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Thursday, July 20, 2023

What Would Bruce Catton Have to Say?

After reading Bruce Catton’s Michigan: A Centennial History and his memoir, Waiting for the Morning Train (several times), I long ago decided that he had a tragic view of our history (the history of Americans whose culture brings change faster than we can adapt to it), so when a little paperback, Catton’s last book, Reflections on the Civil War, came into my hands, I did something I never do with fiction and turned right away to the last pages. What did the famous historian from northern Michigan have to tell us as he reflected on everything he had learned from our country’s bloody, brother-against-brother conflict?


Reflections on the Civil War was edited by John Leekley, much of the text a collaborative effort undertaken with the author himself from transcripts of audiotapes. Leekley’s father, Richard, a dealer in rare books, had bequeathed to his son the Civil War sketchbook of John Geyser, a Civil War soldier, and that book formed the basis for many conversations between John Leekley and Bruce Catton, creating what the former called a “shared vision.” – But as I say, I am beginning at the end….


Bruce Catton (1890-1978) began his research into the Civil War because he wanted to make young again in his mind the old veterans he had known. As his research proceeded, other questions came to his mind. What motivated men on both sides, not only to enter the conflict but to continue fighting? What kept them from running back home? And finally, he asked himself if he thought the war had been worthwhile. In the end he concluded that it did, after all, accomplish something. 


…It gave us a political unity in the sense that it kept the country from fragmenting into a number of separate, independent nations. The North American continent was not Balkanized; the geographic unit that made possible the wealth and the prosperity of later days was preserved. Beyond that, the country made a commitment during that war; a commitment to a broader freedom, a broader citizenship. We can no longer be content with anything less than complete liberty, complete equality before law for all of our peopleregardless of their color, their race, their religion, their national origins; regardless of anything. We are fated to continue the experiment in peaceful democracy, and I don’t think any people were ever committed to a nobler experiment than this one [my emphasis added]. 


Catton’s Reflections first appeared after his death in 1981 – that is, over forty years ago. He believed and wrote that the Civil War had been “worth its cost,” although he added:


…We have not yet reached the goal we set ourselves at the time, and I’m not sure we ever will be satisfied with our progress. But at least we keep going.


He notes that civil wars, in general, are “most likely to leave angry feelings” but says, “That did not happen in this country.” The very idea of the “Lost Cause,” he believes, is that it was recognized as lost:


It is part of American legend…. It moves men mightily, to this day, but it does not move them in the direction of picking up their guns and going at it again. We have had national peace since the war ended, and we will always have it….


What, I wonder, would Catton think of the “state of the union” today, were he to return to us? 

The night before his assassination, Catton tells us, Abraham Lincoln dreamed he was on a boat, moving toward a “dark and indefinite shore,” and we are still moving toward that dark, indefinite shore, Catton wrote at the end of his own life, “toward a destiny bigger than we can understand.


Maybe we will get there some day if we live up to what the great men of the past won for us. And when we get there, it is fair to suppose that instead of being dark and indefinite, that unknown continent will be lit with sunlight.


Have we lost our way at present? What would Bruce Catton say? What do you say?


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