Terrible Swift Sword, by Bruce Catton *****

terribleswiftswordBrilliant and highly recommended for those who want the details in their American Civil War account. May be read singly or as the second in Catton’s trilogy.

Catton’s trilogy was written as a Centennial History for the 100th year of Union victory and the preserved integrity of the United States of America. His writing reflects the time period, as a strong historian with a nevertheless very Caucasian focus to his work. “People” means white folk when he does the talking, and to be fair, in 1965, unless a writer was a person of color, this was the unfortunate tendency. Nevertheless I give this work five stars, because I have done quite a bit of reading about this bottomless topic, and he taught me a great deal.

Before you set off to read it, though, whether by itself or as the second volume of a trilogy, look at the subject and the page count. Don’t read it if you are still separating Stanton from Seward or McClernand from McPherson. Be ready.

That said, I never really understood before that the Cumberland Gap is also the Wilderness Road (so, Daniel Boone meets the Civil War, sort of). I hadn’t completely understood that US forces were poised on the border of Kentucky, which had (ridiculously it seems now) attempted to remain neutral between the warring factions, way too much land right there in the middle, but they gave it a go, and said that the first army to cross into Kentucky was the enemy, so Lincoln said to wait till the Confederacy crossed, and the rest is history. And before reading this trilogy, I didn’t realize that there was ever a thought over fighting for West Virginia, which was silly of me. In a time where almost every square foot of the border (and eventually beyond) was a source of contention, why would I have believed that West Virginia could leave Virginia, with all of its resources, and no effort have been made by the Confederacy to keep it? And because McClellan took the (physical) high ground before the opposing forces could get there, he got to be the grand pooh-bah of the Union army, after humiliating poor old Scott whose Anaconda Plan was actually very good.

In fact, McClellan really wanted all the power all of the time, and the nasty-tempered letters he sent back to the missuz (oh how many of us think our correspondence will be kept private?) show that he not only wanted to control the army, but he wanted to be either dictator or president long before the re-election of Lincoln was in question. His slowness and reluctance to do battle with his slave-holding pals down south looks more treasonous the more I read about it. Catton builds a compelling case. But Lincoln had to be very careful in replacing him, as Catton documents it, because the attitude had entrenched itself down into the other officers and to a smaller (but weaker) extent, the rank and file. Ultimately, when Lincoln unseated McClellan, it was the rank and file that pulled the army through to the other side when McClellan weighed the matter to see whether his army would march against its own president to install him in personal, powerful splendor. I tremble to think what might have happened had McClellan been more fortunate, and Lincoln less savvy.

I most of all enjoyed a quote by Lincoln that says it all, and which I don’t recall seeing elsewhere. When a representative of Louisiana Unionists sought his reassurance regarding slavery in 1862, Lincoln responded, “It may as well be understood once and for all, that I shall not surrender this game leaving any available card unplayed.”

Well played, President Lincoln, and well written, Mr. Catton. Onward to the last volume in the series!

4 thoughts on “Terrible Swift Sword, by Bruce Catton *****

    • Thanks. I had to hunt for it; I found all three volumes in beautiful, slick library binding in the upper reaches of Powell’s City of Books in Portland, OR. (My daughter has told me that since I mention them so often, I should solicit them for advertising, but I guess I am a better reader and writer than businesswoman.)


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