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Mr. Lincoln's Army by Bruce Catton
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's review
Apr 17, 2011

it was amazing
Read in February, 1982

This is the first of about thirteen books which Bruce Catton wrote about the Civil War, during the 1950's and 1960's. Don't let their original publishing dates bias your opinion of the worth of Catton's books. Surely, much more scholarship has been conducted on the subject since then, and a tsunami of Civil War books continues to be published each year. However, no one has ever written with more economy of prose or clearness of thought on the subject than Catton. His writing is that good. "Mr. Lincoln's Army" is the first title of Catton's "The Army of the Potomac Trilogy." It was followed by "Glory Road" and "A Stillness at Appomattox." The latter volume was awarded the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, placing Catton among the elite Civil War historical writers.

Catton (1899 to 1978) was not a professional historian. He quit college before graduation in order to join the Navy in World War I. Between the World Wars, he worked as a newspaper journalist and editor in Ohio, where he no doubt put the polish on his writing skills. He worked for the U.S. government in World War II. His experiences provided the material for him to write of wartime Washington D.C. in his first book, in 1949. He had the book writing bug and decided to write about the subject that fascinated him since his boyhood.

The preface of "Mr. Lincoln's Army" explains why he chose its subject. He talks about his boyhood in rural Michigan, when he knew a number of old, dignified men with long white beards and the appearance of being pillars of the community. They had been born in the pre-automobile age; their world-experiences would not have normally extended more than fifty miles from where they were raised. Yet, as Catton explains, they had been everywhere and had seen everything ages ago, and nothing that happened since meant as much.

Catton's adolescent mind couldn't comprehend what these old gentlemen had seen in their youth, but he grew to realize this group of people had been lifted by an experience shared by only a small, dwindling number of survivors. By their very presence, they embodied meaning to the term "patriotism", but they never discussed their most terrible wartime feelings of "war-weariness and ... soul-numbing disillusionment" (p. xii) felt in places like the Wilderness and Petersburg, to young listeners. Catton's objective was to shed light on the war which was the biggest experience of our nation's life, as it was of the lives of the veterans he knew way back then, and to honor them by writing about what they did.

The resulting series of books contain outstanding narrative history, being based on diaries, letters and field reports from contemporaneous sources. "Mr. Lincoln's Army" aptly describes the focus of Catton's research. The beginning of the Civil War found the new President desperately trying to find leaders to build an army from scratch to fight to preserve the Union. What started as a call for states to supply a finite number of volunteer regiments for limited enlistment periods grew very rapidly to the need to field a huge military. Readers of Civil War history are aware of Lincoln's trials and tribulations, which lasted for several years as he placed a succession of commanding generals in charge, only to be fired for timidness or catastrophically poor judgement. This book focuses on the events from the beginning of the war until the late fall of 1862, a period of time marked for its long series of Union reverses and missed opportunities.

General George McClellan is the dominant figure on either side of the war at this time, except for Abraham Lincoln. This book is a superb recounting of the elevation of this promising officer by Lincoln; how he fulfilled his promise by using his unmatched organizational skills to build the Army of the Potomac, the armed force intended to carry the burden of defending the nation's capitol and defeat the main Virginia-based Southern army; and how he lost the confidence of the President and the government twice, through his arrogance, belly-aching over support for his army when it was much better equipped than its foe, inability to pursue and destroy his enemy, and bring the war to an early conclusion, even though he always had more forces at his disposal than his enemy.

A succession of commanding generals would audition for President Lincoln in the course of the war. They would usually fail miserably, then be replaced. Thus, Burnside had his Fredericksburg, Hooker had his Chancellorsville, Meade had his Gettysburg, etc. At least Gettysburg was considered to be a Union victory, but Meade showed himself to be a very good defensive general, if not an offensive general. All of the above were preceded by McClellan, who had two shots to become the Union's savior. Catton combines his storytelling skill with a solid grasp of the historical facts to present two of the best descriptions you will ever read of the Peninsula Campaign and Antietam. He shows how McClennan's excellent planning allowed the Union forces to acquit themselves against the Confederate forces, led in the latter case by the formidable Robert E. Lee, without the usual resort to detailed regimental dispositions and maps with arrows moving every which way. Catton paints a historical picture and lets the reader appreciate the gravity of the events portrayed.

This is the first of the works made in the Catton style, which provides both satisfying reading and a thirst for more of the same.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Christopher (new)

Christopher I think you meant General George McClellan and not General James McPherson.

Richard Christopher wrote: "I think you meant General George McClellan and not General James McPherson."

Yes. Thanks for the edit.

message 3: by Christopher (new)

Christopher No worries, great review.

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