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Absent Friends: The Harper in the Hall

The cataclysm that was the American Civil War was an almost off-puttingly self-conscious thing. The wild-eyed prophecies of John Brown were heeded by the entire country, and when the war itself broke open upon the land, every private in its ranks seemed to feel its moment – they wrote like bards who knew the tone of their epic, even if they didn’t know its outcome (whether or not the Trojans would win, as it were). Their generals wrote some of the finest military memoirs of all time, and lots of them did, not for this war the solitary Thucydides or Xenophon. And Walt Whitman, the greatest and most inscrutable of all American poets, achieved the birth of his talent while tending to the war’s wounded and dying.

This strain bears out in the war’s historians. Even immediately after its end, while bones were still being found in field and farm paddock, great writers were compiling the basic facts from muster rolls and pay records and publishing their efforts in the still-young pages of The Atlantic Monthly. The decades went in, the veterans slowly aged and died (the last, a little drummer boy during the war, in the mind-boggling year of 1956), and new generations of historians took up the task, and they, too, did disproportionately great work.

The much-vexed 20th century (whose generations were the first since the Civil War to see conflict and carnage on par with what that war provided) did not lack in this regard. The War Between the States has continued to be studied in exhaustive detail, and the subject matter has continued to elicit great work from its chroniclers. Readers have bought and eagerly consumed the rigid scholarship of Robert Stackpole, the popularizing fluidities of Stephen Sears, the folksy oralities of Shelby Foote. And then there’s one other.

His readers all have that look, the fervent expression that always accompanies the work of someone whose pages are passed, urgently, passionately, samizdat-style from personal library to personal library, even though their writer wins every award devised by man. Bruce Catton in his life won a liberal amount of such awards for his work as a Civil War historian, but the finest, highest tribute he or any other writer could receive was that very passion, the dedication among his readers that’s usually given only to the secret writer, the one his readers most urgently want to share.

There is more going on in such a phenomenon than simply the acknowledgement of work well done. The sourcework of the Civil War has been regularized and systematized by the aforementioned generations of careful compilers; arriving at factual accuracy – even of a high degree – is no longer a matter of original scholarship, and so claims to virtuosity must come from other places. They can come from narrowness of focus, or from the personality of the writer. Bruce Catton follows a different route: he awes the reader with an uncanny mixture of unpretentious prose and perfectly rendered dramatics. Although it’s no doubt the furthest thing from what he himself would have wanted, reading him spoils the reading of all other Civil War historians.

His canvas is as vast as the time itself. In his two trilogies, the Army of the Potomac series (the third volume of which, A Stillness at Appomattox, won the Pulitzer in 1954) and the Centennial History of the Civil War, as well as in his dozen other books on the subject (including the magnificent stand-alone volume This Hallowed Ground), he ranges over the whole of the war – its causes, its politics, its personalities, its issues, and of course its battles. His books are narrative history at its pinnacle – they’re enthralling reading experiences in a way hardly any historians ever learn to produce.

Of course, he’s not hindered in this regard by the fact that the American Civil War happened like it was stage-produced. Larger-than-life characters stride through epic battles, two lonely Presidents battle as much with their own misgivings as they do with each other, and the ultimate issue at stake is not Dutch trading routes or Canadian coastal fish-drying stations – it’s human slavery. And the whole of it is limned by the clear passing of an era, something virtually everyone involved sensed to one degree or another and something Catton captures perfectly, time after time, as in this aside on the battle of the ironclads, the first of their kind the world had ever seen:

Before the day ended a good many people looked at these ships, because each ship was about to die, dramatically and in the center of the stage. This was the last morning: last morning for the ships, for many of their people, and for all that the ships represented – a special way not merely of fighting on the sea but of moving on it and understanding it, of combining grimness and grace in one instrument. In a war that destroyed one age and introduced another, these ships stood as symbols of the past.

Or this sensitive telling of the way the feeling of war changed for the Army of the Potomac:

It was the last night for many young men – the last night, in a sense, for the old Army of the Potomac, which had tramped down many roads of war and which at last was coming up against something new. The men were bivouacked on the sharp edge of a dividing line in the war, and it appears that somehow they sensed it. After tonight, everything was going to be different, and the comradeship around the campfires was going to be thinned out and changed and nothing they had learned was going to help very much in the experience that lay just beyond the invisible treetops, where a wind made a stir and rustle in the branches.

Catton’s prose has no use for the school of thought that calls for history books to be dull; indeed, reading his books in rapid succession, I was struck more than ever by the man’s ability to turn phrases of almost quip-like perfection, as in this detail from his account of the fight at Pittsburg Landing:

Thus Sherman’s caution, which should have been awake but was sound asleep, ran across Beauregard’s, which should have been justified but was not.

Or this, on the Presidential election of 1864:

Perhaps the strangest thing about this strangest of all elections is that it never occurred to anyone not to have it.

Or this, on Lincoln’s increasing awareness of the South’s most prominent military commander:

… the President had seen one thing clearly: wherever Lee was, the center of the stage was there and not elsewhere.

He is breathtakingly economical, almost lyrical, in his evocation of the psychologies of the famous men and women who populate his stories, and because he is primarily a chronicler of people, his people seem to come alive before the reader’s eyes, always with a phrase perfectly chosen, as on the subject of General Grant’s military education:

Those earlier battles [of 1861-62, naturally] unfortunately had led Grant to feel that [Confederate General Albert Sidney] Johnston’s army was discouraged and ready to quit: a point on which he was about to get a world of enlightenment.

Or in the irresistible exercise of comparing Grant with his opposite number:

Nevertheless, the fact remained that Grant had displayed a trait which, as the coming years would show, he shared with Robert E. Lee – the ability to take immediate and devastating advantage of his foe’s mistakes.

The comparisons of course don’t end there. On the war’s most divisive figure, Federal General George McClellan, Catton can be witheringly dismissive, as in this aside during the battle of the Seven Days:

Whatever might be true of the Army of the Potomac, its commanding general had been whipped into something close to hysteria.

And also unprecedentedly generous, as in this assessment that McClellan himself would have liked:

To an extent, the army’s devotion for this man had grown up naturally. McClellan had taken thousands of untrained recruits and had made them feel like soldiers. They had been used to confusion and he had given them order and taught them to be proud of themselves. It could almost be said that he had given ancient traditions to an army that had no past.

On Grant Catton is always quotably superb:

Grant had a basilisk’s gaze. He could sit, whittling and smoking, looking off beyond the immediate scene, and what he was looking at was likely to come down in blood and ashes and crashing sound a little later.

He’s equally good on the tangled subject of Lee, who has always tempted historians and biographers to excess. Partly this is understandable: although Lee was a traitor, he was also quietly charismatic, winningly the underdog, and possibly the greatest military genius America has ever produced (his only close competition comes only from other Civil War generals, North and South). Catton is careful in his assessments but is nevertheless as charmed by General Lee as all the rest of his fellow historians:

But simply because he was so terribly outnumbered, Lee was free to take preposterous chances; the odds against him were so long to begin with that it could not hurt much to lengthen them a bit, and anyway an opponent who believed that Lee would do the obvious under any circumstances was simply begging for trouble.

The narrative texture of such quotes only becomes fully appreciated when you read it out loud, and that’s the way with all of Catton’s prose. In some respects he has more in common with the medieval skalds singing the great songs of their kingdoms’ past than with the academic historians from whose ranks his dozens of honorary degrees would have distinguished him anyway. His prose has a marvelous rolling quality, unassuming yet powerfully evocative, even of the war’s various landscapes:

There may be a lovelier country somewhere – in the Island Vale of Avalon, at a gamble – but when the sunlight lies upon it and the wind puts white clouds racing their shadows the Shenandoah Valley is as good as anything America can show.

But it’s on the theme that transcends narrative that Catton is at his best; there’s a task we pay our best historians to do for us, and that’s to remind us that time moves only forward, and that history could have happened in very different ways than it did. The American Civil War is fraught with paths not taken, and Catton is alive to all of them, although he indulges himself comparatively seldom, as in this little meditation on the effect one man’s survival might have had on the battle of Pittsfield Landing, where the Confederate forces under General Johnston had the temporarily-smaller forces of General Grant pushed back and pinned down on the bluffs of a hostile river just as darkness was falling:

Just possibly, this man [Jonstone]’s capacity for firing the spirits of tired soldiers might have been enough to send one final, triumphant assault through the shouting twilight, capturing guns, breaking the last infantry line, destroying the heads of the reinforcing columns and achieving the impossible in the smoky darkness above the deep river. Probably it would not have happened so, but the one man who might conceivably have made it happen was dead.

And of course there’s the greatest untaken path of all, about which Catton is as elegiac as his most heartfelt predecessor, Carl Sandburg:

Booth pulled the trigger, and the mind that held somewhere in cloudy solution the elements that might some day have crystallized into an answer for the nation’s most profound riddle disintegrated under the impact of a one-ounce pellet of lead: the heaviest bullet, all things considered, ever fired in America.

Catton’s guiding daemon is the will of men, their ability to shape the world around them by what they decide or don’t. His President Lincoln, his pretend-president Jefferson, his generals Jackson and McClellan, Lee and Grant, all his enlisted men on either side – they’re constantly making decisions and then being weighed on the basis of those choices. This occurs in perhaps its starkest form in Catton’s account of the taking of New Orleans by Admiral David Farragut, an old man who’d lived in hope of glory just long enough for it to find him:

It [the Federal fleet] had certain advantages; the [Confederate river] barrier had been broken, the ironclads were not quite ready, and on Hartford’s poop deck it had a lanky flag officer, stalking up and down on springy legs, knowing exactly what he was going to do and what he was going to make other people do …

“The nation itself,” Catton wrote, “had been heated to an unimaginable pitch by three years of war and now it had been put on the anvil and the hammer was remorselessly coming down, stroke after clanging stroke, beating a glowing metal into a different shape.”

He keeps his narrative focus always on that process of change, whether it be individual commanders and common soldiers, systems and natures of governments, or the nature of war itself, as in this passage about General Sherman’s infamous 1964 march from Atlanta to the sea:

And so began the strangest, most fateful campaign of the entire war, like nothing that happened before or afterward. These Federals were not moving out to find and destroy an armed enemy; the only foe that could give them a fight, Hood’s army, was hundreds of miles off to the rear, and everybody knew it. They were not being asked to hurry; fifteen miles a day was much less than these long-legged could easily make, and everybody knew that too. Their mission was to wreck and economy and to destroy a faith – the economy that supported the thin, fading fabric of the Confederacy, the faith that believed the Confederacy to be an enduring creation and trusted in its power to protect and avenge. As they moved down the red roads of Georgia, cutting a swath sixty miles wide from flank to flank, they were the conscious agents of this destruction; men who trampled out the terrible vintage of the grapes of wrath, led by an implacable general who was more and more coming to see a monstrous but logical destiny in his mission.

In the course of a great number of books, Bruce Catton explored and gloriously expatiated on that enormous transformation, the single greatest one in American history. Right now, his various works are pretty much entirely out of print – reprints are available from specialist houses at exorbitant prices, but there is no Everyman Library edition, no attractive, affordable Signet or Bantam editions of Terrible Swift Sword or Never Call Retreat or This Hallowed Ground, not even any refreshed edition from the New York Review of Books or the Barnes & Noble so-called ‘Library of Essential Reading.’ Instead, devotees of Catton must skulk around wonderful places like Niantic’s Book Barn, collecting old paperbacks and eagerly underlining them, to point out especially resonant passages.

In the interest of simple historical justice – and on behalf of all his flat-out great writing – Bruce Catton deserves those ubiquitous popular editions. I can only hope eager readers get them, before another generation goes without this most winning of all bards.

___
Steve Donoghue was the cofounder of the Sei Mogli Review with Norman Douglas in Florence in 1921, a journal dedicated to the fusion of Italian imagist poetry and revisionist historical scholarship. It had a brief life. Today he hosts the blog Stevereads, which is doggedly dedicated to much the same thing.

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