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Never Call Retreat by Bruce Catton
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Never Call Retreat (1965)

by Bruce Catton

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Centennial History of the Civil War (3)

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Final volume of the Civil War history. It tkaes the reader from the period of late 1862 and the Battle of Fredricksburg through Lee's surrender and Lincoln's assassination but leaves the question of reconstruction alone. He only hints at how difficult it will be and how unique a position Grant and Sherman left the country in - that is, an honorable peace (for the defeated) that really made it unlikely that there would be continued guerilla fighting in the years ahead. Had they been more vindictive that might have been an end to the Republic. ( )
  stuart10er | Nov 5, 2013 |
This is the third and final volume in the Centennial History of The Civil War by Bruce Catton. At the time this series was published Catton was the editor of the "American Heritage" and had already published a number of books on the Civil War. He won the Pulitzer for history in 1954 for A Stillness at Appomattox. I have read a number of his books. My favorite is The Coming Fury. That book is the first volume in this series and starts with the 1860 Democratic Party convention and goes through the First Battle of Bull Run.
I have read some opinions that Bruce Catton is dated and reflects an outmoded viewpoint on the Civil War. In my opinion he is an excellent author with a treasure trove of knowledge about the Civil War. Here is a good example of how Catton was able to show the meaning present in the facts of his story.There was a conversation between Lincoln and Grant that appears in Grant's Memoirs and is quoted often by other authors. Grant told Lincoln that all of the Union armies should advance at once in order to keep all of the Confederate armies occupied and unable to assist each other, using those famous interior lines. Lincoln replied " Oh Yes, I see that. As we say out West. If a man can't skin he must hold a leg while somebody else does."
Catton writes
"This remark would have puzzled Meade, it probably would not have been said to Hooker, and it would have made McClellan wince; as the son of a tanner, Grant understood it. The President had a general-in-chief he could talk to."
I have read about this incident in other books but I never read the significance of it explained that way. In his discussion of the Battle of Fredricksburg Catton writes that the night after the battle the Confederate soldiers crept out and pulled the clothes off of many of the Union dead. In the morning when the fog lifted there were hundreds of Union dead in front of the sunken road who were naked. I don't remember reading that fact in any other book in my short time reading about the Civil War. It is a grisly fact but a significant detail that adds to my knowledge of that event. When discussing the Battle of the Wilderness Catton states that Grant got beat nearly as bad as Hooker at Chancellorsville, but Grant was not Hooker. Grant kept fighting and eventually Lee lost the initiative in the struggle between the two armies. Lee wrote to Davis said that all he could hope for was to save Richmond. Catton points out that when Longstreet fought at Chickamauga ten of his infantry brigades and all of his artillery had not arrived before the battle ended. That had a significant impact on the outcome of the battle and I can't recall another author pointing it out.
Catton's excellence extends to his writing style. There is a pace to his writing that provides a steady flow of interesting information. He became a writer as a journalist and journalists have to write a lot of words in a hurry. I recently finished How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War. The author of that book used a number of Catton's descriptions of people and events because they were so good.
Catton does not limit himself to the military history. He writes about the politics and the social history of the times. There is an interesting chapter on the transition period for the slaves who were freed during the war. Catton makes it clear that the Northerners were racially prejudiced. He describes the Army building "concentration camps" to house the slaves. The slaves were free but they were forced by the Union army to work for what the landowners decided to pay them. Lincoln started out advocating compensated emancipation and colonization. He ended up advocating abolition which his Attorney General said would make the blacks equal citizens. There were black men in the Union Army but they were not accepted as equals even when they proved it. Catton's description of the changing racial relations during the Civil War seems to me unbiased and accurate.
In discussing political developments Catton points out the growth in the power of the central government that came about during the war. Sherman's victory in the Battle of Atlanta rescued Lincoln from predicted defeat and he won easily over George McClellan in the election of 1864. Catton shows the inception of redical reconstruction in the provisions of the Wade-Davis bill passed by the Senate in 1864. .
Reading this book definitely gives the reader a very good understanding of the the topic. In addition it is enjoyable to read. Shelby Foote's trilogy provides more detail and is also very well written. The maps in this book are inadequate and Foote's books have much better maps.
Everything else being equal, analysis of the events is the difference between excellent and good history writing. Catton did an excellent job of picking out the relevant facts and showing how and why they affected events. I am looking forward to reading Terrible Swift Sword, the middle volume in the series. I recommend this book as interesting and well written narrative history . ( )
  wildbill | Jun 16, 2011 |
This is the third and final volume in the Centennial History of The Civil War by Bruce Catton. At the time this series was published Catton was the editor of the "American Heritage" and had already published a number of books on the Civil War. He won the Pulitzer for history in 1954 for A Stillness at Appomattox. I have read a number of his books. My favorite is The Coming Fury. That book is the first volume in this series and starts with the 1860 Democratic Party convention and goes through the First Battle of Bull Run.
I have read some opinions that Bruce Catton is dated and reflects an outmoded viewpoint on the Civil War. IMO he is an author who is definitely worth reading. A few examples. There is a conversation between Lincoln and Grant that appears in Grant's Memoirs. Grant told Lincoln that all of the Union armies should advance at once in order to keep all of the Confederate armies occupied and unable to assist each other, using those famous interior lines. Lincoln replies " Oh Yes, I see that. As we say out West. If a man can't skin he must hold a leg while somebody else does."
Catton writes
"This remark would have puzzled Meade, it probably would not have been said to Hooker, and it would have made McClellan wince; as the son of a tanner, Grant understood it. The President had a general-in-chief he could talk to."
I have read about this incident in other books but I never read the significance of it explained that way. In his discussion of the Battle of Fredricksburg Catton writes that the night after the battle the Confederate soldiers crept out and pulled the clothes off of many of the Union dead. In the morning when the fog lifted there were hundreds of Union dead in front of the sunken road and wall who were naked. I don't remember reading that fact in any other book in my short time reading about the Civil War. It is a grisly fact but a significant detail that adds to my knowledge of that event. When discussing the Battle of the Wilderness Catton states that Grant got beat nearly as bad as Hooker at Chancellorsville, but Grant was not Hooker. He points out that Grant kept fighting and eventually Lee lost the initiative wrote to Davis that all he could hope for was to save Richmond. Catton includes the fact that when Longstreet fought at Chickamauga ten of his infantry brigades and all of his artillery had not arrived before the battle ended. That fact is significant when discussing the outcome of the battle and I don't recall another author highlighting it.
Catton's excellence extends to his writing style. There is a pace to his writing that provides a steady flow of interesting information. He became a writer as a journalist and journalists have to write a lot of words in a hurry. I have been reading How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War. I have found a number of citations to Catton's books and several quotations from this book. I am sure the quotations are used because Catton's writing adds to what the author is trying to say. In reading this book I often felt that the quality of Catton's writing gave me a better understanding of the events and imparted some of the emotion associated with them.
Catton does not limit himself to the military history. He writes about the politics and the social history of the times. There is an interesting chapter on the transition period for the slaves who were freed during the war. Catton makes it clear that the Northerners were racially prejudiced. He describes the Army building "concentration camps" to house the slaves. The slaves were free but they were forced to work for what the landowners decided to pay them. This was a period of incredible change in the role of African-Americans in America.
Lincoln started out advocating compensated emancipation and colonization. He ended up advocating abolition which his Attorney General said would make the blacks equal citizens. There were black men in the Union Army but they were not accepted as equals even when they proved it. IMO Catton was an historian who sought the truth no matter where that search took him. From what I read in this book the author's description of the racial relations of that time is unbiased and accurate.
In discussing political developments Catton points out the growth in the power of the central government that came about during the war. He includes Lincoln's acceptance of one of Salmon Chase's resignation letters and Ben Butler's ambition for the presidency in his coverage of the election of 1864. The military situation rescued Lincoln from predicted defeat and he won easily over George McClellan. The specific provisions of the Wade-Davis bill that were the basis of Radical Reconstruction are set out by the author.
Reading this book definitely gives the reader a very good understanding of the the topic. In addition it is enjoyable to read. Shelby Foote's trilogy provides more detail and is also very well written. Foote's books have much better maps. Maps are important for my understanding of events like battles and the maps in this book were not adequate.
Everything else being equal, analysis of the events is the difference between excellent and good history writing. Catton did an excellent job of picking out the relevant facts and showing how and why they affected events. I am looking forward to reading Terrible Swift Sword, the middle volume in the series. I recommend this book as interesting and well written narrative history . ( )
  wildbill | Jan 16, 2011 |
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 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, 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.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds. ( )
1 vote StormRaven | Nov 4, 2008 |
This is the third and final in the series. 1 The Coming Fury, 2 Terrible Swift Sword, 3 Never Call Retreat. Bruce Catton approaches this more from the political side and only briefly summerizes the actual battles. His writing style is amost poetic. He has done his homework by researching many letters and published works on Stanton, Lincoln and other politicals of the times. The book is a good read however I was disappointed on his handling of Appoximatox. The book kind of fizzled at the end. ( )
  dhughes | Sep 17, 2007 |
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Never Call Retreat is the final volume in Catton's Centennial History of the Civil War trilogy. It covers the war from Vicksburg and Gettysburg through 1864 to the end of the war in 1865.
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"...one of the great historical accomplishments of our time...will have an enduring place in our national records."--New York Times.

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