Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Bruce Catton brought the Civil War into American homes

When Bruce Catton was growing up in the Northern Michigan community of Benzonia in the early 1900s, he listened in awe as veterans told tales of Civil War combat. Like many boys his age, Catton thrilled to the sounds and images those stories conjured: the crack of gunfire, the bursts of smoke, the soldiers stalking through fields in pursuit of---or retreat from---the enemy. However, unlike most boys, Catton didn't abandon his fascination with military intrigue once he reached adulthood. Instead, he made a career of it---and became one of the nation's most celebrated historians in the process.

Bruce Catton

Catton, whose birth name was Charles Bruce, was born October 9, 1899 in Petoskey. His family later moved to Benzonia because his minister father accepted a teaching position there. Following his adolescent curiosity about the Civil War, Catton enrolled in Ohio's Oberlin College, but left to serve in the Navy during World War I. (Catton never finished his studies, but did receive an honorary degree from Oberlin in 1956.) After the war, Catton became a journalist, and married Hazel Cherry, with whom he had a son, William Bruce, in 1926.

Fifteen years later, as the United States entered World War II, Catton took a series of jobs that led to his true calling. In 1941, he became director of information for the War Production Board; later, he assumed similar positions at the Department of Commerce and the Department of the Interior. These jobs gave him an inside look at the war effort as it played out in Washington, D.C., and inspired his first book, "War Lords of Washington," in 1948. Though the book didn't sell many copies, Catton enjoyed writing it so much that he decided to become a full-time author and historian.

During the 1950s, many scholars wrote in a dry manner that appealed to academics, but made popular audiences yawn. Among these scholars, Catton stood out. His books had a lively tone that made them accessible to almost everyone. Catton didn't just relate a series of dates, places, and names; he told stories that brought history to life. Many of Catton's books were about his childhood obsession, the Civil War. His most famous work is probably the "Army of the Potomac" trilogy, whose third book, "A Stillness at Appomattox," won the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for history. In addition, Catton wrote the "Centennial History of the Civil War," a trilogy that discussed the war's military, social, political, and economic aspects, and published a few books about Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Somehow, in between all that writing, Catton also found time to become the first editor of "American Heritage" magazine.

Catton continued writing into the 1970s. His status as one of America's most revered historians was cemented in 1977, when he received a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, from fellow Michigander President Gerald Ford. One year later, Catton, who lived in New York City, died at age 78 at his summer home in Frankfort, not far from Benzonia. He's buried in the Benzonia Township Cemetery, where to this day he receives visitors who come to pay their respects to a man who made the study of history not just a dry pursuit for academics, but something accessible to everyone.

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In addition to his works about the Civil War and other historical events, Catton wrote a few books about his home state. In 1972, he published "Waiting for the Morning Train," a memoir about his childhood, while in 1976, he released "Michigan: A Bicentennial History."

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