Reflections On The Civil War, by Bruce Catton, edited by John Leekley
As someone who grew up greatly appreciating Bruce Catton’s historiography on the Civil War, I consider it a shame that he died before I had the chance to get to know him at all personally and write him fan mail as a child and that sort of thing. As it happens, Bruce Catton himself had been inspired to research and write about the Civil War through his personal acquaintance with elderly survivors of the Civil War, and there are many people (myself included) who found Catton himself to be inspirational in our own studies of the Civil War. In reading this book one gets a sense of some of the qualities that made the author such a successful and excellent historian of the Civil War, and would have made him a worthwhile historian if he had chosen to focus on something else. This book is full of a nuanced and complex understanding of the Civil War that eschews easy answers and oversimplification and presents the feelings and behavior of those who were in the Civil War in a thoughtful and respectful way that we could stand to learn in our own time of incivility and casual hostility to those we do not understand.
As the introductory material to this book makes plain, this book of close to 250 pages of material was formed out of conversations that the editor had with the aged Catton that were adapted into essays after his death, and one can sense the conversational tone that was present in these discussions, with a keen sense of irony as well that is moving and thoughtful. The book begins with a series of essays on “The Moving Tide,” which examines the shifts in culture and behavior that led to the Civil War and decided the course it took, which was a course that few people really wanted but which was more or less inevitable thanks to the logic of events. After that comes a series of essays that discusses the life of soldiers in the army and how they dealt with informal pickets, the problem of marching in order, and the sometimes dreadful problems of food and medicine. The author then discusses the roads that led to battle, giving a brief summary of the most important campaigns (especially in the Eastern front) of the war. Another section deals with the ways that the Civil War was the first modern war, due both to technology as well as the approach of indirect attacks on civilians and the economy as a way of furthering war aims that took place in the Civil War and increasingly in later wars. Finally, the author spends some time with a Union soldier and sketch artist and examines war through his eyes and through his pencil.
All in all, Catton and the editor of the work succeed here in putting a very human face on the Civil War. Particularly key in understanding the Civil War in Catton’s eyes, and these are sound insights, are the fact that slavery was a very vulnerable institution despite the fact that racist views were (and remain) widespread within American society. There was a fundamental tension between the hostility between races within the United States and the commitment of our society to the equality of all men (and women) under God. Hardly politically active people in the United States, even among the most progressive and enlightened segments of the population, wanted to place blacks on a position of social and political equality with whites, but the presence of a civil war being fought to defend a system of slavery and racial domination put those institutions in grave danger. Likewise, the South’s vulnerability extended beyond the fragility of their social institutions to their logistical weaknesses, in particular their dependence on Northern and European industrial production. All of this led to an unsurprising defeat for the Confederacy, despite the undoubted bravery of Southern troops (even in a bad cause) and the tactical brilliance of generals like Lee and Jackson.