The state of Civil War history, part 2 of 5

Bruce Catton was a newspaperman with a gift for organizing complexity into straight, fast moving stories -- military ones. He was first told by publishers that there was no interest in the Civil War but he became, in the 1950s, an overnight success anyway.

Catton dealt in themes that resonated with depression intellectuals and the WWII veterans, e.g., the idea that the war was a soldier's war, that the real heroes were the "GIs" not the generals; and he made use of regimental histories to bolster that approach. His output (1951-1978) also collapsed Williams' verbose five-volume discourse on Lincoln finding a general into a bromide that could be written on the back of a cocktail napkin. "Whatever else history is, it ought to be a good yarn," Catton is reported to have said. A good yarn cannot stand too many digressions or too much complexity.

Military historians following Catton have outdone him by further compressing the "find a general" motif into a mere passing reference, one that can be invoked like a prayer at every political crossroads or can be dropped like an iron lid over the open political sewers menacing reader traffic on Talespinner Avenue.

By 1954, Catton was recruited by another Civil War writer, Allan Nevins, into his American Heritage magazine. Catton and Nevins shared similar views of the war; one nearly completely aligned with mainstream Republican Party newspapers of the war period. The magazine also featured members of a splinter organization founded by Nevins when he broke with the American National Historical Association. (The scholarly Association, as mentioned in an earlier post, had reservations about sponsoring a pop history magazine run by Nevins).

Catton worked for many years on American Heritage and through the magazine and his many books, he won admirers both of his writing style and of his personal views on the Civil War in the East. His lasting contribution to Civil War studies has been the idea of the Union Army as hero, the Union Army as actor, as tragedian, as redeemed at last by a savior, U.S. Grant, in service to a prophet, Abraham Lincoln. His popularization of the business of finding a general has been even more important.

Catton's disciples command the high ground of Civil War publishing today. He co-authored one Pulitzer-winning book as an American Heritage project working with a young staffer named Stephen W. Sears in 1960. Sears has stayed true to the editorial lines laid down at his old magazine. James McPherson, another popular Civil War writer in the American Heritage style, began his teaching of the Civil War at Princeton in 1962 under a great weight of Catton popularity. McPherson recently honored his personal intellectual debt to American Heritage by editing a book called A Sense of History: The Best Writing from the Pages of American Heritage.

"A Sense of History" ... a wonderfully inexact phrase and yet a precise description of what American Heritage achieved. "A sense," or "something like history."

As "finding a general" became more widely accepted as a placebo for historians' military-political indigestion, the military and political subgenres themselves became more polarized and less able to confront overlapping issues. Oddly, the political writers seemed as eager for political "purity" in their books as the military writers were for "military purity" in their narratives. And so we find to our surprise political historians making as free a use of "finding a general" as their military specialist colleagues. It pushes complex military messes out of political spaces.

Nevertheless, political historians face many incidents where "finding a general" simply cannot help them with their storylines.

Consider General John Fremont freeing the slaves ahead of schedule, or General David Hunter arming them and plotting slave revolts without the necessary presidential authorizations. These important problems tend to get tucked into airtight poli sci topic pockets (like "Lincoln's emancipation policy"); they are treated as simple civil matters, as political incursions by non-political actors. Rather than analyze such incidents in depth, the political historians content themselves with reciting the prerogatives of the commander-in-chief, the importance of keeping the military subordinate to the civil, and with treating Fremont and Hunter, among many others, superficially and outside of their contexts. In fact, they have a deep context that straddles both the military and political. It was this that sparked McClellan into writing a series of memos after the war. He called the project his "Secret History" and referred to it as the true story of relations between various political and military figures. (These memos have not been found.)

The idea of civil and military figures having "secret relations" as opposed to interacting strictly on the basis of battlefield performance, is the photo negative of "Lincoln finds a general."

More tomorrow...