Bruce Catton was known as a popular historian when he first published books about the American Civil War, because of his narrative nonfiction format. All of the books being released digitally now are ones previously published in a non-digital age. This reviewer hunted down Catton’s three volume Centennial History of the Civil War at a used bookstore some time back, and although they were among the best I have ever read by anyone on this topic, I was convinced that anything he had published earlier on the subject was probably repackaged in this trilogy, and so I stopped reading Catton, thinking I was done. Thank goodness Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media posted the galley for this second volume of Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy. Now that I am disabused, I will have to find the first and third volumes also, because Catton is so eloquent that he can spin ordinarily dry-sounding military history into as good a read as the most compelling fiction.
Although his Civil War books are not written in academic format, there is no denying Catton’s research or his credentials. He was one of the founders of American Heritage Magazine, and served as its senior editor until his death. During World War II, he was the US government’s Director of Information for the War Production Board, then later worked in a similar capacity for the Department of the Interior and Department of Commerce.
Frankly, in order to spin the story of the three battles that comprise most of this volume out in such a conversational manner, dropping anecdotes in at just the right moments and then carrying on so as to make us feel as if he is a journalist traveling with the Union forces and we are concealed cleverly in his knapsack, bespeaks a remarkable amount of research. Only after reading the whole thing, spellbound, did it occur to me that for every vignette he included to make the telling more personal and more interesting, he must have edited out ten or twenty. The result is a masterpiece.
I came to this work as a former instructor in the field, and wished I had read his work in time to make use of it in the classroom. At the same time, it is sufficiently accessible that someone with no prior knowledge of the Civil War should be able to keep up just fine as long as they are able to read at the level of a high school senior or community college student. There is a definite bias toward the Union, which frankly is a requisite to my enjoyment of Civil War history. (Those that feel otherwise can go find Shelby Foote’s work.)
I never in a thousand years thought I would even consider rereading some of this war’s most painful battles—the battle of Fredericksburg being perhaps the most prominent in this regard—but Catton has some little-told things to say about these battles, and in particular about Burnside and that Tammany Hall political general, Sickles, that I hadn’t seen before. I had viewed Burnside as a failure from start to finish, but he makes a case that a lot of the mishandling of this situation was due to an ungainly Federal bureaucracy that wasn’t good at receiving information and passing it along in a prompt, useful manner. It gave me pause, and reminded me that we should never assume we know enough about something to call ourselves experts.
The Battle of Chancellorsville is likewise told in a manner fresh and readable, but the bulk of the text deals with that decisive, costly three day fight at Gettysburg. He gives an even-handed assessment of both Hooker and Meade, and again I learned some things I didn’t know before.
Catton’s writing is so engaging that it is destined to live for a long, long time after he is gone, educating subsequent generations. I found myself resolved, at the end of this volume, to look for other galleys of his work to read and review, and when there are no more left, to track down those still missing on my next pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books.
For you, however, it is fortunate that Open Road is releasing this work digitally, so you won’t have to turn out the shelves of every used bookstore in the US in order to locate it. It will be available for purchase November 3, 2015 for your phone, computer, or e-reader, and is highly recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in the American Civil War.