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The Centennial History of the Civil War (1961)

by Bruce Catton

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Recommended: Anyone looking for a good general but detailed explanation of the motivations and actions before and during the American Civil War. Not much on military strategy but more focused on the how's and why's things happened.

Quick Take: The leaders of the Confederacy were fighting to preserve an economic and social order that had passed it time. The leaders of the North were fighting to create a new economic and social order. A great many fought for reasons they did not understand and great many of the liberties that Lincoln took with the Constitution (especially the suspension of it's rules were acceptable if the ends justified the means) are a good part of how America got to where it is today with the power of the President over that of the Congress and Judiciary.

This trilogy consists of The Coming Fury, The Terrible Swift Sword and Never Call Retreat. I had just finished rereading On Hallowed Ground when I came across these three sitting in a used bookstore in Arkansas.

The Coming Fury describes Lincoln's election, the events immediately prior to secession up to the first Bull Run. Catton's major emphasis in this volume is on the differences between how Lincoln viewed secession (wayward states acting illegally) as opposed to how those in the south viewed it (the founding of a new nation) and how these views affected the progression of the conflict. He maintains throughout this volume that Lincoln and others continued to believe that with a few tweaks both the Union and the "peculiar institution" could be saved.

The Terrible Swift Sword spends a great deal of time on the Army of the Potomac and the events in Washington between Bull Run and Sherman's foray into Georgia. Like most of the discussions of this period it presents a frustration mixture of incompetence, idiocy and at times outright lunacy. Catton presents Lincoln as a President who believes that the preservation of the Union throws out all the rules, meaning that he can ignore the constitution, the people and eventually even the rules of democracy in order to accomplish his goal. There is a lot here that portends our present situation of Presidents who flout the rights of the people and justify it by saying it is for our best. He presents Lincoln not as all knowing but as someone with a clear vision and though at times tentative, always focused on his goal. In contrast his discussions of the Southern Government shows a government that while in more than name was hamstrung by the foundation on which it was built.

Never Call Retreat takes over with the rise of U. S. Grant and the cohesion of a plan for the GAR. It is less focused on the major player's outlook and more on their reaction to circumstances that often were beyond their control. Although he remains sympathetic to Lee and Davis he makes few excuses for them and admits that both made some major mistakes. Having the advantage of time on his side it's a fairly hopeful ending, but it seems that in the 40 odd years since this was published there is a great deal that could be questioned.

Well worth the time to read them the writing is not up to "On Hallowed Ground". I got the feeling that at times the author was as tired of covering the same territory as I was reading the same descriptions. If you haven't read any of his other books and aren't heavily into American Civil War History I would start with one of the others before diving into this. On the other hand if you can find a full set at a used bookstore for $5.00 I can highly recommend it. ( )
  statmonkey | Aug 18, 2013 |
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The Centennial History of the Civil War is Catton's second trilogy on the Civil War. The 3-volume set includes The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat.

This trilogy has also been republished as a boxed set under the title Bruce Catton's Civil War. Catton's first Civil War trilogy, Army of the Potomac has been republished as a single volume, also titled Bruce Catton's Civil War.
This boxed set includes the titles The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat. These were originally published individually in 1961, 1963, and 1965 respectively, as the Centennial History of the Civil War trilogy.

This 3-volume set should not be combined with the single volume of the same title, which is actually a reprint of Catton's other Civil War trilogy, Army of the Potomac.
Bruce Catton's Civil War is a single volume reprint of Catton's first Civil War trilogy, Army of the Potomac, which includes the titles Mr. Lincoln's Army, Glory Road, and A Stillness at Appomattox.

This single volume should not be combined with the 3-volume boxed set of the same name, which is a reprint of Catton's other Civil War Trilogy, Centennial History of the Civil War, and includes the following titles: The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, Never Call Retreat.
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