Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Glory Road by Bruce Catton

Is it permissible to scribble brief notes about a book I haven't quite finished yet, but that is overdue at the library? A few things strike me:

I doubt there can ever again be American historians of the Civil War working at the same level as men like Bruce Catton or his Southern counterpart, Shelby Foote. They were both of exactly the right generation to have grown up with boyhood memories of actual veterans' stories, told by old men in small towns at the turn of the twentieth century, and to be able to publish in the 1950s, just when the centennial of the war was coming. I am sure all this permeated their scholarship and it brought still more alive, for them and for us their readers, the regimental histories and enlisted men's diaries from which they drew so much detail. The deer bounding out of the forest just before the battle of Chancellorsville commenced, late on a spring evening; horses, wagons, cannon, and mules trampled and sunk in feet of mud on the pointless winter march to Falmouth.

Fredericksburg: thousands of Union soldiers lined up in the town and marched as ordered across a short rise of ground to the stone wall before Marye's Heights, where they were slaughtered by Confederate artillery and rifle fire. It all happened on a day in mid-December, 1862. It is very strange to see it, in the imagination, as a slowly unfolding tableau, and to think that all these men were "his majesty the Baby of some twenty years back," as Tom Wolfe described the pilots involved in the space program's early disasters in The Right Stuff. Thousands of mothers on that day in 1862 could not see the tableau, could not rush forward from kitchen and laundry and pull their very special baby out of the marching mass. They could only hear about it later.

One of the themes of the book: no matter what advantages a nation may have in war, industrial or financial or what have you, it can still lose if it can't match the enemy's passion. This is why the North came close to losing and why no one at the time could relax and assure himself "the South never really had a chance." Yes, the South did. Their soldiers, in Catton's words, were "men of passion."

The bulk of the book is what I think historians call "order-of-battle analysis." Terrain, logistics, strategy, weather, the building of pontoon bridges and the "unlimbering" of guns. The most dull sort of history to read, for most people including me; and yet, it is what the men went through from one day to the next, and it is why battles were won or lost. Anyway this is Catton's strength, once he gets down to it. The opening chapter, in which he introduces half a dozen characters via their tangled relationships with one another and loads it all up with trivial anecdote, reads like something the editor made him do to appease the reader who doesn't like order-of-battle analysis.    

Finally: extraordinary that American men went into woods and farms and mowed one another down, en masse, with cannon and rifle fire only a hundred and fifty years ago. And Gettysburg is yet to come.

1 comment:

  1. Try reading the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. I read it in college in one of my creative writing classes. Ben Franklin had a lot of skeletons in the closet that I had no idea about. It's a fascinating book, but then you start to wonder, "if he were still around, would he be best friends with Bill Clinton?"