Sunday, October 9, 2022

Long Before Ken Burns Bruce Catton Put the Civil War on the Coffee Table

Bruce Catton in front of the Michigan home where he was born.

You know you have stumbled on to the blog of a history geek when you find not just antiquarian trivia but posts about historiansnotorious drudges whose personal biographies do not typically make gripping reading.  Over the several years I have been committing these posts, I have made entries on one English historian, Edward Gibbon of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire fame—“Another fat, square book, eh, Mr. Gibbon?  Scribble, Scribble. Scribble!” said King George III.  But mostly I have taken note of American historians of the American experience.  Among them have been Frances Parkman, the virtual founder of serious American history; Henry Adams, detailed chronicler of the Jefferson and Madison administrations and his own education; Fredrick Jackson Turner who expounded a thesis on the American Frontier; naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan  whose book was considered one of the ten most influential 19th Century volumes in the world and which led to an international arms race and ultimately World War I; Bernard DeVotto, whose work on the fur trade exposed the roots of western expansionism and Manifest Destiny; Charles and Mary Beard who insisted on taking into account technological advancement and economic causes and maintained that history must be more than a parade of heroic actors and the achievements of the elite Stephen Ambrose, World War II tale teller and a believer in the great actor in works on Lewis and Clark and the building of the Transcontinental Railway; and finally Howard Zinn who turned things upside down with his People’s History of the United States.

Now it is the turn of Bruce Catton, the man who rescued the Civil War from generations of Lost Cause myth makers and Southern apologists, almost succeeded in making American history cool to a couple of generations, and did so with a journalist’s eye for compelling narrative.  He did it in a series of wildly successful books, as editor of a slick magazine, and without the benefit of an academic degree.  Naturally, he was often disparaged by the Ivory Tower crowd, many of whom were green with envy for what they considered his un-merited public acclaim.

Bruce Catton was born in Petoskey, Michigan on the southeast shore of the Little Traverse Bay of Lake Michigan on October 9, 1899.  That’s the country where young Ernest Hemingway spent his summers fishing and hunting with high school buddies and was the setting for his early Nick Adams stories.  His father was a Congregationalist minister serving the New England diaspora who populated much of the upper Midwest giving it a Yankee and loyally Republican character.

In early childhood the family moved to Benzonia, Michigan in the heart of lumber country.  The village had been founded as a Christian colony before the timber boom and as the home of what became Benzonia Academy.  His father took a teaching position at the school and he soon became headmaster

Many local residents had flocked to the colors when the Civil War broke out.  Michigan was a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment and was near the top of all Northern states in supplying troops to the Union as a percentage of the population.  When Catton was a boy the Civil War was about as distant in time as the Vietnam War is for us today.  There was a large and active Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) post in the town which participated in all public occasions.  Many of the veterans were esteemed civic leaders, businessmen, and politicians still young enough to be vigorous and active.  In his memoir of his Michigan childhood, Waiting for the Morning Train, Canton would recall listening to the stories of the veterans with rapt attention and frank hero worship

Catton went off to college in 1916 to that bastion of liberal Congregationalism, Oberlin College in Ohio with an eye to following his father into an academic career.  But fate, in the form of the American entry into World War I intervened.  What was a young man steeped in patriotism and tales of glory to do, but volunteer?  He dropped out of school and enlisted in the Navy.  He saw no combat duty and after the Armistice was one of the thousands of recruits who were allowed to leave the service early as the Navy prepared to shrink.

After the war, young Catton drifted before he began to pick up assignments as a freelance reporter The Cleveland News.  He turned out to be very good at it.  A newspaper man was born.  He scaled the professional ladder quickly.  From 1920 to ’24 he worked for Hearsts Boston American.  In 1926 it was back to Ohio for a turn as an editor at the The Plain Dealer, the prestige paper in the Cleveland market.

From 1926 to 1941, he worked for the Scripps-Howard Newspaper Enterprise Association syndicate where Catton wrote editorials, book reviews, and served as a Washington correspondent.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Catton was 42 and too old for military service.  Other men of his age and professional accomplishment as well known around Washington as he were able to secure commissions and given administrative, staff, or support duties.  But Catton lacked the college degree that was the magic ticket to such appointments.  Instead, he took a job as Director of Information for the War Production Board which he held through most of the war.  Later he took similar positions at the Department of Commerce and the Department of the Interior.  The latter job included the National Park Service which produced hundreds of historic documents related to its sites, including several Civil War battlefields and cemeteries.

Catton’s perch as a Washington insider during the war gave him insight on the enormous effort to quickly and efficiently organize to mobilize American natural resources and production into the greatest arsenal the world had ever seen.  He kept careful notes during the war and afterward while still working at Commerce and Interior, conducted meticulous research into the effort that sprawled across virtually every agency of the Federal government.   The result was his first book, War Lords of Washington, published in 1948.  Although the publics interest in books about the greatest event of its time seemed insatiable, it did not extend to tales of Washington bureaucrats and desk jockeys.  Although well reviewed, the book was not a success.  But it did inspire Catton to leave government service to concentrate on writing and history. 

With one great war just behind him and his work at the Interior Department to refresh his interest, Catton turned to what would be the great subject of the rest of his career—the Civil War.

His attention focused on the famed—and often criticizedArmy of the Potomac—which General George B. McClellan whipped up into one of the best trained and best equipped armies ever to take the field—indeed in the opinion of many military historians the first really modern army for an industrial age.  Yet McClellan was loathe to risk his creation and constantly overestimated the numbers and condition of his enemy, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  Most accounts of that confrontation had been little more than swoons over Lee’s alleged military genius and the daring-do of brilliant subordinates like J.E.B Stuart and Stonewall Jackson by the creators of the Lost Cause myth

In Mr. Lincolns Army, published in 1951 Catton followed the Army from its shaky beginnings to the epic, bloody, Battle of Antietam, a narrow Union tactical victory but a monumental lost opportunity.  Although well researched and footnoted, Catton departed from a dry academic approach and painted a picture in vivid detail of the daily life of the troops and told many stories gleaned from letters and diaries as well as press accounts and official battle reports.  He approached his epic subject like a novelist with attention to narrative.  It was written frankly not for an academic audience, but for what was then called the intelligent public.

                                     A Stillness at Appomattox in the paperback edition that enthralled me at 16.

It was the first book of what became a trilogy.  Glory Road in 1952 followed the Army under a succession of commanding generals from Fredericksburg to Gettysburg.  But it wasn’t until the third volume, A Stillness at Appomattox, which became a runaway best seller, that the full scope of Catton’s achievement became apparent.  The final book traced the Army under its new de facto commander—George Gordon Meade, victor at Gettysburg, was in nominal command but Ulysses S Grant, in charge of all Union armies, made his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac.  It was a brutal war of attrition with massive losses on both sides which devolved from a war of daring maneuver to a slug fest and eventually trench warfare that previewed the carnage of World War I.  Capping it off was a moving account of Lee’s final surrender and the extraordinarily generous terms old Unconditional Surrender Grant gave his enemy following Lincoln’s directive to “let him up easy.”

The book won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for History.  Readers who had missed the first two volumes were sent scrambling to get a hold of them.  In addition to the original hard cover and subsequent book club editions, mass market paperback editions flew off drug store racks as if the books were romance novels or detective thrillers.  That’s where I picked up my well-thumbed copies in the early ‘60s.  During the Civil War Centennial all three books were issued together in one thick volume as Bruce Catton’s Civil War. 

                           Bruce Catton was the creative and intellectual soul of American Heritage.

That fame and his background as a journalist led directly to Catton’s new job as founding editor and leading contributor to the ambitious American Heritage magazine in 1954.  The magazine aimed directly at the audience of the hugely successful National Geographic—a supposedly middle brow reader with a decent education and curiosity about the world.  Each issue was mounted on quality paper, without advertising, and hardbound—meant to be saved and shelved.  Articles were lavishly illustrated including many cuts in color.  Topflight historians who were willing to adapt to the narrative style of the magazine as well as gifted journalists and writers were recruited to contribute.  Under a distinctive logo of a Federal eagle, wings outstretched, the magazine unapologetically celebrated America.  Catton put it this way in his introductory essay:

We intend to deal with that great, unfinished and illogically inspiring story of the American people doing, being and becoming. Our American heritage is greater than any one of us. It can express itself in very homely truths; in the end it can lift up our eyes beyond the glow in the sunset skies.

In its general outlook, the magazine exuded Eisenhower era patriotism, confidence, and conviction that overall, the nation was on the right side of history and still the “hope of the world.”  Yet it wore its ideology relatively lightly and did not grind its ax too noticeably.  The warts of American history—slavery, the displacement and near eradication of native populations, exploitation of the working class, the age of the robber barons, political corruption, and Jim Crow—were all frankly acknowledged but it did not dwell on them or examine deeply root causes.  The role of immigrants was acknowledged.  And if women were ornaments, not actors on the stage, well, it was all part of the myopia of the times. 

As intended under Catton’s editorial direction American Heritage became a fixture in many middle class homes.  Mine included.  As a youthful history geek, I eagerly awaited each issue and poured over it upon arrival.  It influenced how I write history, even if I take a less rosy prospective and add a dash of class consciousness to my analysis.  My stories are still narrative driven and strive to be entertaining as well as informative.  As middle brow as it gets.  

The historian at work at American Heritage.

Similarly, Catton and American Heritage shaped the sensibilities and style of film documentarian Ken Burns.  It is no accident that his main script writer and the author of the accompanying coffee table books to his epic documentary series is Geoffrey Ward, a Catton disciple and one of his successors as American Heritage editor.

Catton remained the guiding force behind the magazine until 1959 and remained a regular contributor the rest of his life.

Catton continued to mine the Civil War for more books.  U. S. Grant and the American Military Tradition in considered Grant’s military legacy as the essential author of modern industrial warfare and incorporated what is still considered short biographies of the general. The next year he aimed for young readers inn Banners at Shenandoah: A Story of Sheridans Fighting Cavalry about Union cavalry in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864.

But the crowning achievement of the mid-‘50’s was This Hallowed Ground.  It was an account of the war from the Union perspective. Unlike so many other military historians of the war, Catton was an unabashed Union sympathizer.  This book, widely considered the best single volume history of the Civil War, captured the flag from the Southern partisans who dominated the field and was a major turning point in how the war was popularly conceived.  It received the Fletcher Pratt Award from the Civil War Round Table of New York in 1957.

In America Goes to War in 1958, Catton stepped back from the battlefield a bit and examined the Northern mobilization of its vastly superior resources and much larger population.  Drawing from insights from his own World War II experience, Catton was one of the first to depict the Civil War not as the last gasp of Napoleonic set piece battles and chess board maneuvering by opposing armies but as the introduction of industrial and total war in which the enemys population, economy, and resources are as important a target as armies in the field.  He recognized that while Virginian romantic George Patton may have channeled dreams of glory and Stonewall Jackson in his imagination, Dwight Eisenhower was the heir of the relentless, merciless Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.


Catton's two volumes on Ulysses S. Grant were repackaged into a deluxe box set.

In fact, Catton returned to Grant as a subject when the widow of Lloyd Lewis, author of the popular Captain Sam Grant tapped him to complete a projected biographical trilogy about the Union’s triumphant general.  Using Lewis’s research notes as well as his own original research, Catton completed Grant Moves South in 1960 and Grant Takes Command in 1969.

The Centennial of the Civil War naturally brought renewed interest in the subject.  Catton was ready.  The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War and its briefer companion for adolescent readers The American Heritage Short History of the Civil War were both issued in 1960 and became instant classics.  The glossy Picture History was a hefty coffee table tome with more than 800 reproductions of color paintings, illustrated newspaper engravings, and what were then rarely seen photographs.  It also included easy to understand maps.  My mother invested in the very pricy big book.  I was so glad she did.  I spent hours closely examining every illustration and digesting Catton’s text.  So did Ken Burns.  His PBS documentary series was born in Catton’s book.

Handsome illustrations like this reproduction of Winslow Homer's Prisoners from the Front were the hallmark of Catton's The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. 

Catton’s main effort of the ‘60’s was an even grander trilogy, Bruce Cattons Centennial History of the Civil WarThese books went beyond the familiar territory of military history to examine the root causes and social context of the conflict as well as its effects on civilian populations both North and South.  The Coming Fury in 1961explored the causes and events leading to the start of the war, culminating in its first major combat operation, the First Battle of Bull Run. Terrible Swift Sword in 1963 followed both sides as they mobilize for a massive war effort continuing the Battle of Fredericksburg. Never Call Retreat in carried the war through Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and the bloody struggles of 1864 and 1865 before the final surrender.

In 1963 working with his son, historian William Bruce Catton he reached back to examine the building national tensions that lead to the war using the lives of future adversaries Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis as the lenses viewing the events unfold.  The book was an attack on the still common assertion by Southern partisans that the Civil war “was not about slavery.”

UPI and American Heritage collaborated on this book which was rushed to print within days of the assassination and funeral.   Special editions were printed to be offered to the subscribers of UPI member newspapers with the logo added to the cover.  They became the keepsake of a generation.

The same year Catton had to interrupt his work on the Civil War to prepare one of the most popular instant histories of the Kennedy Assassination, Four Days: the Historical Record of the Death of President Kennedy, a 144-page collaboration of American Heritage and United Press International (UPI) which became a must-have memento in millions of homes, mine included.

By the end of the decade, Catton had finally completed his work on the Civil War and moved on to a partial retirement.  He was spending more and more time back home in Michigan where he established a summer residence near his boyhood home of Benzonia.  He crafted Waiting for the Morning Train in 1972, a nostalgic memoir of his childhood and youth.  He followed that up with Michigan: A Bicentennial History in 1976.

Catton had one more big, fat book in him, The Bold and Magnificent Dream: Americas Founding Years, 1492–1815, an ambitious survey from the Age of Discovery through Americas “second war for independence,” the War of 1812.

In 1977 fellow Michigander President Gerald R. Ford presented Catton with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Ford noted that Catton, “made us hear the sounds of battle and cherish peace.”

                            The historian becomes history--a Michigan state marker near Catton's home.

Less than a year later, on August 28, 1978 Catton died at age 79 at his summer home in Frankfort, Michigan.  He was laid to rest under the familiar soil of Benzonia Township Cemetery.

There is considerable irony in the fact that this Union partisan’s papers somehow ended up in the custody of the Southern military academy The Citadel in North Carolina


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