Thursday, December 22, 2016

Review - The Coming Fury by Bruce Catton

Short review: A comprehensive history of how the 1860 Presidential election set into motion a series of events that led to secession, rebellion, and civil war.

First an election
Then crisis and secession
Finally, a war

Full review: This is the first volume in Bruce Catton's famous history of the U.S. Civil War. Given that I studied Civil War history as an undergraduate (under Michael F. Holt, author of The Political Crisis of the 1850s, a book that is also in my library), I suppose it is kind of surprising that I never read this series until now. I can only say that I wish I had read it sooner. This is, to put it bluntly, one of the most compelling accounts of the events leading to the U.S. Civil War, and that transpired in its early months, that I have read. Despite the fact that it is a survey, and thus unable to go into great detail, it is one of the best overviews of the history of this time period that one can find.

In the first volume, Catton presents a clearly written history of the events between the 1860 Democratic Party Convention in Charleston, South Carolina to the 1861 Battle of Bull Run in Manassas, Virginia. While there isn't anything in the account that I didn't generally know already, Catton links the events together, showing how one foolish idea after another, one miscalculation after another, and one delusion after another all wove together to drive the country away from the delicate political compromises of the 1840s and 1850s first to sectarian extremism, and finally war. Understanding these sorts of connections are the true gateway to really understanding history, and Catton does a masterful job linking them together, showing how one event was influenced by others, and influenced still more in turn.

In The Coming Fury, Catton clearly shows how unready both sides were for the coming conflict, and how both gravely miscalculated the other's intentions. From the bitter, four way presidential campaign in which the only national candidate had no chance of victory, to the bizarre (and ultimately fateful) siege of Fort Sumter, to the Federal government's actions in Missouri to drive out the government of a State that had not seceded, to the clash of rank amateurs that was almost as costly to the victorious Confederates as to the routed Federals many of the events detailed in this volume have an almost farcical tone to them, which serves to underscore the naïveté, the confusion, and the chaos that every person in the U.S. faced during this year.

In contrast to many histories that make the animosities between the factions seem inevitable, and seem like everyone participating knew hostilities were inevitable, Catton, in this volume, shows how men who became implacable adversaries beginning in 1861, grasped to the last at straws that offered any fleeting hope of peace, and the forces (mostly driven by the two sides very incompatible ideas about exactly what they would be negotiating) that made such peace impossible. In many of the chapters the desperation of the parties is almost palpable as they cast about trying to find a solution, any solution, that will allow them to avert the oncoming war. This is in sharp contrast to the many power brokers (most, but not all, of whom were aligned with the doomed pro-slavery pro-secession side) who almost gleefully pushed the country into an armed conflict.

Catton captures this, the last time that true amateurs in politics and warfare would grace the stage, and expertly details the schemes, subterfuges, and blunders they made which resulted in what is still arguably the most pivotal conflict in U.S. history. Most of modern scholarship on the topic of the U.S. Civil War is a reaction to, or an expansion of, Catton's work on the subject, and to truly understand those works, one must start with this one. As one of the foundational works of scholarship about the U.S. Civil War, The Coming Fury and the following two volumes in the series are virtually mandatory works to read for anyone who truly wants to study U.S. history.

Subsequent book in the series: Terrible Swift Sword

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  1. I wouldn't normally pick this one up, but I am curious by it.

    1. @fredamans: It is essentially required reading for anyone who wants to understand the current academic discussion of the history of the U.S. Civil War.