Bruce Catton, Historian, 1899–1978

1972 cleveland arts prize for Literature

A former Cleveland newspaperman turned historian, Bruce Catton produced some of the most readable and compelling books about the American Civil War ever written. Combining “a scholar’s appreciation of the Grand Design with a newsman’s keenness for meaningful vignette,” wrote Newsweek on the author’s death in 1978, “Catton created an ‘enlisted man’s-eye view’ of the war that treated humanely the errors on both sides.”

As a boy growing up in Petoskey, Michigan, in the first decade of the 20th century, Catton had listened to the stories of old men who had actually fought in that bitter conflict. (His engaging 1972 autobiography, Waiting for the Morning Train: An American Boyhood, captures both the wonder and nostalgia of those years, when vivid memories of a simpler and—more heroic—time still lived lightly on the evening air in an unbroken continuity with the past.) The accounts of those desperate battles he was later to read as a student at Oberlin College near Cleveland were pallid in comparison with those gripping accounts. But it may have been his own stint in the Navy during World War I, along with his own talent for storytelling, that led him to seek out the more down-to-earth world of journalism.

In 1920 Catton got a job with the old Cleveland News, and worked briefly for the Boston American before landing a position with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where his first published work on the Civil War—a series on local veterans who had fought in it—appeared in 1923. From 1925 to 1939, he worked for the Cleveland office of the Scripps-Howard Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA), turning out news stories, features, editorials and book reviews for papers around the U.S. before moving to NEA’s Washington office.

He was 50 when he began the first of his 13 books on the War Between the States, winning both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for the final volume of his great trilogy on the Army of the Potomac, A Stillness at Appomattox (1953), the story of the last cruel and desperate year of America’s most painful episode. For this book and the first two parts of the series, Mr. Lincolns Army (1951) and Glory Road (1952), Catton drew on a wide range of primary materials including the diaries, letters and reports filed by soldiers, which enabled him to reconstruct events and their aftermath with telling detail and immediacy. The New York Times praised his “rare gift.” The Chicago Tribune called it “military history . . . at its best.”

Catton’s love of history and the distinctive character of the American adventure led him to spend the next five years as the first editor of an ambitious new experiment in popular history, the hardbound American Heritage: A Magazine of History. He remained senior editor from 1959 until his death, while continuing to write books about his favorite subject.

“No one ever wrote American history with more easy grace, beauty and emotional power, or greater understanding of its meaning, than Bruce Catton,” wrote Oliver Jensen, who succeeded him at the magazine. “There is a near-magic power of imagination in Catton’s work [that] almost seemed to project him physically onto the battlefields, along the dusty roads and to the campfires of another age.”

—Dennis Dooley

 

 

The Last Bright Morning

It was the fourth of May, and beyond the dark river there was a forest with the shadow of death under its low branches, and the dogwood blossoms were floating in the air like lost flecks of sunlight, as if life was as important as death; and for the Army of the Potomac this was the last bright morning, with youth and strength and hope ranked under starred flags, bugle calls riding down the wind, and invisible doors swinging open on the other shore. The regiments fell into line, and the great white-topped wagons creaked along the roads, and spring sunlight glinted off the polished muskets and the brass of the guns, and the young men came down to the valley while the bands played. A German regiment was singing “John Brown's Body."

A Stillness at Appomattox (New York: Doubleday, 1953)

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