My wife and I celebrated our tenth anniversary by touring Civil War battlefields in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Standing in the fields where soldiers fought and died gave me a tree-and-leaf view of the battles, but I felt lost in the details because I did not have a forest view of the war. Park rangers and tour guides recommended Bruce Catton’s books, so I went to Barnes & Noble and purchased This Hallowed Ground.
Originally subtitled, “The Story of the Union Side of the Civil War,” it has been reissued as part of the Vintage Civil War Library with a new subtitle: “A History of the Civil War.” Readers looking for a binocular view of the war should read Catton’s The Civil War in the American Heritage Books series. But if you want to understand the war from a Union viewpoint, this is your book. Catton writes with good pacing, telling detail, deep pathos, and sharp insight.
As an example of the latter—and as proof of Catton’s eloquence—let me quote two paragraphs describing Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant as they sat down to negotiate the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.
Regarding Lee, Catton writes:
There was an American aristocracy, and it had had a great day. It came from the past and it looked to the past; it seemed almost deliberately archaic, with an air of knee breeches and buckled shoes and powdered wigs, with a leisured dignity and a rigid code in which privilege and duty were closely joined. It had brought the country to its birth and it had provided many of its beliefs; it had given courage and leadership, a sense of order and learning, and if there had been any way by which the eighteenth century could possibly have been carried forward into the future, this class would have provided the perfect vehicle. But from the day of its beginning America had been fated to be a land of unending change. The country in which this leisured class had its place was in powerful ferment, and the class itself had changed. It had been diluted. In the struggle for survival it had laid hands on the curious combination of modern machinery and slave labor, the old standards had been altered, dignity had begun to look like arrogance and pride of purse had begun to elbow out pride of breeding. The single lifetime of Robert E. Lee had seen the change, although Lee himself had not been touched by it.
With these words, Catton manages to shine a light on the virtues of Southern society (and of Lee particularly), while offering a penetrating critique of it at the same time.
Here’s what Catton writes about Grant by contrast:
The other man was wholly representative too. Behind him there was a new society, not dreamed of by the founding fathers: a society with the lid taken off, western man standing up to assert that what lay back of a person mattered nothing in comparison to what lay ahead of him. It was the land of the mudsills, the temporarily dispossessed, the people who had nothing to lose but the future; behind it were hard times, humiliation and failure, and ahead of it was all the world and a chance to lift oneself by one’s bootstraps. It had few standards beyond a basic unformulated belief in the irrepressibility and ultimate value of the human spirit, and it could tramp with heavy boots down a ravaged Shenandoah Valley or though the embers of a burned Columbia without giving more than casual thought to the things that were being destroyed. Yet it had its own nobility and its own standards; it had, in fact, the future of the race in its keeping, with all the immeasurable potential that might reside in a people who had decided that they would no longer be bound by the limitations of the past. It was rough and uncultivated and it came to important meetings wearing muddy boots and no sword, and it had to be listened to.
Phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and whole pages of This Hallowed Ground are filled with observations like these. (Indeed, I found myself several times reading them aloud to my wife.) But in so describing Lee and Grant, Catton described America, whose Civil War was the end of one revolution and the beginning of another, whose final outcome is still being decided.
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