Some New Civil War Classics

When the Civil War Sesquicentennial came around, it reminded me of the sets that were published to coincide with the Centennial of the Civil War. I decided to dust off Bruce Catton’s three volume Centennial History. I had the impression that modern scholarship had made this set obsolete but I was quickly jolted out of this notion within pages of picking up this book. If the scholarship was not up to today’s standards (mostly because Catton’s researcher E. B. Long probably had to manually copy any notes or quotes he wanted to use–he couldn’t simply Xerox pages and pages from the O.R. or from archives or library materials) the writing more than makes up for that. If any war or period was ever dramatic it’s the Civil War era. And Bruce Catton’s portrayal of the actors and the drama being played out surpasses anything that contemporary historians are publishing. Modern historians may provide more facts but they lose out in terms of providing a vivid feel for the people and the era.
 
One thing however that’s obvious is that Bruce Catton misjudged his ability to cover the war in three volumes. Vol. 2 ends at Antietam. That leaves Catton with a single volume to cover the rise of Grant and his campaigns and battles, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Sherman’s rise and his campaigns…the third volume is like a “flashcards” history of the war. But the writing is, in a word, magnificent. Also, and because I wasn’t ready to put Catton down, I read the Lloyd Lewis/ Bruce Catton biography of Grant. It ends with the Civil War–perhaps Catton didn’t want to face the bleak interlude between Appomattox and Mount McGregor–but I was ready to start the book again as soon as I’d finished it. Catton (and Shelby Foote) had a magical, stirring feel for the War and it’s dramatis personae.   

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