Bruce Catton’s Civil War / Bruce Catton

This book collects Bruce Catton’s history of the Civil War into one volume. Rather than attempting to tell the entire story of the conflict, including its messy political details, he focuses on the Army of the Potomac’s engagements with the Army of Northern Virginia, so ably led by Robert E. Lee. It is a one-sided telling of their bloody battles from 1861 into 1865, as seen through the eyes of the northern soldiers, officers, and commanders.

Catton was a narrative historian, and his many books on the Civil War provide colorful, detailed vignettes of the troops in the trenches. This three-part volume is a prime example of his writing style. Even though it is well researched and supported by footnotes, his intended audience is the non-academic. From the opening page to the last, it is a captivating read that I found difficult to put down despite its daunting length. By concentrating on the personal histories of the common soldiers and their officers, he drives home the horror of the battles and the bravery exhibited by those who took part in them.

Mr. Lincoln’s Army tells about the early stages of the war, at a time when the Army of the Potomac was led by the charismatic George B. McClellan, a commander beloved by his soldiers. However, he was far too cautious on the battlefield and this led to lost opportunities for victory and an early end to the conflict. His military career came to a close when he was relieved of his office after a disastrous defeat in the Battle of Antietam, a contest that could have been won with better leadership.

Glory Road chronicles the critical months between the autumn of 1862 through the midsummer of the next year, a period when the Confederates came close to destroying the Army of the Potomac. On the offensive, the Union soldiers suffered defeats at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. This led Lee to attempt a counter invasion of the North, which resulted in his men’s defeat and repulsion at Gettysburg. During this fateful period, the Army of the Potomac had three different commanders leading them: Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker, and finally George Meade, who took charge just three days before the decisive battle at Gettysburg.

The story of the last year of the Civil War is told in A Stillness At Appomattox. When published originally as a separate book in 1954, this account won Catton the National Book Award for Nonfiction and the Pulitzer Price for History that year. By this time, the Army of the Potomac’s battle-hardened veterans had mostly been either killed, seriously injured, or mustered out of the force when their terms of service ended. A new army replaced them, one made up of conscripts filling the shoes of the earlier volunteers. Its leadership now consisted of Meade and the determined Ulysses S. Grant, who decided to show the Army of Northern Virginia and the citizens of the South no mercy in his drive for a complete victory. Even so, the outcome was never certain. Nonetheless, thanks to outnumbering and outgunning Lee’s army, the well-equipped northern forces were able to batter the Confederacy into submission.

To achieve the surrender of Lee’s forces, Grant counted heavily on the talents of William Tecumseh Sherman and his calvary. While some might question his ruthless methods, as this book shows, he was a courageous soldier and an inspirational leader. To my surprise, another important figure was George Armstrong Custer, who later became infamous as the general killed in the Battle of Little Bighorn.

I already knew much of the history that this book recounts, but thanks to its wealth of detail, I came away with a better understand of how its separate pieces stitched together into a coherent whole. Catton’s accounts of the the various battles are gripping and horrifying. It made me appreciate the courage it took for the soldiers who went into battle knowing that most of them would be killed in the fray. And while this three-narrative volume focuses primarily on the North’s side of the story, I also grew to respect the Confederate soldiers’ determination against great odds and the masterful leadership of Robert E. Lee. For anyone wanting a better understanding of the devastating cost of the Civil War, this book is a must first read. It provides a ringside seat to the the horrors of this all-out war. I for one felt humbled and grateful that the brave soldiers of the Army of the Potomac risked life and and limb to preserve the Union and bring an end to slavery.


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