Book Review: Never Call Retreat

Never Call Retreat (The Centennial History Of The Civil War #3), by Bruce Catton

Even though in general I consider the end of the Civil War to be a best case scenario (which the author agrees with), there is a sense of melancholy about the end of this particular book.  A large part of that melancholy comes from the framing of this particular book, as the author examines what could have been, one gets the feeling that melancholy is probably the best response one can have to so shattering a struggle, especially because the author brings up the problem of racism and points out that just as the freedom of the black from slavery became inevitable that a great many politicians were already seeking to defend racial privilege and build political coalitions that would later be responsible for the long endurance of Jim Crow laws and separate and equal.  I suppose it is the recognition that just as the Civil War was winding down a different kind of fight was beginning that made me feel melancholy at least, as it demonstrated Catton’s essential humanity and respect for the dignity of others and the tragic strain that runs through American history regarding the difficulty people have in squaring their own longings for freedom with respect for the freedom of others, something that still troubles us.

This book of nearly 500 pages is divided into seven chapters that cover the Civil War between Fredericksburg and its close.  We begin with a look at the politics of war and the slaughter that took place in Virginia and Tennessee during the end of 1862, when shattering fights ended in stalemate.  After that the author explores the period in early 1863 where the practical effects of Emancipation began to be an issue and where Grant’s efforts at bypassing the strategic problem of Vicksburg led Pemberton to make errors that Grant would exploit soon.  The third chapter then looks at the remorseless revolutionary struggle that was being waged in the Civil War, and the battles at Charleston, Chancellorsville, the Vicksburg campaign, and Gettysburg.  After that the author discusses the struggle with racial equality and the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga.  The fifth chapter looks at questions of impossibilities, and examines Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the budding partnership between Grant and Lincoln that would be decisive in leading to Union victory, even as the politicians struggled over amnesty and citizenship for blacks.  After that the author spends a chapter discussing the campaigns of 1864, including the various sideshows and the attacks towards Atlanta and Richmond, including Butler’s failed efforts on the Penninsula and the Democratic platform of 1864.  The last chapter looks at the final months of war and the ultimate Union victory and the weariness that resulted from it, as well as the longing to put the pieces back together again and reunite.

Although writing about the Civil War is certainly familiar ground for the author, who was among the most prolific narrative historians of his time, this book does distinguish itself from other volumes by spending a great deal of attention on the political and social aspects of the Civil War.  Far from focusing only on great men and battles, Catton’s interest in the Civil War in the first place sprang from his friendship with elderly Union veterans when he was growing up as a boy in Michigan, and this book demonstrates his interest in the influence between war and society in a way that was ahead of his time.  In this volume, and over and over again, the author shows himself deeply sensitive to the question of what would be done to further the interests of justice both to ordinary citizens as well as freed black slaves who faced a great deal of discrimination and racism in both north and south.  And even as the Civil War ended and soldiers went home to try to pick up the pieces of their lives, the author leaves the reader with the awareness that justice was still a long way off and that the shattering and revolutionary realities of the war would linger on for a very long time, to the present-day even.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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