Posts Tagged Civil War

Bruce Catton and U.S. Grant

 

Having finished Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant, I decided to go back to my library and re-read Bruce Catton’s shorter treatment of the subject, U.S. Grant and the American Military Tradition. Catton did most of his writing in the 50s and 60s, so some of the scholarship is dated, but most of his conclusions have held up.

More than that, Catton’s writing verges on the poetic, both summarizing and illuminating a subject with an economy of words I often wish I had.  For instance, in describing frontier Ohio of the 1820s and 1830s:

Men who could do everything they chose to do presently believed that they must do everything they could.  The brightest chance men ever had must be exploited to the hilt.  And the sum of innumerable individual freedoms strangely became an overpowering community of interest.

When dissecting the rights and wrongs of secession, its present-day defenders (who do not defend the institution of slavery, it should be emphasized) tend to focus on the clinical, legal aspects of the matter.  Catton captures what they miss, and why the North and especially the West was willing to fight:

Against anything, that is, which threatened the unity and the continuity of the American experiment.

Specifically, they would see in an attempt to dissolve the Federal Union a wanton laying of hands on everything that made life worth living.  Such a fission was a crime against nature; the eternal Federal Union was both a condition of their material prosperity and a mystic symbol that went beyond life and all of life’s values.

On the post-Shiloh commanders:

McClellan, Halleck, and Buell, then, were the new team, and that hackneyed word “brilliant” was applied to all three.  The Administration expected much of them.  It had yet to learn what brilliance can look like when it is watered down by excessive caution and a distaste for making decisions, and when it is accompanied every step of they way by a strong prima donna complex.

And on how Americans view war.  Catton believes it goes a long way towards explaining why Grant – representative of his people – was doomed to substantially fail at the big post-war task of Reconstruction and restoration:

…the will-o’-the-wisp again, recurrent in American history.  Victory becomes an end in itself, and “unconditional surrender” expresses all anyone wants to look for, because if the enemy gives up unconditionally he is completely and totally beaten and all of the complex problems which made an enemy out of him in the first place will probably go away and nobody will have to bother with them any more.  The golden age is always going to return just as soon as the guns have cooled and the flags have been furled, and the world’s great age will begin anew the moment the victorious armies have been demobilized.

Sound familiar?

Catton was not, of course, infallible.  He had this to say about President-Generals, whose training is to treat Congress as supreme, the executive as the instrument of Congress’s declared war aims:

It made it inevitable that when he himself became President he would provide an enduring illustration of the fact that it can be risky to put a professional soldier in the White House, not because the man will try to use too much authority in that position but because he will try to use too little.

Catton wrote these words in 1954, with full awareness of who was then president.  But history doesn’t bear out his fear, entirely.  Washington maintained a strong sense of the office’s limitations, but worked to strengthen both the federal government and the executive.  Neither of the two previous Whig presidents – both generals – lived long enough to have much impact in the office.  And Eisenhower was working with an already-stronger executive, which he worked to professionalize, treating his cabinet a little like a corporate boardroom of competing ideas.

He differs with Chernow on a few points, and Catton is somewhat better at drawing connections.  Catton considers the Santo Domingo treaty not merely ill-advised but actually corrupt, for instance.  Both note that Grant manumitted the one slave he ever owned as quickly as he could (a gift), but only Catton points out that Grant did so even though he could really have used the money from a sale at that point in his life.

Catton is also harder on the Radical Republicans, and somewhat more forgiving of Andrew Johnson, than Chernow is, possibly because Catton was unaware of the postwar wave of white supremacist violence that swept over much of the Deep South.  He argues that the Radical Republicans were at least as interested in using blacks as a means to political power as they were in their welfare – not the last time that would happen in American history.  Catton also claims that Johnson adopted Lincoln’s view of postwar reconciliation, where Chernow states that Johnson adopted a softer line through misbegotten racial solidarity.  Whether this is from cynicism or greater political savvy, or from both, it’s hard to know.

 

, , , ,

No Comments

Some Short History Reading Lists

We were over at a friend’s house for lunch this Shabbat.  Knowing that 1) I have a lot of history books, and 2) I tend to read them, he was kind enough to ask me for some reading lists about the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Cold War.  “I haven’t had much luck with fiction, so I’m trying to round out my history.”

Here’s what I sent him.  These aren’t intended to be college syllabuses, or comprehensive.  They’re books that I have and leafed through, or that I’ve read.  I’ve tried to vary them by author.  I could have had the entire Revolutionary War list by Joseph Ellis, the whole Civil War list by Bruce Catton, but what’s the fun in that?  My library, while large by 19th Century standards, is limited by the size of the house.  Had I fewer books, I would paradoxically have more room for them.  But it’s a good list, enough to cover some key points, get an overview, or just when your appetite for more.

American Revolution

For a decent overview of the war as a whole, Liberty by Thomas Fleming isn’t bad.  I think it was originally written as a companion book to a PBS series, but it’s good in its own right.  For a deeper examination of the issues around the Revolution and the war, and how the Founders handled them, American Creation by Joseph Ellis is recommended.

We all know of Washington Crossing the Delaware; David Hackett Fischer has written a great in-depth review of the events surrounding that crossing and subsequent battles, and how they set the stage for the rest of the war, in Washington’s Crossing.

And for well-researched discussions of adoption of the two primary founding documents – the Declaration and the Constitution, Pauline Maier’s American Scripture and Ratification give surprising insights into what people were thinking at the time.

The Founders lived on into the post-Revolutionary era, and had a second act right after the Constitution in  1787, so some bios are in order.  Richard Brookheiser’s short Founding Father is a fine thumbnail bio of Washington; for something longer Ron Chernow has bios of both Washington and Hamilton.  And David McCullough’s John Adams is what the PBS series was based on.

Having come this far, read about 700+ pages about the early Republic, when were getting ourselves established, with Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty.  I’m reading it now, and pretty much every chapter has some surprise or another.

Civil War

For the lead-up to the war, and how we got to the point of secession and war, William Freehling’s long, two-volume The Road to Disunion is among the best.

Much of the same material is covered in the first volume of Bruce Catton’s very readable and shorter three-volume Centennial History of the Civil War.  These are The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat.  I would recommend anything written by Catton on the Civil War.

Also excellent is Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson.  As a guide to Lincoln’s war, what the events looked like from DC, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals is magnificent.

Cold War

This one is tougher, because it covers decades, not mere years, so the politics, military, and technology changed substantially from 1948 to 1989.  I’ve picked out the books I have and have read that do a good job talking about the Cold War.  My library is heavier on the spy stuff, but there was a lot of spy stuff.

Witness by Whittaker Chambers is indispensable.  He starts out as a Communist, and then converts over to the good guys, and was a key player in one of the great Cold War controversies, the Alger Hiss case.  Nixon’s rise to prominence began with this case, and the left never forgave him for being right.

The Great Terror, is one of the best books about Stalin’s Russia, by one of the best chroniclers of the 20th Century, Robert Conquest.

The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn is recognized as the best insider account of the Soviet punishment system.

Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe covers the building of the Berlin Wall.

Merchants of Treason by my friend Norman Polmar and KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents are old now, but a good guide to how to the KGB operated in the day, and how the Russians still operate today.

There’s also a vast literature of spy fiction, from Len Deighton’s devastating Game-Set-Match trilogy to John LeCarre’s oeuvre (start with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy).

That’s enough to keep you busy for a few years.  So what are you still doing on this page?

, , , , , ,

No Comments

The Long Recall

I discovered The Long Recall blog over at the American Interest site a couple of months ago, but only now am I getting around to posting on it.  The folks there have decided to do a real-time, day-by-day blog of the Civil War, on its ongoing 150th Anniversary.  It’s a brilliant idea, and so far, they’re pulling off what must be a great deal of unpaid work quite beautifully.

The effort seems to be led by Walter Russell Mead, and I’ll quote from his intro to the blog, but it’s worth reading the whole thing:

We will use a modern form to present the daily news: our Civil War aggregator that combines a short daily summary of the news along with links to articles that a well-informed Civil War-era reader would have wanted to read.  Our goal is to allow readers today to get a feel for what it was like to experience the conflict in real time, to hear the many voices trying to make sense of the conflict, and to sift through sometimes confused and misleading news accounts to try to discern what was actually taking place.

The Long Recall will do its best to help 2010 readers understand the economic dimension of the conflict.  At times this will involve us in something more active than simply linking to Civil War era news sources; we will provide commentary that helps the readers of today understand what yesterday’s news meant to intelligent readers of the day.

In The Long Recall, we will carry foreign news as it became available to American readers, not the day it actually happened.  At times of crisis, as during the Trent Affair late in 1861, this uncertainty about foreign events was a major factor in American politics and policy.  Because the US economy and financial markets were so dependent on London at this time, the uncertainty about foreign developments was also an important factor in the economic news….

Finally, a word on language and ‘political correctness.’  The United States has always been and remains a prudish society with strict limits about the kind of language that is allowed — and about the subjects that may be discussed.  In the Civil War era, Americans were very strict about sexual matters — but when it came to race, they were extremely permissive.   …words that could never be used today in polite discourse were routinely used in those days to describe different racial groups.  Worse, racial humor and stereotypes were deeply embedded in the culture.  Politicians and political writers frequently resorted to anecdotes and humor that would justifiably end careers today to score points with public audiences.

At The Long Recall, we have made the decision to link to Civil War era material without censoring or toning down racial language, images and ideas that modern readers (including, we must say, ourselves) find offensive.  The use of such language and the prevalence of such ideas is too central to American life and culture at the time — and too vitally involved with attitudes toward the Civil War — to be edited away or softened down.

While I was born after April 1965, when the Centennial ended, I do remember this Peanuts cartoon from a book I had as a kid:

Cultural Literacy, Circa 1961

For some reason, the Sesquicentennial hasn’t attracted the same amount of publicity as the Centennial apparently did, when even kids reading comic strips could be expected to know about it, and possibly even recognize some of the songs.  It’s probably a combination of a decline in cultural literacy, and a harrowing sensitivity about race.  Or maybe the Civil War was just unlucky enough to have its 150th Anniversary start in a year when the Founders were hogging all the attention.

One has to admire the audacity of the authors to undertake such an effort, and the courage of their approach.

No Comments