Len’s Book Review: Reflections on the Civil War

Reflections on the Civil War 

By Bruce Catton, edited by John Leekley (Doubleday and Company, 1981, 240 pages plus index)

In 1973, as a cadet at Virginia Military Institute, I took the legendary professor John Barrett’s course on the Civil War and Reconstruction. As part of the class, we were required to read 1,000 pages independently. I selected Bruce Catton’s The Army of the Potomac trilogy: Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road and A Stillness at Appomattox (1296 pages). Stillness earned Catton the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.

Bruce Catton was born in 1899 and died in 1978. He met and was influenced by Civil War veterans—their “Greatest Generation.” A World War 1 veteran, Catton was the founding editor of American Heritage Magazine, wrote 13 books not including the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. It was this colorful book at my Grandpa Karl’s house that ignited my interest in the Civil War.

Continuing in my effort to bring older books to the attention of my audience, I selected this book for review. I must admit to trepidation after the disappointing reality of Albert Castel’s Articles of War. Fortunately, it was an unfounded fear. Catton did not write this book; it was assembled posthumously and published in 1981; however it was under construction.

Catton was in the latter part of his life when he agreed to a series of interviews that could be used in an educational environment. They were not designed to be commercially exploited and represented the considered conclusions of a 50-plus year immersion in the men, women, and events of the period. He was influenced by his upbringing in Michigan, and his books are noteworthy for their northern bias—not prejudice, but rather influence and generational exposure to the northern attitudes toward the legacy of the war. His works were to the North what Douglas Southall Freeman’s were to the South. Those biases were significant and influential.

With Catton’s death, John Leekley, who had been working with Catton on an 1861 sketchbook by Union soldier John Geyser, collaborated with Catton’s family and friends to bring these ruminations to print, with this book produced in 1981 being the result. Leekley was wise enough to bring in E. B. “Pete” Long to write an introduction. Long, who is one of the nation’s most important and detailed Civil War scholars, set the bar for what to expect in the release. “He was the deft and moving teller and ‘crier’ of the ‘true’ story, or at least as close as we can get to the truth. I and those who analyze his work seriously can testify to his absolute dedication to the cannons of history, to those mysterious ‘rules of evidence’ to the trade and practice of the careful writer and historian. But beyond that is the eternal question mark any honest man must always face. For Bruce is not only the superb narrator, but the meticulous evaluator turned philosopher.” Long says much, much more that you should not skip over; but, his conclusion written in the wake of America’s horrid experience with Civil Rights violence and the destructive Vietnam period and the Nixon impeachment is that Catton was optimistic that America could and would reconstruct itself as it did after the Civil War.

The book is intellectually stimulating but not rigorous. Because the interviews were edited and collected into six groupings titled “A Moving Tide.” Life in the Army,” “The Roads Led to Battle,” “The First Modern War,” “There Was a Young Soldier,” and “Visions,” each becomes its own mini-symposium with Catton as the speaker and moderator. Some may interest some people and others other people. I had to remind myself the manuscript was edited and that Catton never saw it whenever I came across errors of fact, and there are some. Having said that, the real nuggets of wisdom that jump out clearly repudiate the current “revisionist interpretations and actions” that have brought down statues, purged history books, and muted all but the most dedicated of Civil War students and buffs.

Intriguing Excerpts

To illustrate the match between Pete Long’s evaluation of Catton’s integrity and his considered conclusions, I want to share some excerpts that will please some and return thinking people to a degree of sanity about the people and the issues of the Civil War. Ironically, these conclusions reached in the fifties, sixties, and seventies before his death are presented in another period of American strife. I find myself encouraged by his intellectual honesty—I hope you will too.

The Price of War

The first controversy that catches my attention is his conclusion in the last paragraph of section four in his subchapter “A Terrible Price.” He postulates (p. 139): “I don’t suppose any country ever made war without making some very large mistakes affecting the duration and in some cases even the outcome of the war.”

Catton opines that the Confederacy paid too much attention to Virginia, ignoring the Atlantic Coast and the West. The thought-process pivots to Joe Johnston and the Atlanta campaign and Johnston’s failure to fight an all-out campaign to the death just before the U.S. presidential election. This results in the replacement of Johnston with John Bell Hood, who fights three awful battles for Atlanta, losing all three and ultimately Atlanta, thus cementing the fate of the Confederacy.

Catton concludes on p. 142: “I think the decision to replace Johnston with Hood was probably the largest single mistake that either government made during the war. In the crucial days near the end, it had a direct bearing on the final result.” Agree with him or not, that is intellectual brain salad.

A Man of Integrity

In “He Embodies the Cause,” on pp. 148-154, he speaks about Jefferson Davis. “He was a man of very high principles, a man of great integrity, and completely dedicated to his ideals. When people differed with him … a fairly substantial number of Southern leaders found it almost impossible to work with him. This included some very fine generals, like Joseph E. Johnston and Beauregard … it developed into personal distrust and dislike. … Davis of course had an almost impossible job to do. … Davis did his best. … The chance to win a victory in the field vanished, probably with the Battle of Gettysburg, but it was hard for Davis to see this. … He hung on with great dedication and complete courage to the very end. … In fact, he refused to give up even after the slightest chance had vanished.”

Catton then postulates that in the times even the victorious Union realized “it was possible to see that men like Davis had not been traitors, but had been, according to their own lights, patriotic Americans trying to gain for themselves and their people what they considered complete freedom.”

Catton concludes: “By the 1880s, people throughout the South … had come to see Davis as the embodiment of the courage and dedication that had supported the Southern cause. They remembered too that to the day of his death Robert E. Lee … had never said a word in criticism of President Davis. … At the time of his death, Davis had reestablished himself as a southern hero. He had moved into a niche in southern affections that he occupies to this day, and I don’t think there is much tendency in the North to try and dislodge him from that particular niche. He is remembered as an admirable, memorable American, and I think he will always be remembered as such … we see him as a man of dauntless courage, a man of the highest ideals, who sacrificed himself and his career for the cause that meant more to him than anything else in the world.”

A Young Soldier

In Section five, “There was a Young Soldier,” Leekley fulfills his father’s life-long fascination with the sketchbook of Private John Geyser and constructs a chapter around the life of Federal engineers as interpreted by Catton. The chapter is more substantial than others in that it is based more on fact than reflective intuition, and yet the brilliance of what is to follow is encapsulated in the following excerpt.

“Follow a Civil War soldier through a battle and you find you are studying two incomprehensible paths through space. One is the trajectory of the bullet that kills him: flat, direct, whining, going from here to there (200 yards as likely as not) in a second or two and then stopping forever.

“The other is the trajectory of the man. It (the man) is infinitely complicated, unhurried, wandering down through the years with all sorts of twists, convolutions, false starts, unexpected dips and curves, and meaningless pauses. There is no pattern to it. It just goes until something stops it, or until its original impetus is finally exhausted. And then it stops forever … or at least it vanishes to where we can no longer see it. If these two trajectories—that of the bullet and the man—meet they both end. … The short life of bullet’s flight caused it to be at one particular point in space one foot above the top rail of a fence along farmer Jones cornfield, say at precisely twenty-one minutes past nine o’clock on a certain Tuesday in September. The man’s own flight, leisurely and whimsical, and all but purposeless, guided by forces whose complexity we can never understand, brought him from afar to that same place at exactly the same moment. If by any of the infinite chances by which life is guided had made him veer one foot the other way or had delayed him by one second, his trajectory would not have crossed that of the bullet and he would have lived. …”

This degree of speculation is what qualifies Catton as the brilliant analyst he was. He understands fate or blind chance and deals with it honestly and maturely. He subsequently extrapolates it to Private Geyser.

Geyser’s experience becomes the trajectory of the engineer in the Army of the Potomac, while Catton’s attention to detail brings you to Robert Patterson and Harper’s Ferry in early 1861; the Peninsula Campaign—where you receive a tutorial about the master and mastery of river crossings, marshes, and swamps; and the fate of nature surrounding the siege of Yorktown, the battle of Seven Pines, and the subsequent Seven Days battles and then Fredericksburg. When you are done, you are a smarter person no matter who you are.

The final chapter, “Visions,” has just one subchapter, “A Dark Indefinite Shore,” which summaries the war in concise but digestible bites such as considering the battles at Spotsylvania Court House: “What motivated the men on both sides? What drove them into that? What kept them at it? What prevented them from running away?”

Catton says “I … have come to the conclusion that the American man is a pretty good man, no matter what part of the country he comes from. When he sets himself to do something, he will stick with it as long as he can stand on his feet and breathe.”

What Did the Civil War Do for Us?

 He then asks about the Civil War … What did it do for us? What did it accomplish? He then says that after long reflection: “That the war was worthwhile, that it did accomplish something. It gave us political unity. …[T]he North American continent was not Balkanized; the geographic unit that made possible the wealth and prosperity of later days was preserved. Beyond that the country made a commitment during the war; a commitment to a broader freedom, a broader citizenship. … We can no longer be content with anything less than complete liberty, complete equality before law for all our people regardless of their color, their race, their religion, their national origins: regardless of anything. We all have to fare alike. … We have not yet reached the goal we set ourselves at the time, and I am not sure we will ever be satisfied with our progress. But at least we keep going …”

A Strong Conclusion

Catton finishes strong in a statement about Americans both North and South “The surrender at Appomattox was one of the most important moments in American history. … When Lee left Appomattox Court House … he rode straight into legend. He took his army with him … to an extent that none of the Northern soldiers or armies succeeded in doing. … It seems to me that that fact is one of the best things that ever happened to the United States for this reason: The men of the Southern Confederacy had fought a four year civil war; they had fought it to the limits of their ability; they had lost. Some of the things Northern armies did on Southern soil were not calculated to make the Southern people love them. All in all, the people of the South had been through a hard, bitter experience. … The Southerners were not going to resign themselves to defeat. … [I]n the end there was peace.”

Catton the Northern historian concludes with his penultimate point: “The legend of Lee and the dauntless Confederate soldiers was that they suffered mightily in a great but lost cause. The point is that this very phrase accepts the cause as being lost … This was the lost cause; something to be cherished, to be revered, to be the outlet for emotions, but not to be the center of a new outbreak of violence. … I think the way Lee and his soldiers conducted themselves in the hours of surrender has a great deal to do with it.”

Every book must end, and Catton returns to the final act with Lincoln’s assassination with a deep and robust construct. “Like Lincoln we are moving toward a destiny bigger than we can understand. The dark, indefinite shore is still ahead of us. Maybe we will get there some day if we live up to what the great men of our past won for us. And when we get there, it will be fair to suppose that instead of being dark and indefinite, that unknown continent will be lit with sunlight.”

The Rating

I have rated this book 4 and 1/2 stars. For an educational organization, this is as good as it gets. Had it not been the edited product of friends of Catton, it would have earned a 5-star rating. But errors of fact, especially in the early parts of the book, could have been the errors of a brilliant mind in its free flow of ideas who misspoke, or it could have been errors in interpretation by the editor and his staff. Regardless, it should not have survived the editing process. But for pure intellectual stimulation, the assessment of an admittedly biased northern historian analyzing, yes reflecting on, the Civil War and all its permutations reminds us that the sound-bite interpretations of the past few years and the destruction accompanying it is not real history. … That has been written and cannot be erased by outside agents. To read and ponder Catton’s Reflections on the Civil War is to be reminded that these great events have meaning in context that will transcend pop history and contemporary political and sociological pressures to rewrite it.

I think you want to read this book more than once.