When you ask people about the authors that first got them excited about the Civil War, two names always pop up: Shelby Foote through his amazing three volume The Civil War: A Narrative and Bruce Catton. At the ripe old age of “old enough to know better”, it is embarrassing to admit that I hadn’t read anything by one of the best authors on the Civil War. This past winter, it was time to rectify that.
Bruce Catton was a prolific writer and has several three-book series on the Civil War including his Army of the Potomac Trilogy containing its Pulitzer Prize winning volume A Stillness at Appomattox. And while I have every intention of reading his other titles at some point, I opted for a shorter survey of the conflict called This Hallowed Ground. Originally published in 1955, a new paperback edition was published for the Vintage Civil War Library in 2012.
For the beginner, there is an awful lot to like. Even for someone like me, who gets overwhelmed with tactical movements and the campaign and battle books focused on them, this book has a lot to offer. The information itself is probably not ground breaking to someone who has read other Civil War works before (and since it was written in 1955, it predates a lot of original research and scholarship that we’ve seen in the past several decades). It is not in the details that Catton excels—though he isn’t a slouch in that respect---it is in his readable and informal storytelling prose. Sometimes, he made me chuckle and at other times he brought tears to my eyes. Several beautiful passages stayed with me long after I turned the final page, including his final description of the Army of the Tennessee outside of Washington, D.C. before the formal Review in April 1865. I went to bed dreaming of the soldiers and their candlelight march.
There are obvious limitations for a survey that only comes in at 479 pages (400 pages of text). Unlike other surveys such as James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, this book does not spend long on the causes of the Civil War. Confederates open fire on Fort Sumter promptly on page 18. Major battles and even campaigns are dealt with concisely; the three days at Gettysburg, for instance, are covered in all of four pages.
It appears that the publisher dropped the subtitle--The Union Side of the Civil War--for this book upon the reprint. I won’t say Catton's writing is necessarily biased; it is clear that he approaches the war through the eyes of the Northerner. It is perhaps one of the greatest limitations of this book that he does not spend equal time on the Confederate perspective. It is not balanced in this way, and it was never intended to be. This can be remedied by seeking out other sources that provide the Confederate perspective. There are great authors out there who focus on the Confederacy (Foote, for example), and when taken with these other authors’ works, This Hallowed Ground presents a very enjoyable piece of the puzzle.
If you are ready to begin reading about the Civil War, This Hallowed Ground is a great place to start, as suitable for reading on the couch as it is on the beach (were you, unlike me, to visit the beach for extended periods of time). For those of you who still read hard copy books, the 2012 reprint has a wonderful feel to it. That may not matter, but if it does, get the reprint.
PS--Check out the footnote about Emily Hoffman and how she gets the news that changes her life. The tale was told to the author by her great nephew, Walter Lord. Anyone interested in the Titanic disaster will be familiar with this name as he wrote one of the seminal works on the disaster, A Night to Remember.
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.