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Taken For Granted: Historian's writings mirror today's understanding of war

November 10, 2010|By Pat Grant

The quaint lakeside township of Benzonia is the birthplace of noted civil war historian Bruce Catton. His favorite place to write was a summer home perched on a bluff overlooking the sparkling waters of Crystal Lake. A glance to the north offered a spectacular panorama of Lake Michigan, wooded hills and sandy bluffs.

Catton's interest in the Civil War was inspired by the presence of Grand Army of the Republic veterans, whose faded blue uniforms, bedecked with medals, were the center of attraction at local patriotic celebrations. Many had served at Shiloh and Cold Harbor, some with the ill-fated Michigan 24th Infantry, which lost three quarters of its men at Gettysburg.

Those who survived returned home to the tranquil beauty of Northern Michigan. As they aged, these veterans became more inclined to describe the great adventure of their lives; the camaraderie of the campfire and the horror of combat. Their tales fascinated young Catton.

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Although he preferred to be described as a writer and not a historian, Catton's contribution to international awareness of the most pivotal event in American history was immeasurable. He could transport the reader from the inner sanctum of civilian and military decision making, to the battlefield where millions struggled and 600,000 young lives were lost in the cause of national unity and freedom.

His writings humanized the participants, from Lincoln and Davis, to Lee and Grant. Relying on personal diaries, letters and unit histories, he captured in riveting prose the yearnings and sufferings of the average young soldier on each side of the battle line.

Sales of his books surged during the 1960s Civil War centennial, creating a groundswell of interest in the causes and conduct of the war. A virtual explosion in historical research, battleground preservation, discussion groups and battle reenactment resulted. His work inspired many a college student to study American history, including renowned historian David McCullough

I became aware of Catton during a high school American history class, when Ms. Sokolowski, a rather pert and humorous favorite of the guys, read an excerpt from his description of the battle of the Wilderness. He related how the unremitting hail of rifle fire set the carpet of pine needles covering the forest floor and tree branches aflame and the agonizing deaths of Union and Confederate wounded who could not crawl fast enough to escape the blaze.

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