Bruce Catton, Dean of the Civil War

Journalists make the best historians, and in the field of Civil War history, Bruce Catton (1899-1978) was the best. Starting in 1951 and continuing through the Civil War centennial in the 1960s, Catton published 13 books on the Civil War, won a Pulitzer Prize for one of them, and edited one of the best magazines of popular history ever, [i]American Heritage[/i].


Catton, a Michigan native, never finished college. World War I interrupted, and after a stint in the navy, he began work as a newspaper reporter. When World War II began, he went to work in public information with the War Production Administration, then with other federal bureaus. In 1948, at the age of 49, he published his first book[i]Warlords of Washington[/i], about how official Washington mobilized for war. The book sold well enough that he embarked on a career as an author.


Capitalizing on a lifelong love of Civil War history, Catton began a trilogy of books on the Army of the Potomac:[i]Mr. Lincoln’s Army[/i] (1951), [i]Glory Road[/i] (1952), and [i]A Stillness at Appomattox[/i] (1954). The last earned him the Pulitzer. (My favorite of the series was actually the first one, and whenever I talk to a class about George McClellan, I’m thinking of that book.) Catton parlayed those into his gig at [i]American Heritage[/i] and the rest of his Civil War books.


Catton brought a punchy but graceful journalistic prose to Civil War history, and he combined it with a great knack for storytelling. Readers grimace with each one of McClellan’s delays, agonize with each of Burnside’s assaults up Marye’s Heights, and share Grant’s determination as he moves south of the Wilderness. Catton reveals little, if any, bias, discussing strengths and weakness of both North and South equally. His research was thorough.


Certainly academically trained historians know to look at all angles, critically analyze sources, look at new information in light of old arguments, but then they often bog down. Historians with MA’s and Ph.Ds (hey, I’ve got one of each!) tend to write for each other, they forget that history is about people, by people, and for people. (Whew! A Lincoln paraphrase.) Academics get ensnared in theses, paradigms, and historiographies to the point that they forget the most important element of historical writing — story.


That’s why journalists do so well at history. To sell newspapers or magazines, they have to capture a reader’s attention and keep it. Stating and restating a thesis rarely does that. Yes, theses are important; arguments (in the academic sense) propel understanding and interpretations of history.


When Catton told the story of the Civil War, he made it as if you — the reader — were there. He never forgot whom he was writing for.


If you’ve never read any of Bruce Catton’s work on the Civil War, now is a good time to check it out. I recommend you start with the Army of the Potomac trilogy. It is definitely good reading.


Sources:
[url=http://www.mynorth.com/My-North/June-2009/He-Rewrote-History/index.php?cparticle=1&siarticle=0#artanc]John J. Miller, “He Rewrote History,” MyNorth.com[/url]
[url=http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/1979/2/1979_2_44.shtml]Oliver Jensen, “Working with Bruce Catton,” American Heritage.com[/url]

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