Friday, October 21, 2022

A Civil War history

The Library of America has combined three Bruce Catton books in its The Army of the Potomac Trilogy. From Harold Holzer's "Echoes of the Battlefield" review:
Each volume of Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy appeared—and remains—a stand-alone, but together they offer a sweeping look at the war’s Eastern theater. Mr. Lincoln’s Army chronicled the origin of the first, all-volunteer Union fighting force, along with the rise and fall of its young, overcautious general, George B. McClellan. Catton reminded readers that McClellan and his commander in chief failed to click not only because their personalities clashed, but because McClellan failed to embrace Lincoln’s emancipation policy as a war goal. Catton excelled in character analysis, yet it was his breathtaking final section—a riveting account of the 1862 bloodbath at Antietam—that left 1951 readers yearning for more.

Glory Road continued the saga, taking the army through the mud of Fredericksburg, the lost opportunities of Chancellorsville and the hard-fought victory at Gettysburg, along with Lincoln’s sublime effort to consecrate the “great civil war” as “a new birth of freedom.” Finally, A Stillness at Appomattox introduced Grant into the story, tracing his slog toward Richmond during 1864 and 1865 and, ultimately, to the small Virginia town where Lee finally abandoned the struggle. It comes as little surprise that readers of the time—war buffs and literary critics alike—rejoiced in these volumes, with one reviewer hailing Stillness as “the best written and most interesting historical work about the Civil War I have ever read.” ....

The latter half of the 20th century saw an efflorescence of Civil War scholarship that later made bestsellers of the work of James M. McPherson and must-see TV of the landmark PBS series by Ken Burns. Mr. Gallagher implies, with good reason, that their roots lie in Catton’s commitments to historical accuracy and narrative verve. Modern historians may no longer cite Catton as a primary reference, but modern readers can—and should—derive much pleasure by reacquainting themselves with Catton’s brilliant technique and formidable grasp. ....
Harold Holzer, "Echoes of the Battlefield," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 21, 2022.

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