a special Pulitzer Prize citation. “It would be difficult to find a better introduction to the Civil War than this sumptuous book,” Henry Steele Commager, the distinguished historian, wrote in a review.
For Catton, the American Heritage set was but a warm-up for his work for the centennial. As he put it later, “I just got on the escalator when it started going up.” Doubleday provided the ride in the form of a commission to write a centennial history of the Civil War. Catton responded with another trilogy: The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat, the titles of the second and third books inspired by Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Much of the first volume was devoted to the background of the war, which was relatively fresh material for Catton. Though Coming Fury carried the narrative only through First Bull Run, David Donald pronounced it “the best book [Catton] has ever written.”
Reviewing Never Call Retreat for the New York Times, T. Harry Williams noted “a progression in the author’s thinking” compared with some of Catton’s previous work. Catton, Williams wrote, had been known primarily as “a military historian…who has sometimes been accused of exaggerating the violent in war and of glorifying the martial spirit.” But in this concluding volume, Williams noted with surprise, the author “has a good deal to say…about the stupidity and pointlessness of some of the fighting, underlining that in some of the engagements men were becoming the slaves of their weapons or tactics.” It was an observation that would haunt Catton for some time.
For his final endeavor on the Civil War, Catton turned from historical narrative to biography. He had contributed a slim volume, U.S. Grant and the American Military Tradition, to Little, Brown and Company’s Library of American Biography in 1954. Some years earlier, Chicago newspaperman Lloyd Lewis had died after completing only the first volume of a projected multivolume biography of Grant for Little, Brown. On the recommendation of Lewis’s widow, the publisher asked Catton to finish the series Lewis had begun with Captain Sam Grant. “Of course, the choice was ideal, as no living writer re-creates this great period in our history more expertly than Mr. Catton,” read the publisher’s note. With the aid of Lewis’s notes, Catton completed Grant Moves South on the eve of the Civil War centennial.
Catton didn’t close his work on Grant’s military career until after he completed the centennial history for Doubleday. Grant Takes Command was his 13th and last book on the Civil War. Judging it “as lively and absorbing as any of the author’s earlier volumes,” Bell Wiley marveled that “after producing so many books on the Civil War, he shows no signs of battle fatigue or war weariness.” It was the fourth time Catton had taken Grant across the Rapidan River, for example, but never had he described it so vividly:
The wagons began to move during the afternoon of May 3, jolting clumsily along toward the lower crossings of the Rapidan, heading for the haunted clearings of Chancellorsville, where unburied skeletons lay among dead leaves. The wagons were what the army lived by but they were also a crippling drag on its progress so they started before the infantry did, and they raised great clouds of dust which the Confederate lookouts on Clark Mountain saw and wig-wagged about from their high signal stations. Federal cavalry moved ahead of the wagon trains with a great jingling and creaking of metal and oiled leather….The Army of the Potomac was beginning its last campaign; the curtain was going up on the terrible final act of the war.
Despite Wiley’s perception, Catton was beginning to feel war weary. “I was just written out,” he told an interviewer from the Detroit Free Press in 1971. He had stepped down as the editor in chief of American Heritage in 1959, though he continued to serve as senior editor until his death. His wife, Hazel, had died in New York City in 1969. He had collaborated with their only child, William, a history professor at Princeton and then Middlebury College in Vermont, on a book, Two Roads to Sumter, that was published in 1963.
In a 1969 interview, Catton reflected on how he had first become interested in the conflict that shaped most of his adult life. “When I was growing up there were still plenty of Civil War veterans around,” he said, noting that they “were always coming around” to borrow books about the war from his father. “It always struck me—those old men in that sleepy backwoods town who had taken part in great events. In one sense they were still small-town boys; in another sense, they’d been all over Hell and gone, and back.”
During his last decade, Catton divided his years between winters in New York and summers in Michigan. “Tweedy and bookish and a bit aloof,” as one description had it, Catton was apt to warm up to interviewers after a martini or two. During the summers, he occupied a country home with his sister Barbara in their own old hometown of Benzonia. His actual birthplace of Petoskey, Michigan, celebrated “Bruce Catton Day” in 1965; Benzonia later named the drive to his house “Glory Road,” though Catton wryly observed that the only visible sign read “Dead End.”
Catton’s 16th and final book was his sole personal narrative. Waiting for the Morning Train: An American Boyhood was a memoir of his youth in Northern Michigan. There was also a good deal of reflection on life’s lessons in it, as he sat with his contemporaries waiting for the night train. In his first book, he had foreshadowed the problems and threat of the military-industrial complex; in his last, he pondered the implications of the nuclear age and questioned the benefits of technological progress itself. He retraced the carnage and destruction of two world wars back to their incipience in the conflict he had described so well. Practically his last word on the Civil War was an observation that the South had “made one of the most prodigious miscalculations in recorded history. On the eve of the era of applied technologies…they made war to preserve the day of chattel slavery…with its reliance on the same use of human muscles that built the pyramids. The lost cause was lost before it started to fight.”
Bruce Catton died of a respiratory illness at the age of 78 on August 28, 1978, in Frankfort, Michigan, half a dozen miles from his boyhood home in Benzonia. Several former colleagues contributed to an appreciation in American Heritage that winter. David McCullough, the author and historian, may have summed up Catton’s influence best. He was an English major at Yale when he purchased “a copy of a book that was receiving a great deal of attention,” he recalled. “It was A Stillness at Appomattox, by Bruce Catton, and looking back, I think it changed my life,” McCullough wrote. “All I knew was that I had found in that book a kind of splendor I had not experienced before, and it started me on a new path.” MHQ
John Vacha, a retired teacher of history and journalism, is the author of four books on the history of regional theater and the coauthor of “Behind Bayonets”: The Civil War in Northern Ohio.
Featured in MHQ magazine’s Autumn 2017 issue.
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