Book Review Grant Moves South by Bruce Catton

matthew mckeon

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Just finished it this afternoon, after picking it up in a used book store. Its a fifty eight year old book, with the limitations of the time, not to mention Catton's own limitations, as I will mention. But gosh, its a well written, engaging book. What a refreshing change from more recent and more academic writing. It follows Grant from the start of the war till the fall of Vicksburg.

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matthew mckeon

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Catton is a little better than I expected. He makes the distinction between memories or writing decades after the event, when Grant was a Great Man on the road to greatness, and less starstruck contemporary accounts. While Ron Chernow has written the bartender's guide to General Grant, Catton recounts various accusations of drinking, but ultimately makes the correct conclusion: it isn't that significant.
 

matthew mckeon

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Catton has a romantic streak, as Grant trods the twisted road to glory, more than once advancing to another rendezvous with destiny. Catton does realize he's dealing with an utterly unromantic figure, a realist, whose undramatic manner covered a core of ruthlessness.
 

matthew mckeon

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Catton tries to invoke the rough and ready theater of war, a universe of mud, rain, rivers than either flooded or drew too little water, lousy uniforms, terrible roads, swamps, and the rough pioneering stock that fought the western way.

Officers struggle with the poor maps, the weather, undisciplined volunteers, politics and their own ignorance of the basics of soldiering. Catton makes the lesson clear: its a lot easier to fight battles inside over a book or computer screen than in a 19th century battlefield.
 

matthew mckeon

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In his discussion of the disruption of slavery, the establishment of contraband camps and recruiting black soldiers, Catton has the limitations of a white man living in 1960. That hasn't wore well at all.
 

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