Bruce Catton is from my hometown: Petoskey, Michigan. There is a statue of him outside of the Petoskey Carnegie Library where I checked out books as a child. I have read his short memoir “Waiting for the Morning Train” as well. In it, he writes, very beautifully, of how he, during his own childhood, used to listen to the old men tell stories of their Civil War days, and how the stories would awaken in him a certain poetical feeling.
In his book, he passes the poetical feeling along to us. It includes amazing scenes: recounting the difficulties of integrating recently freed slaves into the army, and the songs they would sing around the campfires at night, about how deep inside General Grant was still “the young officer who longed to get away from camp and parade ground and live quietly as a teacher of mathematics,” and about how, at the peak of the war “the nation itself had been heated to an unimaginable pitch … and now it had been put on the anvil, and the hammer was remorselessly coming down, beating a glowing metal into a different shape.”
However, the beauty of his language is offset by the horror that he describes. I suppose I had been saving myself for greater maturity before I approached the US Civil War. Now I feel I was right, the casualty counts seem inflated by an order of magnitude over what I have ever read about before: according to Catton, at its peak, the Civil War was resulting in 2,000 Union deaths per day … that’s averaging out the single day battle counts, during which losing 7,000 soldiers was routine.
Worse than the numbers of casualties alone, is the sickening feeling of confusion and senselessness. For example, when he describes the Battle of the Crater. During the long siege of Petersburg, a group of soldiers, who were professional coal miners, sold their commanding officer on the idea of digging a tunnel 500’ under the enemy lines, then exploding a massive charge, and charging on the lines at the same instant. In this way they could break the siege. The problem is the officers didn’t really take the scheme seriously. The miners succeeded totally in exploding the enemy’s lines, however, the army was not prepared to exploit the breech, and took a very long time to charge, eventually going down into the crater created by the explosion, then becoming trapped there, and easily killed by the reformed Confederate lines.
It’s an almost inexplicable story, and sheds light more, for me, on just how tired, hungry, and ill, these men were, and additionally, likely poorly educated with little ability to communicate using writing or maps.
Additionally, I believe there is insight into the reasons behind the bitterness of “civil wars” as a genre. Catton points out the high casualty and long length of the war stemmed from the confusion, mixed loyalties and general overall stew going on in the country’s leadership at the time: some generals were appointed for strictly political reasons, and not war leadership competence. Washington DC, located within a day’s travel of much of the fighting, would attempt to control the situation, resulting in muddled instructions. After 3 years, Lincoln appointed Grant as ‘Lieutenant General’ (overall commander of the army entire) in a move of power consolidation, and even then it remained difficult to limit the micromanaging.
All in all this book is not difficult to read, it’s exhaustively researched, detailed and easy to follow, with numerous fascinating asides into relevant areas. As a stretch goal, it’s highly literary, and hits a mature note when summing up: it occasionally presents the war as glorious and “sacred,” but then it quickly turns bitter, showing at least the glamor, if not the sacredness, to have been an illusion, and then immediately cataloguing the awful consequences of the violence …
Although it’s not difficult to read, it is a difficult read, in that it leaves you with a heaviness and sadness and a wish that the Civil War might somehow have been avoided, but still remarking on how much the character of the country was, in a sense, created, by that trauma.