Bruce Catton (1899-1978) grew up in Petoskey, Michigan, listening to the stories of old Civil War veterans. As a boy, he was enraptured by these first-hand accounts, but his own experiences in World War I led him to believe that those Civil War veterans didn’t really understand modern warfare. His memoir of growing up, which included his interactions with Civil War veterans, was published in 1972 and entitled Waiting for the Morning Train: An American Boyhood.
At some point, he realized how wrong he was. He became a journalist and worked for such newspapers as the Boston American, Cleveland News, and Cleveland Plain Dealer. He never lost interest in the Civil War, and Catton continued studying and researching the period before, during, and after the war. He read extensively on the subject, and what he noticed was how historians talked about battles and generals, without paying much attention to the experiences of soldiers.
And it wasn’t for lack of sources. Hundreds if not thousands of memoirs had been published by Civil War veterans on both sides of the conflict. Regimental histories had been written. But these accounts weren’t the Civil War most Americans were familiar with.
Catton focused on the federal Army of the Potomac and wrote three books which focused heavily on the experiences of the soldiers. The first volume in what became a trilogy was Mr. Lincoln’s Army, published in 1951. The second volume was Glory Road (1952), and the third was A Stillness at Appomattox (1954). Sales weren’t exactly robust; the nation’s appetite for Civil War history seemed to have waned.
And then A Stillness at Appomattox won the Pulitzer Prize for history, followed by a National Book Award. The resulting publicity encouraged new readers and buyers. Here was a journalist (of all things) doing what historians had paid scant attention to – the experiences of the soldier. This wasn’t reading about Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Jefferson Davis; this was reading about the war fought by the boy next door, or your own son.
No one had written history like this before in America. Reading it gave people the impression they were firsthand witnesses, a result of its journalistic style. The series became popular and passed into publishing (and Civil War history) legend. Not only did it inspire Shelby Foote to write his multi-volume history of the Civil War, it also led to Ken Burns’ epic documentary for PBS. The series began airing in September of 1990 to 40 million television viewers. If you watched it (and I was one of those 40 million), you couldn’t forget David McCullough, the narrator, introducing the letters written by soldiers to their wives, sweethearts, and parents. Like Catton’s books, it made the Civil War profoundly personal.
The Library of America, a national publishing treasure if ever there was one, has recently combined Catton’s three volumes into one, simply entitled Catton: The Army of the Potomac Trilogy. It’s edited by Gary Gallagher, the John L. Nau III Professor of History of the American Civil War Emeritus at the University of Virginia. Gallagher includes an exceptionally fine introduction to Catton and his writing. The volume also includes maps of the battles fought by the Army of the Potomac, drawn by Rafael Palacios. Its hefty content (more than 1,100 pages of texts, plus another 100 of notes, bibliography, and index) is packaged in a relatively compact yet easily readable volume.
And it’s still a thrilling read, just like it was originally in the 1950s and through numerous editions, and just like the stories Catton heard when he was a boy in Petoskey, fascinated by the tales of Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, and so many more, all told by the now-grizzled old men who had fought them.