Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Review - Never Call Retreat by Bruce Catton

Short review: As the war comes to a close, the northerners make plans for the aftermath, and the leaders of the Confederacy descend into delusion and self-destruction.

Grant, Sherman command
The Confederacy's death

Full review: The third, and final volume in Catton’s famous Centennial History of the Civil War, Never Call Retreat details final dying convulsions of the Confederacy, and the relentless men who made it hold on grimly to the last as well as the much less relentless men who drove it to extinction. The book shows that the paradox of the Civil War is that the destruction of the Confederacy was accomplished as much by self-inflicted wounds as it was the result of Union efforts.

This book shows clearly that the tragedy of the Confederacy was not that men like Grant, Sherman, Thomas, Sheridan, and Farragut ground it into oblivion, but rather that men like Davis, Hood, and Hunter refused to surrender despite their position being obviously hopeless. Hunter’s delusions are laid out clearly in the book - while Grant laid siege to Richmond, Sherman ranged free in Georgia, and Thomas was pursuing the scattered remnants of Hood’s army, Hunter met with Lincoln to talk peace, and was mortally offended that Lincoln refused to compromise on reunion and emancipation – the only two issues of consequence in the war. Even in late 1864, Hunter expected that Lincoln would treat the defeated Confederacy as an equal, and not the broken, hollow shell that it was.

The central figure of the book is Grant, as the volume covers his Vicksburg campaign, ascension to command the Union armies of the west, and finally command of all the Union armies leading to the long grapple with Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Certainly Lee comes off well in parts of the book – his defeat of Hooker at Chancellorsville, Burnside at Fredericksburg, and subsequent second invasion culminating in the Battle of Gettysburg against Meade. But the book demonstrates convincingly that these were futile efforts: Even had Lee won at Gettysburg, his army would have been too worn down to exploit his victory, and even if it had not, he could not have taken the strongly fortified federal capitol. As Grant found out a year later when he laid siege to Petersburg, a strongly entrenched army was almost undefeatable by assault, and there were more than enough troops in D.C. to ward off any assault before relief could come. Grant, laying siege to Petersburg, had plenty of time, as the Confederacy had no relief troops to send. Lee would have had no such luxury.

Through the volume Catton details the ever more desperate efforts of the Confederate leaders, even as their nation collapsed around them and their own people defected. Wild plans were made to do all manner of things: Plots to bomb hotels in New York, or rob the Union in order to provide for Confederate needs, or steal Union warships, and so on. The lunacy of the Confederate leaders led Davis to relieve Johnston, whose delaying tactics had at least slowed Sherman down, and replace him with Hood and orders to go on the offensive - a disastrous command to an army that was completely ill-equipped to the task and which only left Georgia open to plunder. The whole book gives one a taste for the true feeling of inevitability that must have gripped the entire Confederacy, evidenced by the huge volume of desertions that plagued the Confederate armies and the desperate, incredible, delusional (and, due to historical events moving to fast for it to be put into effect, untested) plan to free and arm slaves to fight in its defense.

In all this, Catton weaves the tale of the political events surrounding the war in the field: The Presidential campaign of 1864, pitting McClellan against Lincoln, the debates in Congress and among members of Lincoln’s cabinet over the questions of reconstruction following the war and the status of the now-freed slaves. Catton makes clear that Booth’s bullet cruelly ended what might have been a kinder and better run reconstruction, more effective at healing the nation than the violent and bitter version created by the enmity between Johnson and the radical Republican Congress. The book ends just after Lincoln’s assassination and the final surrender of the last organized Confederate armies (all of whom had commanders who refused to take to the hills and conduct a bitter guerrilla war: Unlike their political leaders, the Confederate generals were often able to see what was best for the interests of the South, and the Union it would have to rejoin). In many ways, the books are the history of Lincoln as a political figure – he was, after all, a surprise choice for the Republican nomination in 1860, and his death put the cap on the war itself.

This series was first published in 1960 – the centennial of the U.S. Civil War. Every Civil War historian since then has been influenced by this work. For most students of U.S. history, this set of three volumes marks the starting point for their study of the war, and as a result, it is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the period, and the later scholarship on the subject. Without Catton, there would be no Foote, no Burns, and no Shaara. The series is also quite clear and straightforward, laying out an incredibly confusing episode in history in a concise and reasonably easy to understand manner.

Previous book in the series: Terrible Swift Sword

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  1. Excellent review. As a young reader fascinated by the Civil War, growing up in the centennial period, I thought these were the best books out there.

    1. @Migly: In my review of The Coming Fury, I point out that this series set the standard for modern work on the subject of the Civil War. Every history text on the subject since then is either building upon or reacting to Catton's treatment of the subject.

  2. I wouldn't sit for this one, but I can appreciate good history when I see it.

    1. @fredamans: I consider Catton's Centennial History series to be one of the best places to start reading about the U.S. Civil War. If you ever get the urge to study this era, this is where I would go first.