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Friday, June 3, 2011

This Hallowed Ground: The Story of the Union Side of the Civil War by Bruce Catton

An Amazing One Volume History of the Civil War

Bruce Catton (1899-1978)
When I was a freshman in college, way back in 1986 I happened upon a Bruce Catton (1899-1978) book in the bookstore while buying all of my textbooks for my first semester. I picked it up just because I was in a mood to be educated with something that looked more interesting and less daunting than my economics and math textbooks. My fascination with all things Civil War began with that book (I sold it in a fit of stupidity a couple of years later). I read his trilogy, re-printed articles in American Heritage and then I moved on to other talented authors, such as James McPherson.

Rather stupidly, I forgot how truly gifted Catton was as a writer and I just assumed that because Catton was the historian of my childhood, he was an inferior writer. Why? I don't know. I picked up this This Hallowed Ground: The Story of the Union Side of the Civil War to read on a family vacation and I was reminded, once again, that this man could truly write and he belongs right there in the pantheon of truly gifted storytellers who can tell the story of America in an entertaining, factual and compelling way (for those that scoff at narrative history in favor of "serious history" I say that the purpose of a historian is to tell his society their own story and make it seem that it matters. Bruce Catton did just that.)

John Brown (1800-1859)
Catton begins with a single week in May of 1856. We have the beating of abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner by a pro-slavery Congressman in the Senate Chamber, the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas by pro-slavery forces and John Brown's brutal attack at Pottawatomie Creek. All within a few days of each other - all portents of things to come. One thing seemed to unhinge everyone in America - slavery and the disagreement over a state's right to declare a man to be another man's property.

Catton does tell the story almost completely from the Union perspective and it is clear that he is sympathetic to the Union cause in this book. He is not the only author of Civil War histories to have favorites, but he is clearly not disrespectful of the Confederate soldiers or of their efforts. He is also leery of some of the liberties Lincoln took in his effort to maintain the Union, as is clear in the section on Clement Vallandigham.

Mostly, though, Catton's strength is just his storytelling. It moves along crisply with a penchant for telling the odd, humorous and tragic little stories that make up the overall big story. Along the way, Catton produces some profound little gems, like this paragraph about 1864 the slow, bloody demise of slavery and what that meant for the country that concluded a chapter:

"It would be that sort of year: year of Jubilo, year of overturn and disaster and ruin, year infinite bloodshed and suffering, with the foundations of the great deep broken up; hard tramp of marching military feet, endless shuffle of splay-footed refugees running from something they understood little better than they could understand what they were running toward; the significance of their march being that it led toward the unknown and that all America, like it or not, was going to follow."

To sum up, this is a lovely little history - beautifully written, skillfully told by a master storyteller. It is not the only history that someone should read of the Civil War, but it is a great place to start. Also, I am thrilled that I went back and re-discovered Bruce Catton and found that he is not only as good as I remembered - he is better.


I rate this book 5 stars out of 5. Highly recommended.

Reviewed on June 3, 2011.

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