Book Review: Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox

The third book in Bruce Catton’s non-fiction Civil War trilogy, A Stillness at Appomattox, came to my attention via a lofty recommendation. It was described as an accurate, heavily footnoted work which reads like a well-written work of fiction. Reviewer John Miller commented, “If every historian wrote like Bruce Catton, no one would read fiction.” Another reviewer commented that he was so taken by the writing that he read the book in one sitting. With reviews such as these in mind, I began Catton’s book back in April of this year and finished it this week, and although I certainly didn’t read it all in one sitting, I did find it a very satisfying read.

For the genre of wartime histories, Catton’s work was ahead of its time. He puts you right in the thick of the action by relying on first-hand accounts from the soldiers who fought the war. Amidst the grand drama of the conflict, Catton shows you what it was like to be an infantry man marching for miles along alternately dry and dust choked roads or bogged down highways of mud. Perhaps for a moment you have time to make your bivouac and rest only to be summoned into battle, leaving your half-cooked breakfast on the fire. It’s as if Catton was there although he was writing nearly one-hundred years after the war.

Given the quality of Catton’s writing, you may wonder why it took me so long to read his book. Life circumstances aside, the book wasn’t a “page-turner” for me because it was a little too drawn out at times. However, despite the slow going, reading the book was a satisfying and rewarding glimpse into our history, the kind of thing that’s worth reading all the way through.

The book’s lasting image in my mind occurs on its last page. General Ulysses S. Grant’s army has surrounded General Robert E. Lee’s army outside the small Virginia hamlet of Appomattox Court House (this is the name of the town, not just a building). The armies have faced off against each other with the Rebels quickly realizing they must declare a truce or be annihilated. A great stillness takes over the land as the two great armies solemnly face one another. General Grant makes his way into town to meet with General Lee at the McClean House. Catton concludes his book by writing that “as [Grant and his generals] neared the end of their ride, a Yankee band in a field near the town struck up ‘Auld Lang Syne’” (377). Considering the great drama that has played out over the proceeding pages, that detail gave me a sublime sense of the moment. I could hear the sounds, see the men, and feel the emotion of a profound moment in our nation’s history. It’s details like these that Catton includes throughout his book, and they make his account of history come alive.

LOI for Thursday, April 14, 2011

This hasn’t been a good week for blogging; however, I do have a few posts “in the oven” that I hope to publish next week. In the meantime, here’s a hodgepodge of Links of Interest:

LOI: American Civil War Sesquicentennial

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War. On April 12th, 1861, Confederate forces in Charleston, South Carolina opened fire on Fort Sumter thereby marking the commencement of hostile engagement with the US government. In this edition of Links of Interest, I’ll be linking to Civil War resources which pertain to my local area in Knoxville and East Tennessee.

Finally, although its content doesn’t cover my local area, I’d like to recommend a book on the Civil War. Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox: The Army of the Potomac Trilogy is a riveting book of history. One reviewer has commented that if all history were written as well as this book, there would be no need for fiction.

I’ve been working my way through A Stillness at Appomattox during the past month, and Catton makes the final months of the Civil War come alive with his vivid description of the events and the men and women who took part in them. All of Catton’s accounts are taken from documents and interviews; therefore, although it reads like good fiction, the book is completely factual. I highly recommend it.