Bruce Catton, The Coming Fury: Volume I, The Centennial History of the Civil War. New York: Doubleday, 1961. (part three)
One hundred and fifty years ago today, arguably the hubris of Robert E. Lee pushed a division across a little over a mile of open ground in a bid to assail a strong Union position. Whether this division’s failure was truly representative of the “highwater” mark of the Confederacy, or whether the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi one hundred and fifty years ago tomorrow mattered more, is a point of debate for military and political historians alike. I stood and took the picture to the left last week, gazing west towards the monument of General Lee and wondering, for not the first time during this recent Gettysburg visit, what was Lee thinking?
Bruce Catton was surely thinking when he signed onto this project nearly sixty years ago. The strengths I have described in the previous entries about Catton are continued throughout this entire text. Catton’s use of the sources E. B. Long and his wife Edith unearthed is consistently good, giving us reich portraits of figures whom we might not otherwise fully understand or comprehend. But it is not just the people who gain personality and dimension in Catton’s hands. Even inanimate objects like Forts Pickens and Sumter take on different gravity because Catton chooses to make the forts, their topography, and their situations say something meaningful. Another wonderful example of Catton’s use of detail is his comparisons between a personal letter demanding assistance from Italian opera singer Amalia Valtellina and a rather bold missive from Secretary of State William Seward (287 – 291). The lead up to the firing on Fort Sumter on April 14, 1861 is equally masterful.
What’s intriguing to me as someone who is knowledgeable about the causes and thread of the American Civil War itself is that reading a book that is fifty years old can say as much as it does to me. I suppose that is the mark of quality writing and research, though it also seems to speak to the nature of sources that were available to the author. By effectively using the documents, Catton succeeded in describing everything from the Democratic convention of 1860 to the confusion and tumult of two ‘nations’ occupying the space of one, and the equally confusing results of combat near Manassas Junction in the summer of 1861. Catton’s assessment of the conditions in states like Missouri and Virginia in the aftermath of the Sumter victory for the Confederacy are important to understand, especially as they give readers a sense of uncertainty, while augmenting the idea of how potentially disruptive this civil conflict would become.
As he does throughout these chapters, Catton makes a deeper impact the more he relies on the words and thoughts of the witnesses. Following his excellent description of the battle at Manassas, Catton faces a subject most recently brought to light by Drew Gilpin Faust in This Republic of Suffering – the physical and emotional consequences of combat. To that end, Catton talks about the wounded and the dead, the hospitals and those on whom it fell to notify the relatives of loves ones lost. Finally, he concludes with a quote that over the years has been corrected – Catton lists the quote as coming from a Major Sullivan Bullen of Illinois, written to his wife Sarah before Manassas. “The Letter” as it became known after 1990’s Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War, was probably penned by Sullivan Ballou of Rhode Island. Regardless, the words are used to great effect to describe the pain felt by many women and men across the nation.
“Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait, for we shall meet again” (473).
The men marching across that field pictured here must have felt some of the same angst as Major Bullen/Ballou, perhaps knowing that the assault which they were about to make, might be their last action on earth. One might argue had Lee realized this attack could not succeed, perhaps Pickett’s division would have been used differently – then again, this was a man who had written to his cousin early in the war, “I prefer annihilation to submission. They may destroy but I trust will never conquer us” (472).