Bruce Catton, The Coming Fury: Volume I, The Centennial History of the Civil War. New York: Doubleday, 1961.
150 years ago this morning, on the fields surrounding the ridge (McPherson’s) in this picture, two great armies of Americans met, somewhat accidentally, and did commence to a grand fight for three days. The fields, town, buildings, rocks, and more in this small community of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania became important touchstones in American history.
Fifty-two years ago, Bruce Catton’s first volume of a proposed trilogy was published as part of the centennial history of the American Civil War. The Coming Fury is a lengthy work so I will limit my comments this evening to a few remarks as I continue to work my way through the text. In it, Catton portrays the background behind the Civil War in compelling prose which illustrates not only the breadth of research (for which he had help) and his not inconsiderable writing skills. A journalist by trade, Catton became a historical writer by the late 1940s, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for A Stillness at Appomattox. By 1955, Catton had been commissioned to construct a multi-volume history of the war with research directed by Everette B. Long, who worked alongside his wife Edith Long gathering an incredible array of documents. The research not only served Catton in writing the trilogy, but remains an important collection for research, housed at Texas A & M University.
Catton’s works on the Civil War have held my eye since I was about ten years old. The texts were all in “the library” of my father, which in those days was housed in the basement of our family home in Sudbury, MA. While Stillness and This Hallowed Ground grabbed me first, my dad insisted that at some point I examine The Coming Fury – “Catton has his problems,” he’d pronounce, “but the story of why and how is laid out.” Indeed.
This first volume uses the Longs’ research to great effect portraying people in deep and meaningful ways. Except for very particular Civil War historians, a personality like William Yancey is not likely to grab people’s attention yet it is here that Catton chooses to begin his tale and it sets the stage powerfully for his style. Using newspaper accounts, letters, and other pieces of of information, a rich portrayal of the man and his importance to the question of the Democratic ticket in 1860 are laid out. By the time Catton reaches the end of his second chapter and the reactions to a Republican victory are playing out, we have a rich sense of the coming dissolution.
The Coming Fury was not necessarily intent on making deep historical connections into the 1840s like the posthumous book by David Potter, The Impending Crisis. Nevertheless, Catton tried to use the events of spring 1860 and the personalities involved to lay out the compelling tale of how the war came to pass, whether it was “irrepressible,” and why it was fought at all.