Gettysburg: The Final Fury was Bruce Catton’s final book on the Civil War. But when it was published in 1974 (just four years before Catton’s death), it stood as the peak of twenty-three years of writing about the Civil War that formed a mountain range in American history-writing. Beginning with Mr. Lincoln’s Army in 1951, Catton produced three volumes on the Army of the Potomac, three more that served as the Civil War Centennial history of the war, a memorable single volume devoted to the Union (This Hallowed Ground), and the completion of yet another trilogy – begun by Lloyd Lewis – on the life of Ulysses S. Grant.
But Catton’s last word on the Civil War was, fittingly, about Gettysburg. It is also the shortest – less than a hundred pages of text, and unlike his earlier books, copiously illustrated. Nor were there any great research revelations. His estimate of the army commanders was unenthusiastic – Catton thought George Meade’s “inspirational qualities were nil and his strategic abilities were unknown” – and he rarely descended into those intricacies, so beloved of armchair generals, of what-regiment-fought-where-against-which-other-regiment. The magic of the book lay in Catton’s style, in those long, lazy, looping sentences, uncomplicated in their vocabulary and spinning-out the way some village Homer might have done on a long-ago August evening, as evocative of the American landscape as a Charles Ives symphony. I am not ashamed to say that, as a boy, I was bewitched by it. Deceptive in its simplicity, it eased you into view of momentous events and slyly slipped you wisdom.
There are three other aspects of Gettysburg: The Final Fury which will stamp themselves onto any reader. The first is Catton’s appreciation of contingency, the sense that nothing about this battle, from its start to its finish, was inevitable. Catton often called this ‘chance’ or ‘fate,’ which are not terribly useful words, since they suggest a universe teetering on chaos. What he meant, though, was that both sides in this battle were bringing to the table everything they needed to win, so that the results might easily have been very different from what they were.
Alongside contingency is Catton’s understanding that these soldiers, Union and Confederate, were not professional janissaries. They were very ordinary men – Wesley Culp, Strong Vincent – temporarily called to a duty they did not particularly enjoy and which they hoped to leave as soon as their sense of obligation had been satisfied. And the officers in command were often friends from the pre-war days, “flung…cruelly against each other.”
But the most important lesson Gettysburg: The Final Fury has to teach is about the significance of the battle, for Catton was unabashed in pointing to Gettysburg as “a prodigious Federal achievement.” At Gettysburg, the Confederacy had been weighed in the balances and found wanting, and from that point onward, it would descend into a war of attrition which it had no chance of winning.
Bruce Catton never finished college, never earned a PhD, never held a professorship. But he did something which may have been more important. He wrote epic prose. Some of it still sings in me.
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