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Bruce Catton

Charles Bruce Catton (October 9, 1899 – August 28, 1978) was an American journalist and notable historian of the American Civil War. He won a Pulitzer Prize for history in 1954 for A Stillness at Appomattox, his study of the final campaign of the war in Virginia.

Catton was known as a narrative historian who specialized in popular histories that emphasized the colorful characters and vignettes of history, in addition to the simple dates, facts, and analyses. His works, although well researched and supported by footnotes, were generally not presented in a rigorous academic style. In the long line of Civil War historians, Catton is arguably the most prolific and popular of all, with Shelby Foote his only conceivable rival. Oliver Jensen, who succeeded him as editor of American Heritage magazine, wrote: "There is a near-magic power of imagination in Catton's work that seemed to project him physically into the battlefields, along the dusty roads and to the campfires of another age."[1]


Catton was born in Petoskey, Michigan, to George R. and Adela M. (Patten) Catton, and raised in Benzonia. His father was a Congregationalist minister, who accepted a teaching position in Benzonia Academy and later became the academy's headmaster. As a boy, Bruce first heard the reminiscences of the aged veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Catton wrote in his memoir, Waiting for the Morning Train (1972), that their stories made a lasting impression upon him, giving:

...a color and a tone not merely to our village life, but to the concept of life with which we grew up ... I think I was always subconsciously driven by an attempt to restate that faith and to show where it was properly grounded, how it grew out of what a great many young men on both sides felt and believed and were brave enough to do.[2]

Catton attended Oberlin College, starting in 1916, but he left without completing a degree because of World War I. After serving briefly in the U.S. Navy during the war,[1] Catton became a reporter and editor for The Cleveland News (as a freelance reporter), the Boston American (1920–24), and the Cleveland Plain Dealer (1925). From then until 1941, he worked for the Newspaper Enterprise Association (a Scripps-Howard syndicate), for which he wrote editorials and book reviews, as well as serving as a Washington, D.C. correspondent.[1] Catton did try twice to finish his studies, but found himself repeatedly pulled away by his newspaper work; Oberlin awarded him an honorary degree in 1956.[3]

At the start of World War II, Catton was too old for military service and, starting in 1941, served as Director of Information for the War Production Board and later held similar posts in the Department of Commerce and the Department of the Interior. This experience as a federal employee prepared him to write his first book, War Lords of Washington, in 1948. Although the book was not a commercial success, it inspired Catton to leave the federal government to become a full-time author.[4]

In 1954, Catton was offered the position as founding editor of the new American Heritage magazine,[3] and took the post, encouraged among others by his friend, the historian Allan Nevins.[4] Catton served initially as a writer, reviewer, and editor. In the first issue, he wrote:

We intend to deal with that great, unfinished and illogically inspiring story of the American people doing, being and becoming. Our American heritage is greater than any one of us. It can express itself in very homely truths; in the end it can lift up our eyes beyond the glow in the sunset skies.[3]

On August 16, 1925, Catton married Hazel H. Cherry. In 1926, they had a son, William Bruce, who taught history at Princeton University and at Middlebury College, Vermont, where he was the first Charles A. Dana Professor of History. [5]

In 1959, Catton was named senior editor of American Heritage, a post he held until his death.[1]

In 1977, the year before his death, Catton received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, from President Gerald R. Ford, who noted that the author and historian "made us hear the sounds of battle and cherish peace."

In cooperation with American Heritage Publishing Company, the Society of American Historians established the Bruce Catton Prize Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Writing of History, a biennial award to honor an entire body of work, from 1984-2006. The prize included a certificate and $5,000 (later $2,500). The prize was awarded to David Herbert Donald (2006), David Brion Davis (2004), Gerda Lerner (2002), Bernard Bailyn (2000), Richard N. Current (1998), Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1996), John Hope Franklin (1994), Edmund S. Morgan (1992), Henry Steele Commager (1990), Richard B. Morris (1988), C. Vann Woodward (1986), and Dumas Malone (1984).[6]

Bruce Catton died in hospital near his summer home at Frankfort, Michigan, after a respiratory illness.[7] He was buried in Benzonia's township cemetery.[8]

Major works[]

Army of the Potomac trilogy[]

  • Mr. Lincoln's Army (1951) — The first volume of the history of the Army of the Potomac, from its formation, the command of George B. McClellan, the Peninsula Campaign, the Northern Virginia Campaign, and the Battle of Antietam.
  • Glory Road (1952) — Continuing under new commanding generals from the Battle of Fredericksburg to the Battle of Gettysburg.
  • A Stillness at Appomattox (1953) — Catton's first commercially successful work, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history and the National Book Award for excellence in nonfiction in 1954, it described the campaigns of Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia during 1864 to the end of the war in 1865.

These three books have recently been bound into a single volume reprint titled, Bruce Catton's Civil War, which inappropriately implies that it addresses the entire war (as he does in his Centennial History of the Civil War trilogy) rather than just the Army of the Potomac.

Centennial History of the Civil War[]

The Centennial of the Civil War was memorialized from 1961 to 1965 and the publication of Bruce Catton's trilogy highlighted this era. Unlike his previous trilogy, these books focused not only on military topics, but on social, economic, and political topics as well.

  • The Coming Fury (1961) — Explores the causes and events leading to the start of the war, culminating in its first major combat, the First Battle of Bull Run.
  • Terrible Swift Sword (1963) — Both sides mobilize for a massive war effort and the story continues through 1862, ending with the Battle of Fredericksburg.
  • Never Call Retreat (1965) — The war continues through Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and the bloody struggles of 1864 and 1865 before the final surrender.

Ulysses S. Grant trilogy[]

Catton wrote the second and third volume of this trilogy, following the publication of Captain Sam Grant in 1950 by historian and biographer Lloyd Lewis, making extensive use of Lewis's historical research, provided by his widow, Kathryn Lewis, who personally selected Catton to continue her husband's work.

  • Grant Moves South (1960) — Shows the growth of Grant as a military commander, from victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, to Shiloh, and Vicksburg.
  • Grant Takes Command (1968) — Follows Grant from the Battle of Chattanooga in 1863 through Virginia campaigns against Robert E. Lee and the end of the war.

Other Civil War books[]

  • U. S. Grant and the American Military Tradition (1954) — There have been over 600 Grant biographies written, and this is considered one of the best short ones (under 200 pages).
  • Banners at Shenandoah: A Story of Sheridan's Fighting Cavalry (1955) — A book for juveniles about Union cavalry commander Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864.
  • This Hallowed Ground (1956) — This history, told from the Union perspective, was reviewed as the best single volume history of the war at that time and received a Fletcher Pratt award from the Civil War Round Table of New York in 1957.
  • America Goes to War (1958) — A study of how the American Civil War became one of the first total wars.
  • The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (1960) — Catton wrote the narrative portion of this book, which also included over 800 paintings and period photographs. It received a special Pulitzer citation in 1961.
  • Two Roads to Sumter (1963) — Written with his son, William, this book recounts the 15 years leading up to the war, seen through the vantage points of the two leading politicians involved in the conflict: Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.
  • Gettysburg: The Final Fury (1974) — A slim volume on the Battle of Gettysburg, dominated by photographs and illustrations.

Other books[]

  • The War Lords of Washington (1948) — An account of Washington, D.C., in World War II, based on his experiences in the federal government.
  • Four Days: The Historical Record Of The Death Of President Kennedy (1964) - A 144 page joint work of the American Heritage Magazine and United Press International on the death of the 35th U.S. President.
  • Waiting for the Morning Train (1972) — Catton's account of Michigan in his boyhood.
  • Michigan: A Bicentennial History (1976)
  • The Bold & Magnificent Dream: America's Founding Years, 1492–1815 (1978)

Other honors[]

Catton received an award for "meritorious service in the field of Civil War history" in 1959, presented by Harry S. Truman. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 from Gerald R. Ford.

Catton received 26 honorary degrees in his career from colleges and universities across the United States, including one in 1956 from Oberlin College.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Cleveland Arts Prize
  2. Catton, Bruce (1972). Waiting for the Morning Train.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Reynolds, np.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Jensen, np.
  5. Middlebury College
  6. Society of American Historians
  7. New York Times
  8. Miller, np.


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