Wednesday, July 11, 2012

This Hallowed Ground: A Civil War Primer

The book in the image above is the first book on the American Civil War I ever read. That is the very book and not another picture found on the Internet and used to illustrate this post. This copy was purchased by my Dad in about 1971 or '72 and it cost .95 cents.[!] When he finished reading it, he let me read it. That was a thing with my Dad, he did not mind if someone read a book or newspaper of his, but DO NOT try and read those things UNTIL he was finished! Then it was OK.

I was ten, maybe eleven years old when I read it the first time, old enough to discern the big words and some of the facts that were behind those words. It is a bit worn, some pages are loose and they are beginning to turn yellow. That just gives it character. I had to be careful as I read it again this second time and I enjoyed it as much as I did then.

Bruce Catton wrote as a journalist (which he was) wrote with the idea that someone reading a newspaper had neither time or inclination to plod through a piece. The same thought held true with a book. The work must be easily understood and contain the facts necessary to the story. In this aspect he has very few peers, and this book has no peer as a primer on the war.

Although Catton does not get into much detail on any one aspect of the war and antebellum years, he leaves very little out of the grander scope of the conflict. Slavery is identified as the root cause, but he also acknowledges states rights arguments, (while remembering slavery), nativism, and good old fashioned greed as driving forces that brought about the final rupture of the states.

Battles and campaigns are covered lightly except for the Vicksburg Campaign which he devotes several pages to. What he does do with the battles is show them as somehow being intertwined and how one relates to another and showing how the Confederacy was being slowly worn away because of them.

True to Catton, he lets the soldiers tell the story since, after all it was their story. He relates a story where the colonel of the 21st Illinois Infantry, one Sam Grant, issued orders to the colonel of the 15th Illinois Infantry to detail some of his men to clean the 21st's quarters. That colonel being away at the time, the lieutenant colonel was in command and he indignantly protested and offered Grant his sword and stating he would resign before he would order his men to do such a thing. Grant rescinded the order and no doubt saw the fibre these western volunteers were made of. The men of the 15th, it was said, had no love for Grant thereafter, at least until he began to show them what fibre he was made of as a commander.

Other incidents show that Grant was the father of hard war, and that when he reached the east bank of the Mississippi River during the Vicksburg campaign his foragers roamed the countryside and brought in so much plunder to feed his army that William T. Sherman was aghast at the practice. Of course he would learn the trade himself one day.

Although "This Hallowed Ground" is written from a Northern vantage point, it is not biased against the Southern soldier. They are always referred to with respect and at times admiration, and Catton is careful to call them "Americans" throughout the book. He shows no personal bias in the narrative.
It may not be the best book ever written on the American Civil War but in my estimation it is the best primer for someone that is just getting interested in the war.
And it is an enjoyable read for those who have been around for a while.

The Picket

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