Terrible Swift Sword (The Centennial History Of The Civil War #2), by Bruce Catton
It is remarkable to note that Bruce Catton wrote several parallel histories of the American Civil War. Growing up as a kid I was most familiar with his one volume illustrated histories, of which there was a smaller volume and a larger one, full of gorgeous artwork and maps. Having never been familiar with the full range of his work, though, it is intriguing to note that he wrote a centennial three-volume set of the Civil War that is full of text (of which this volume is the middle part, I am reading them out of order), as well as a four-volume set on the Army of the Potomac, and a two-volume set on Grant’s career in the Civil War. In addition to these he has other volumes that deal with individual battles, for example. Even if the various accounts are broadly unified by Catton’s immensely expressive prose and humane interest in the well-being of others, including slaves and freed blacks, it is striking to see just how often Catton returned to the Civil War through different faces of the same prism. And that is something worth reading if you have a passionate interest in the Civil War, as I do.
This particular book is a massive one at nearly 500 pages of unadorned text, divided into seven chapters and numerous smaller sections that show the war in the Eastern and Western (and only very rarely the Trans-Mississippi) fronts. The book begins in the period immediately after Bull Run where the North regrouped around Washington DC and built its green recruits into an army and sought to press the War in the west (1). After that there is a discussion of the logistical work that was required to build a war effort and the initial lack of success the Union faced in 1861 (2). The third chapter looks at the military paradox and the way that the Confederacy’s move into Kentucky pushed that state over to the Union and prepared the way for the Union’s moves in both the east and west (3). The fourth chapter discusses the aftermath of Grant and Thomas’ successful attacks in Shiloh and New Orleans (4). After that Catton discusses the turning point of the war in Lee’s taking over the Army of Northern Virginia and McClellan’s inability to end the war soon enough to avoid it moving into revolutionary directions (5). Then Catton talks about the more unlimited means of war, from trading with the enemy on the one hand to preparing to strike against slavery on the other (6). The book then closes with a discussion of the attacks of Bragg and Lee that ended in stalemate and retreat at Perryville and Antietam (7).
As a narrative historian, Catton does a great job here in pointing out the way that politics and military affairs so often intersected in the Civil War, showing how generals on both sides in all theaters of the war struggled with logistical and political realities while trying to win decisive victories. Catton is well-equipped to note the paradox that the South’s successful beginnings forced such a determined effort on the part of the North to win victory that the victory could not help but be immensely crushing to the political power and culture of the South. A less lengthy and ferocious war would have had less decisive results, especially as ended up the case with regards to slavery. And this book, by moving to the period just after Antietam with the publishing of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, points to the time when the Civil War moved into a much darker phase, which had been impossible to prevent because too much blood had been shed to settle for anything less than a more complete and more fundamental victory. This book is written with a high degree of melancholy but also with a great deal of skill.