Wednesday, January 28, 2009
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
Bruce Catton was one of our finest Civil War Historians, and his greatest work was the three-volume history of the Army of the Potomac, consisting of Mr. Lincoln’s War, Glory Road, and A Stillness at Appomattox. These books take us from the early days of the conflict, when the Army of the Potomac, under the popular, but vain and ultimately ineffective, George B. McClellan, found itself consistently baffled by its Confederate foes, to the end of the war, by which time the same army had become transformed into a grim killing machine under the command of the relentless and single-minded U.S. Grant. Superbly researched, and drawing not only upon dry military dispatches and formal reports, but upon the letters and diaries of the men who slogged their way through the great bloodletting of the American Civil War, the trilogy affords a comprehensive view of the battles, large and small, that went on not only in the field, but in the minds and hearts of the participants.
Here, from the first volume, we have a description of the shock experienced by the troops in the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam (the first major battle to take place in Union territory, and the bloodiest single-day battle in American history):
“Even men who had been in the thickest of the fighting were astounded when they went about the field and saw how terrible the killing had been. One officer counted more than two hundred dead southerners in a five-hundred-foot stretch of the Bloody Lane. An Ohio soldier wrote that the lane was ‘literally filled with the dead.’ Stupefied Pennsylvania rookies gossiped fatuously that the Confederate bodies they were burying had turned black because the Rebels ate gunpowder for breakfast. One Northern soldier, moved by a somewhat ghoulish curiosity, carefully examined a body which hung doubled over a fence in rear of the Bloody Lane and found that it had been hit by fifty-seven bullets. Under the ashes of burned haystacks, in front of Burnside’s corps, soldiers found the charred bodies of wounded men who had feebly crawled under the hay for shelter and had been too weak to crawl out when the stacks took fire.”
There are numerous excellent “snapshots” of the famous soldiers, such as this description of one of the North’s most celebrated cavalrymen:
“Cavalry found that a new day had dawned. The Pleasontons and Kilpatricks were gone, and at the top there was another Westerner – a tough little man named Phil Sheridan, bandy-legged and wiry, with a black bullet head and a hard eye, wearing by custom a mud-spotted uniform, flourishing in one fist a flat black hat, which, when he put it on, seemed to be at least two sizes too small for him. Like Grant, he rode a great black horse when he made his rounds and he rode it at a pounding gallop, and it was remarked that he ‘rolled and bounced upon the back of his steed much as an old salt does when walking up the aisle of a church after a four year’s cruise at sea.’”
The trilogy closes with the surrender at Appomattox Court House, and Catton’s description of that last day is so moving that a short quote can’t do it justice – so get hold of this remarkable historical work and read it - experience it – for yourself.