The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Annual Bruce Catton Appreciation Post

Posted on | July 4, 2022 | Comments Off on Annual Bruce Catton Appreciation Post

— compiled by Wombat-socho

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances…
– William Faulkner

This is, of course, the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the day of Pickett’s doomed charge against the Army of the Potomac’s center on Cemetery Ridge, and Custer’s more successful charge against Wade Hampton’s cavalry brigade in the East Cavalry Field. Meade is often criticized for not pursuing Lee’s army south on the fourth day, but what critics overlook is that the Army of the Potomac had been mixed and muddled in the successful defense of Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Ridge, and the Round Tops. Regiments and brigades were all scrambled together, and in fact Meade and his commanders spent the next day trying to sort out their units and get organized. This is not at all a situation like McClellan at Antietam, where he had entire corps of infantry that had done little or no fighting and were still coherent. Anyhow, this is supposed to be a book post, so let’s have at it. 

In my arrogant opinion, probably the best of the Civil War historians is Bruce Catton, whose grasp of the politico-military mess that was the Army of the Potomac is unparalleled. Mr. Lincoln’s Army, the first book in his trilogy of books on that often unhappy but ultimately victorious force is on sale at $2.99 for the Kindle, and one can, of course, get used copies in hardback and paper for about the same price. His account of Gettysburg, The Final Fury, is brief – 100 pages – but covers the battle hour by hour. This appreciation post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning his trilogy covering the entire war, which begins with The Coming Fury, an excellent survey of the political tensions between the Northern and Southern states that led to secession and war. 

Probably the best-known novel about Gettysburg is Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, and for good reason. Shaara shows you the commanders and the soldiers on both sides as people, blending the personal dramas into the fire and fury of the larger battle, and bringing fresh fame to John Buford and Joshua Chamberlain. The movie version, Gettysburg, is also worth watching. 

There are many alternate histories of the Civil War, but for my money the best of the lot is the trilogy co-authored by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen, Gettysburg, Grant Comes East, and Never Call Retreat, which starts with the assumption that Lee takes Longstreet’s advice and forces Meade to come to him by getting between Meade and Washington; the resulting defeat forces Lincoln to call on the ever-victorious Ulysses S. Grant. If Grant had failed, perhaps the future would look more like Ward Moore’s Bring The Jubilee than our current state of affairs…

Back in my wargaming days, when SPI was working on A Gleam Of Bayonets, their game about Antietam using (basically) the same system as Terrible Swift Sword, the designer referred to Stephen Sears’ Landscape Turned Red as one of his sources for information about the game, and while one might expect that Sears’ book is just a dry recitation of events, it is nothing of the kind. Instead, it gives you a ringside seat to not only the clumsy generalship of McClellan, but the hideous carnage that laissez-faire command style produced. Highly recommended. 

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