Pick #1 on My Top Ten List–The Army of the Potomac, a Three-Volume set by Bruce Catton.

Part of a Series: Books Every Civil War Buff Ought to Own

Bruce Catton”s Army of the Potomac

My #1 pick for Civil War books we should all have on our bookshelves is Bruce Catton’s trilogy The Army of the Potomac. This classic, first published in 1953, contains the books Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road, and A Stillness At Appomattox. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1954. You can purchase an “acceptable” paperback set of these books for about $65.00 at amazon.com. As I write this, eBay has a set of hardbound copies for about $15.00. Well worth the effort to dig around and check prices for a while, as you can certainly pay more.

These three books, published in 1953 as a trilogy, set the bar for readable, perhaps brilliant, Civil War histories.

Volume 1 is Mr. Lincoln’s Army, which covers the Army of the Potomac from its inception until handsome, dashing, pitifully ineffective General George McClellan is, finally, relieved of command. Beginning at the end, Catton’s prose is masterful. He is fully in command of his subject:

The rowboat slid out on the Potomac in the hazy light of a hot August morning,       dropped down past the line of black ships near the Alexandria wharves, and bumped to

a stop with its nose against the wooden side of a transport. Colonel Herman Haupt, superintendent of military railroads, a sheaf of telegrams crumpled in one hand, went up the Jacob’s ladder to the deck–clumsily, as was to be expected of a landsman, but rapidly, for he was an active man–and disappeared into a cabin. A moment later he returned, and as he came down the ladder he was followed by a short, broad-shouldered, sandy-haired man, deeply tanned by the sun of the Virginia peninsula, with thin, faint lines of worry between his eyes: Major General George Brinton McClellan . . .

Treason? Panic? Incompetence? Whatever happened to McClellan, it affected the Army of the Potomac for over two years. Catton asks us to consider “What buried sense of personal inadequacy was gnawing at this man that he had to see himself so constantly through the eyes of men and women who looked upon him as a hero out of legend and myth”?

The hard luck soldiers in this hard luck army, an immense and powerful juggernaut of Union industry, were commanded by bumblers and braggarts. Told that they were constantly on the road to a Grand Victory, they were time and again run off that road and into a ditch. Catton makes clear, in his lovely and evocative way, that by the end of the first year, the romance of war is tarnished beyond any effort to restore its gloss.

Union troops

Volume 2 is Glory Road. In it is one of the most moving accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg ever written. The empathy Catton creates for the soldiers in the Army of the Potomac carries into this volume nicely, and his words help the reader see the overall victory, although narrow one at times, through the eyes of men who have endured Fredericksburg, the Mud March. They care more for each other than about who is in charge of the army, and Catton captures the shift within the ranks of exuberant volunteers to battle hardened veterans.

Lincoln at Gettysburg

Many reviewers consider this volume to be the best of the three. They refer particularly to the last pages of the last chapter, “End And Beginning.” The setting is the dedication of the Battlefield of Gettysburg, and Catton elegantly alludes to the overpowering rhetoric of one of the most famous orators of the time, Edward Everett. But Everett was not the only speaker:

The orator finished, and after the applause had died away the tall man in the black frock coat got to his feet, with two little sheets of paper in his hand, and he looked out over the valley and began to speak.

 Volume 3 is A Stillness at Appomattox. This is the volume that won the Pulitzer Prize for History. Its topic is the last year of the War, and the nation that had grown war-weary in the extreme. Grant and Lee take center stage, and it is the story of their armies–the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia–that make up the rest of the cast.

As the death toll mounted in battles as bad as those that had gone before, it becomes clear to Lee and his president, Jefferson Davis that their men are unable to be replaced. The Union Army, on the other hand, has unlimited manpower and resources. Lee’s men haven’t eaten regularly for months. Catton tells us how events unfolded at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor. Lee finally stopped Grant’s advance at Petersburg, just outside Richmond, and the war settled into armies fighting from entrenched, fixed positions.

In the spring of 1865, when the end finally comes, the prevailing mood of the Army is relief and disbelief, not jubilation. Catton never takes us to Appomattox Court House, but the last scene sends Grant, “a brown-bearded little man in a mud-spattered uniform,” up the road to meet Lee there:

One of Ord’s soldiers wrote that the army should have gone wild with joy, then and there; and yet, he said, somehow they did not.  . . . now,  for some reason, the men sat on the ground and looked across at the Confederate army and found themselves feeling as they had never dreamed that the moment of victory would  make them feel.

Appomattox Court House

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Thoroughly researched, very balanced, this is history that aspires to, and easily reaches, the standards of literature. I have tried to show this by letting some of Catton’s own words do the talking. In an age of instant publication, and an emphasis on new, it is good to remember that this series was published in the early fifties. It has stood the test of time, and aged well. It should be on every bookshelf, with pride of place.

Even better, it should have your father’s signature or bookplate in it, from when it was new.

5 Responses to Pick #1 on My Top Ten List–The Army of the Potomac, a Three-Volume set by Bruce Catton.

  1. I agree. It was my first adventure into reading the Civil War. I still have my book club edition from 1962 and have begun to re-read it yesterday. this is one set you cannot pass up.

    1. My dad died a couple of years ago, and I got his Civil War books. They were really what started me thinking about doing this series: what books will your daughter or son get? That sort of thing.

  2. Any set of books where the heroes (1) Union Army defeats the bad guys (2) Confederates, and your favorite hero (3) General Grant does heroic things, and the book has a good ending (4) the Union Army wins the war. There is excitement (5) Gettysburg, Petersburg, and sinking of the Alabama, courage (6) Lincoln frees the slaves in the Confederation, and sex (7) General Hookers lady followers. lol There are evil deeds (8) the assassination of Lincoln and good deeds (9) Clara Barton helping the wounded. And it is written by a great author (10) Bruce Catton.

    1. Well, no wonder he looked so good! He is gone now, and I am utterly grateful. This is what happens when the ol’ plate gets too full. Thanks for reading, and thanks for the heads up!

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