on September 25, 1998
The third book in Catton's centennial trilogy of the Civil War, "Never Call Retreat" is a moving account of the war from Fredericksburg (Dec 1862) until the end of the war.
Catton does not devote the amount of ink to events that Shelby Foote did in his trilogy, for example, but Catton more than compensates by his beautiful writing style. As a work of literature, if nothing else, "Never Call Retreat" is worth the read.
But there is more. Because of his eloquence, and his passion for the subject, Catton has produced an account truly worthy of the poignant subject matter. If the reader does not weep as Catton describes Lincoln's assassination, or Stonewall Jackson's death, then he cannot be moved to tears by written words.
Catton portrays the war as a living organism, which, like Frankenstein's monster, got loose from its creators, and almost pulled the house down with it.
Catton's centennial trilogy ("Coming Fury," "Terrible Swift Sword," "Never Call Retreat") is an admirable place for the average person to begin a study of the Civil War.
Because of its poetic qualities, however, it is also a must read for the professional historian. All too often, historians have no heart in their writing. Perhaps a good dose of Catton might cure that
on October 23, 2002
In "Never Call Retreat", the third volume of his Centennial History of the Civil War, Bruce Catton writes of the last two years of that horrendous conflict. As he did in his first two volumes in the Centennial triology, Catton effectively covers the social and political aspects of the war, as well as the military. A work of this scope is, of necessity, a top-down view of the Civil War, focussing on the principal commanders and their subordinates. Yet, Catton is able to impart to his readers the confusion of battle; we can almost smell the powder smoke and hear the racket of musketry. As always, he writes with an elegance and an eloquence that many historians aspire to, but most cannot hope to match. Catton never loses sight of the war's ultimate, and higher, purpose and he poignantly brings home to us the human cost of our bloodiest conflict. Perhaps nowhere is this sense of loss brought home more forcefully than in this passage about Lincoln's assassination:
"No one will ever know what Abraham Lincoln would have done--with Stanton's scheme for military government, with radicals like Wade and Sumner and Stevens, with any of the separate aspects of the intricate problem that lay ahead--because it was at this delicate moment (about half-past ten on the night of April 14) that Booth came on stage with his derringer. Booth pulled the trigger, and the mind that held somewhere in cloudy solution the elements that might some day have crystallized into an answer for the nation's most profound riddle disintegrated under the impact of a one-ounce pellet of lead: the heaviest bullet, all things considered, ever fired in America. Thinking to destroy a tyrant, Booth managed to destroy a man who was trying to create a broader freedom for all men; with him, he destroyed also the chance for a transcendent peace without malice and with charity for all. Over the years, many people paid a high price for this moment of violence".
Four decades after its publication, this book, and the two that precede it, still stands as one of the best introductions to the war that defines us to this day.
My husband received Bruce Catton's American Civil War Trilogy as a gift and he said that he didn't want to see it end. After finishing Volume 3, Never Call Retreat, I agree with him completely. I can understand why it remains so popular almost 50 years from when it was first published. The Civil War trilogy is a scholarly work, but reads more like a novel.
Never Call Retreat starts after the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) and the author will take us through some of the most momentous events to take place during the Civil War including the Emancipation Proclamation, the Battle of Gettysburg, the fall of Vicksburg, the siege of Charleston, the presidential election of 1864, Sherman's March to the Sea, the surrender at Appomattox, and Lincoln's death. He also shows how even before the war was over, Lincoln was debating reconstruction and how the Confederate states could best be reunited with the Union. But it's the additional information that Catton provides that makes these books so interesting. He tells us about the deficiencies of the southern railroads and how that handicapped the Confederacy. He relates how the Union and the Confederates still traded goods (especially cotton) despite being at war. He gives examples of how military technology was more advanced than the soldiers using it. All of these different facets provide a more in-depth understanding of the war.
Where Catton is especially talented is in analyzing the characters he writes about. In book one, Lincoln begins to stumble through his presidency. By book three, his genius shows through and he is in commanded of everything from his cabinet to the military. Catton also is a good judge of military leadership. Lee and Grant were brilliant, but many of the officers on both sides were uninspired, reticent and lacking in military skills. In Never Call Retreat, the Confederates are especially plagued by poor leadership in the Western Campaign. "John B. Hood was uncomplicated, and when they gave him Joe Johnston's army, he assumed that he was expected to go out and fight. This he did, and as a result the South lost 20,000 good soldiers, Atlanta, the presidential election and most of what remained of the war."
Catton also has a special skill in taking complicated situations and describing them with simple eloquence. In talking about the Gettysburg Address, he writes that Lincoln "spoke of liberty and equality instead of victory, as if these words alone could give meaning to what had been done here, and instead of dedicating the ground he called upon those who stood there to dedicate themselves to something that might justify all that Gettysburg had cost them." In describing the end of the war, he writes that after Appomattox, Lee "rode straight into legend and took his people with him...The cause that failed became The Lost Cause, larger than life, taking on color and romance as the years passed, remembered with pride and heart-ache but never again leading to bloodshed. Civil Wars have had worse endings than this."
The Civil War may have ended in 1865, but as long as Bruce Catton's works are still in print, he will continue to turn younger generations into Civil War buffs. What better way can there be to honor our nations past?
on March 21, 2014
Bruce Catton's series of books on the Civil War, are both detailed and emotionally absorbing. He catches the feeling of the battles as well as the politics and social upheaval of the period. This book focuses on 1863, with early Confederate successes, and later tragic defeats, and the national confusion and mixed feelings brought on by the Emancipation proclamation, especially in the Northern and border states.
The dance of Northern generals is absorbing, and especially their attitudes regarding the EP and slavery. If you want unbiased and detailed history, read all of Bruce Catton's books on the Civil War.
on April 2, 2012
A collection of Bruce Catton's books has sat on my bookcase for 30 years. I was given them while a student of US history and may have dipped into them, but had never sat down to read them properly. A chance query about Gettysburg drew me to Never Call Retreat the third volume in his trilogy Centennial History of the Civil War, published in 1965. Within minutes I was totally engrossed. His writing is pure brilliance, his analyses remain fresh and insightful, his choice of detail and anecdote impeccable, and his compassion for all caught up in the turmoil of war total. This is history at its absolute best. If you have a dusty copy hiding away somewhere dig it out - you will be educated, inspired and humbled. One is left pondering the great folly of human politicking that gives rise to any war, but especially civil war. Surpassing this is mankind's ability to endure devastation, suffering and loss and yet survive. Catton captures it all.
on September 13, 2013
This is the third of Bruce Catton's three book Centennial history of the Civil War. While one can treat the books as independent, I strongly suggest reading the books in sequence.
Lincoln in a riverboat conference with Grant and Sherman hoped the anticipated last battles on the two main fronts could be avoided, but the generals were openly not optimistic. But Lincoln's desire to end the war quickly was not only based on loss of life. Lincoln also hoped that he could staunch the bleeding of dollars spent fielding and supporting the massive armies of the Union.
After the fighting, the highest priority became the reintegration of the seceded states back into the federal union. But exactly how that was to be done was the topic of endless debates. There was a need to rebuild cities and railroads damaged or destroyed so as to get the economy (primarily in the south) back on its feet. But anger against the South was flamed by the Lincoln assassination and many punitive actions resulted.
Bruce Catton wrote other books such as "Grant Moves South" that are well worth your valuable reading time. For the highly interested reader, Shelby Foote's multi-volume history is another excellent source of information. Lastly, Grant's autobiography is a no-nonsense recounting of the war -- Grant felt there was no need to talk about more than his perspective of the war as that, and not his life's story, is what his readers would really be interested about.
"Never Call Retreat" is the concluding volume of Bruce Catton's magnificent centennial history of the Civil War. It features Catton's superb narrative skills and his keen understanding of the Civil War as a military, political and moral struggle, with a sweeping perspective often lost in more recent, highly detailed histories.
Catton picks up the narrative with the Federal disaster at Fredericksburg in December 1862, followed by the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville, before following the parallel Vicksburg and Gettysburg campaigns in the summer of 1863. The Chickamauga and Chattanooga campaigns will get their due, before US Grant comes East to command all Union armies and the North hardens itself for the final, bloody campaigns in 1864 and 1865 that will end the war.
Throughout the narrative, Catton captures the personalities of the leading military and civilian leaders, and the difficult, shifting political times in which they operated. In particular, for the North, the war becomes much greater than the challenge to keep the Union together. The personality and politics of President Abraham Lincoln overshadows the story throughout.
"Never Call Retreat" is old-school historical writing at its very best, about the epic military and political struggle that changed America forever. It is most highly recommended as a superb reading experience to students of the Civil War.
on September 4, 2014
If you are at all interested in the Civil War, Bruce Catton's three volumes remain the best written survey of them all. Shelby Foote's survey may be more detailed but as a prose stylist, he can't hold a candle to Catton. This is the last of the three volumes. After 45 years I still re-read with great pleasure the chapters on the Vicksburg campaign and the Chickamauga/Chattanooga battles; the last chapter on Lincoln's assassination is will make you feel the endless haunting echoes of the past.
on August 12, 2015
Thoroughly absorbing. This is not dry history; it's history that comes alive. The late Bruce Catton was a scrupulous researcher and a gifted narrator, and it shows up in this entire trilogy (the first two books of which are "The Coming Fury" and "Terrible Swift Sword." These books are what we call "page-turners." Highly recommend!
on October 10, 2010
Bruce Catton's Civil War trilogy, as I have noted previously, is essentially a Northern counterpart to the more Southern-oriented Shelby Foote. Catton writes with considerable eloquence, and this third volume, which covers the last two years of the war, from Fredricksburg to Appomattox Court House, is perhaps the best. Since he's covering the politics of the war most carefully, and more or less skimming the military features, or at least the battles, this book covers those two years in some ways rather cursorily. In other ways it's very detailed, and in either case it's very entertaining.
This volume covers essentially McClellan's successors in Virginia, starting with Burnside and moving on through Hooker, Meade, and eventually Grant. In the West, Grant's continued rise is chronicled in the first half, and by the end we're of course following Sherman across Georgia. All of the major battles, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Vicksburg, and so forth, get good coverage, though as I've said it tends to be pretty short, as Catton is much more interested in the politics and strategy of the war than he is in the battles. His discussion of Lincoln's evolution from a cautious war leader in the first book to a more-or-less full-on abolitionist (not as radical as some, though) is particularly good.
I heartily recommend this first book as much as the first two. Should be required reading for Civil War buffs, alongside Foote.