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Bruce Catton

June 2024
13min read

Notes about the famous historian and American Heritage editor

For decades, Yale history professor David Blight, an award-winning author and a preeminent scholar of the Civil War, has studied the legacy of Bruce Catton, the historian/writer who significantly shaped our understanding of the Civil War by bringing it into exhilarating, memorable relief through his books and magazine articles. “Few writers have grasped the transformative effect of the war so well,” says Blight, “along with understanding that it is ultimately a great human story.” 

Catton became the first historian Blight read as a teenager. During summer recreations jobs during college, he remembers praying for rain so he could sneak away and read Stillness at Appomattox or Coming Fury. It was Catton's prose that drew him in, “his uncanny ability to tell stories that made the past so immediate.” He chalks Catton up as a major impetus to his first wanting to teach history teacher in Flint, Michigan, and then to go on to become a historian. Some of that narrative punch comes out in Blight’s A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation (Harcourt 2007), an excerpt of which appeared in our Fall 2008 issue. (To see that article, go to and search under “authors” for David Blight.)

We’re particularly in debt to Catton here at American Heritage because he served as our founding editor in 1954. In the first issue he wrote:  “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.” His effective storytelling and narrative style still influences the magazine.

                                                                                                            —The Editors

Bruce Catton, who would become the most prolific, popular historian of the war, the Pulitizer-prize-winning author of Stillness at Appomattox and many books, “soaked up Civil War history” as a child in the early 20th century of northern Michigan, in the “cut-over lumber country” almost 300 miles northwest of Detroit. His father, George R. Catton, was the devoutly Christian principal of Benzonia Academy, a local private school. The small town of Benzonia, wrote Catton in his autobiography, “was a good place to wait for the morning train.” Surrounded by books, readers, and educators, but especially under the spell of some elderly Union veterans who spent time waiting for the “morning limited” in the company of impressionable young boys, Catton cultivated a lasting, romantic imagination for the Civil War. The veterans “made it a living thing,” Catton recalled privately in 1954, “which, in my youthful imagination, had somehow happened . . . just over the next hill and just five or ten years ago. It was very real and terribly important, and probably I never got over it.”

Indeed, he never did. And he made sure, in the centennial years of the 1950s and 1960s, that his millions of readers never got over the war either. Catton almost always wrote about the Civil War with a sense of the epic, and of romance and an appeal to the nostalgic, as well as his own brand of realism. In a 1972 autobiographical remembrance, he acknowledged his roots in small-town innocence, a place where people actually believed “the big wrongs were all being righted.”

“My boyhood,” he wrote, “was a slice of the town, with its quaint fundamentals greatly magnified.” Even “on the eve of the terrible century of mass slaughter . . . of concentration camps and bombing raids, of cities gone to ruin and race relations grown desperate and poisonous, of the general collapse of all accepted values and the unendurable tension of the age of nuclear fission . . . it was possible, even inevitable, for many people to be optimistic. The world was about to take off its mask, and our worst nightmares did not warn us what we were going to see.” No matter what he saw, the boy from Benzonia wrote about the nation’s greatest historical nightmare with lyrical optimism.

The festivities and cemetery rituals for Memorial Day—then called Decoration Day—left the most indelible impressions on the young boy’s memory. When every returning spring brought lilacs blooming in everyone’s yard, each family would march behind veterans to the cemetery and drop blossoms near the homemade monument to the war dead; the old soldiers could not afford an official, factory-produced memorial. For the rest of his life, wrote Catton, he could never see or smell lilacs in bloom without remembering the old men “in blue uniforms with brass buttons and black campaign hats”—Elihu Linkletter, “who had lost his left arm in the Wilderness,” John Van Deman, who once told the wide-eyed young Catton he had “been wounded in some battle in West Virginia,” and Lyman Judson, “his horse being shot out from under him” while serving in Sheridan’s cavalry.

Catton remembered these graybeards as “men set apart” by a mystical experience, but also as “pillars . . . of the community” and the “embodiment” of all the values of a slowly dying, small-town America: Christian steadiness, patriotism, the “nation’s greatness and high density,” and especially a rock-hard belief in “progress” and the “future.” Writing at the time of Watergate in the 1970s, and, more important, during the depths of the bloody debacle of Vietnam, Catton saw these Civil War veterans as his lilac-scented wellspring of inspiration.

These heroes from the Grand Army of the Republic’s E.P. Case Post No. 372 were one living source of a Michigan boy’s historical imagination and dreams of escape from the stultifying backwater in which he came of age. At least, it was so until 1916, when the local GAR post sponsored a performance by a traveling duet: the “Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock” and his storytelling sidekick. The drummer, a “professional Civil War veteran” who roamed the Midwestern states entertaining audiences for a living, possessed a “set line of patter, memorized and carefully rehearsed.” The routine included bad jokes only the veterans seemed to enjoy, and “Taps” as well as other military standards played on a drum. The rousing drum beat of the finale simulated the clamor of battle, from a roaring infantry charge to the collapse of the enemy in full flight, “down finally to scattered sniping by rear-guard parties—then silence.” The awful “racket,” Catton remembered, filled the auditorium; but this whole event had disturbed the young Catton. “Instead of looking heroic,” he wrote, “. . . giants from the magical mist of an age of greatness, they suddenly looked pathetic.”

This was 1916 and “Verdun,” he said, had no place in the nostalgic gatherings of old Civil War soldiers and their youthful acolytes. For Catton, this disturbing episode was the “pinprick that exploded the toy balloon.” Pity now diminished the veterans in his eyes, and that vaunted sense of “permanence” and “progress,” which was the lifeblood in his small universe of Civil War lore, was “subject to revision.” Amid the Cold War culture of the 1950s, and through a penchant for grassroots research and an extraordinary gift for narrative prose, Catton would try to reclaim, even reinvent, that “magical mist” of the Civil War era that he had temporarily lost in 1916.

At the beginning of the 1950s Catton began a very long and successful publishing relationship with Doubleday. Mr. Lincoln’s Army (1951), Glory Road (1952), and A Stillness at Appomattox (1954) appeared in rapid succession and, practically overnight, made Catton the most popular and celebrated writer about the Civil War. Stillness garnered him the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, massive sales, and a regular place in the Book-of-the-Month Club. Living in Washington and making daily use of the Library of Congress, he found time to write a short study, Ulysses S. Grant and the American Military Tradition, in the Library of American Biography, published by Little, Brown and edited by Oscar Handlin, a professor of history at Harvard. Handlin wanted writers who could make the series “accessible to the common reader,” and after reading Mr. Lincoln’s Army, he asked Catton to capture Grant as “a symbol of the strength and weaknesses of the American common man” and the “dynamic aspect of life in the middle west.” Catton, the Midwesterner who had not really wanted to write biography, devoted the final third of his book to Grant’s presidential years and, following in the footsteps of the late Lloyd Lewis, helped revive Grant studies. Handlin wanted Catton in his stable of biographers, but in his detailed editing of the Grant manuscript, he noted that the ending was “too triumphal.” This was not the last time someone would so characterize Catton’s work, and yet, by the mid-1950s, Catton had become a unique publishing phenomenon in the field of history. How did he do it? What was the “Catton touch,” the “Catton secret”? It lay in the storytelling, and in the author’s uncanny ability to plant his flag in the North while writing about the war as a profound, national experien

ce, somehow unifying in the depths of its division. But his magic, knowingly or not, may have begun where Catton himself began. He decided to write the history of what seemed to be the neglected Northerner, the common Yankee soldier in that most famous and yet so often maligned army—the Army of the Potomac—initially losers, but the ultimate big winners. Catton set out to chronicle everybody’s loss and then everybody’s victory, in his reconciliatory narrative. That he did so through the lens of the Northern enlisted man is an extraordinary achievement of both literary and marketing skill. The South’s story of heroic defeat in a noble Lost Cause, laced with simultaneous denials and embraces of white supremacy, had cried out for a popular counterpart. This was especially the case in the midst of the Cold War and as the civil rights movement took hold in a divided and turbulent South. In the Army of the Potomac, whose veterans Catton had known in his youth, he found his story, the piece of history he most wanted to research and write; but he quickly learned that as the centennial of the Civil War approached, he had tapped into an expanding public appetite for military honor and glory in the wake of World War II.

As Catton set up a contrast between the beguiling romance and the destructive reality of war in the opening chapter of Mr. Lincoln’s Army, he drifted back to personal memory. “In the end,” he rhapsodized, the Army of the Potomac would become the stuff of “legend, with a great name that still clangs when you touch it. The orations, the brass bands and the faded flags of innumerable Decoration Day observances, waiting for it in the years ahead, would at last create a haze of romance, deepening spring by spring until the regiments . . . became unreal—colored lithograph figures out of a picture book war, with dignified graybeards bemused by their own fogged memories of a great day when all the world was young and all the comrades were valiant.” In such long sentences, Catton seduced readers who needed, perhaps demanded, their reality coated with a little romance. It was the 1950s: the economy was booming for the middle class; America had just been the least damaged and most unequivocal victor in the biggest war ever fought; families with automobiles were “seeing the USA in a Chevrolet” as they traveled to historic battlefields; and millions of readers, largely male and conditioned by their own military experience, were eager for great war stories. Like the works of Francis Parkman in America and Thomas Macaulay in England before him, Catton’s works became a kind of national siren song into the past, to the scenes of a distant but deeply resonant war.

The three volumes of Catton’s original Civil War trilogy could be read as stand-alone books, but they were also connected thematically and chronologically. Few of Catton’s readers ever read one without moving on to the next. Mr. Lincoln’s Army cast its main focus on General George B. McClellan, who built and commanded the Army of the Potomac from August 1861 almost continually until the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. Still, the narrative’s driving force came from the host of young men from all over the North, whose voices and experiences Catton recovered from regimental histories and collections of letters sent to him by dozens of ordinary citizens. Those common soldiers were heroic, even in the defeats in which they were so often led by fumbling generals.

The second book, Glory Road, is the riveting, bloody story of how the Civil War became an all-out affair, fought entirely either to sustain an older order or to make the nation new once more, a struggle from which neither side could ever “call retreat.” Glory Road takes the story from the wintry slaughter of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862, into the year of Emancipation, through the extremity of Gettysburg the following July, and finally to a subtle, moving conclusion as Abraham Lincoln prepares to deliver an address at a cemetery on that battlefield four grim months later.

And in A Stillness at Appomattox, to this day probably his most widely-read work, Catton lays out the war from the point of view of what was now Grant’s army, from February 1864 until the surrender of April 1865, hauntingly and beautifully rendered in some of Catton’s most remarkable prose. Even a modern cynic, appalled by war and its more recent and all-embracing horrors, can hardly help but being seduced by the opening chapter of Stillness, which portrays a Washington’s Birthday gala ball held in winter quarters for the officers of the Army of the Potomac’s Second Corps in northern Virginia. Impending doom hangs over the occasion, which is deceptively bright with the fancy dresses of the women and the polished brass and boots of the men. Handsome men in blue had “swords neatly hooked up to their belts” and “wore spurs.” “Escorts and guests seemed to make a particular effort to be gay, as if perhaps the music and the laughter and the stylized embrace of the dance might help everybody to put out of mind the knowledge that in the campaign which would begin in the spring a considerable percentage of these officers would unquestionably be killed.” The dancers “quoted Byron to themselves and borrowed . . . the tag ends of implausible poetry describing a bloodless, bookish war. It was born of a romantic dream and it was aimed at glory, and glory was out of date, a gauzy wisp of rose-colored filament trailing from a lost world.” Elegiac, and reaching for tragedy, Catton drew his readers into his orbit. How better to set the scene for the bloodiest campaign of the war than with the sights and sounds of a consciously elegant ball just before the serious killing began? Readers now had to stay with Catton on that road, to see just how much and how irredeemably the notion of “glory” might be out of date.

By any measure, Stillness is great war literature. If by the 1950s the United States still awaited its Tolstoy of Civil War fiction, it no longer had to wait for one in narrative history. Catton wrote with a matchless sense of realism and redemptive tragedy.

Many traditional academic historians as well as famous writers admired and befriended Catton during his years of success, especially after 1954, when, at the urging of Columbia’s Allan Nevins, Catton took up the editorship of the newly reconstituted American Heritage magazine in New York. Somehow, he coped with the demands of the position—the daily grind of soliciting articles, conceiving ideas, and editing the glitzy, popular hardcover magazine about a triumphant American history—while still finding the time to write his own books. Catton also contributed a review to nearly every issue of American Heritage, which soared in readership numbers and brought its editor widespread acclaim. One avid reader of both the magazine and the books praised Catton in a 1957 letter for connecting with his audience like “no one else . . . since Stephen Crane,” and asserted that his gift for ending a story was “much like that of Dickens.”

Catton had harnessed a good portion of those millions of Americans who still knew the Civil War as intimate family history, who had absorbed its lore from parents and grandparents. He gave them a new language for retelling an old story, revisiting documents and photographs, and singing the old songs again. Much of Catton’s success stems from the fact that he not only represented the Civil War as an intersectional, mutual tragedy with plenty of heroes on both sides and no true villains, but also as a series of mysterious evils embedded in the forces of history or human nature itself. This was the stuff of epic, America’s Iliad—a moving, bracing, if bloody rebaptism of a better America now struggling to sustain its superpower leadership and survival in the Cold War. Catton seemed powerfully motivated by the idea that America needed a redemptive history of its most divisive event that would ultimately reconcile and unite it.

But he had also read the post-World-War-II historians and adopted much of their sense of the Civil War as an “irrepressible conflict.” He declared repeatedly that the deep roots of the war lay in the “argument over slavery,” which was usually couched in an almost ubiquitous and sometimes frustratingly vague use of the term “tragedy.” Without doubt, Catton saw slavery as the war’s central cause—in the long term and the short. Southern leaders of secession, he argued, resolved that the “institution which Southern society lived by” must be preserved at all costs. Yet, oddly, he still maintained that the secessionists’ “motives,” the “fated” reasons “why” they bolted from the Union, “remain riddles to this day,” a muddling of an otherwise careful interpretation of a profound historical question.

In the long run, Catton’s approach to race and slavery seemed to stem from an odd mixture of serious engagement, selective reading and research, and a sense that such questions were preliminaries to the main event: the epic military narrative of countless ordinary, overwhelmingly white soldiers swept up in a death struggle they only half understood. In a 1956 speech, Catton said that “slavery was destroyed simply because it was in the way.” His discussion of slavery in books and speeches gives some attention to blacks generally, but very little to black Civil War leaders. He appears hardly to have known about Frederick Douglass; and while knew about the participation of black troops, he does not humanize them in the same manner or extent as that of the men of the Army of the Potomac. After acknowledging that the Civil War simply would not have happened but for the presence of enslaved blacks, Catton could conclude: “Since he was not allowed to talk, the Negro did not complain much . . . but the business was disturbing to other people because it was obvious that slavery was morally wrong and everyone knew that things morally wrong could not endure.” The Negro did not complain? Everyone knew?

Dudley T. Cornish, a historian at Kansas State College, and the author of the 1956 book The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Civil War, 1861-1865, challenged Catton to take more notice of what black soldiers had accomplished in the war, both in his books and in American Heritage. More specifically he criticized the editor for writing in the magazine that “very few facts of any real consequence still remain to be dug up” about the Civil War. Catton wrote back, admitting his neglect of black troops, a subject he deemed “quite new.” This apparent ignorance of the antebellum slave narratives perfectly represented mainstream America’s broad ignorance of the African American experience generally. Frederick Douglass’s now famous 1845 Narrative came back into print after nearly a century only in 1960, the year Catton finished The Coming Fury.

The Civil War had found its place and its popular voice in Catton, in the midst of Cold War consensus. To the overwhelming majority of Americans at the beginning of the centennial, if American history contained black people, they were still largely voiceless and invisible, despite the roar of contemporary events across the South from Greensboro to Birmingham. One might say a kind of fault line lay underneath the epic Civil War portrayed in Catton’s books and popular culture by the early 1960s—a fracture waiting to loose quakes and tremors that would peel away so many false facades. It was all a matter of forcing people to cock their ears to a different pitch. By will and by inertia, and under the numbing influence of a powerful and lingering Lost Cause tradition, most Civil War aficionados could not yet hear the new sounds from their past.

In 1972, when Catton wrote the dark endings to his memoir and reflected on the troubled and violent fate of humankind, he was perhaps entirely aware after all of the full character of the story he had told and sold so well. Remembering his innocent youth one last time, the 73-year-old accused himself of “regarding the past so fondly we are unable to get it in proper focus, and we see virtues that were not there.” And then he gave his own brand of Americanized tragedy a devastating blow: “It is easy to take the tragic view (which I proudly supposed that I was doing), as long as you do not know what tragedy really means. Pessimism has a fine tart flavor when you know that everything is going to come out all right.” After such success, was the poet and the former public relations man admitting he had enjoyed the war too much?

In the wake of the violence in the 1960s, the urban riots and assassinations, and the American tragedy unfolding in Vietnam as well as back home, perhaps Catton recalled with ambivalence some of his writings about the passionately optimistic centennial era. After so often leaving his readers choked up with mystic emotion about “the fallen” yet little wiser about the war’s meaning and consequences, perhaps the elder Catton felt a strange kind of survivor’s guilt. The Yankee who became the “last survivor of both sides,” as the famed publisher, Alfred Knopf, once called him, went home to Benzonia, and spent his last years in the north woods of Michigan.

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