Bruce Catton’s reliability, Ulysses Grant, and the Battle of Chattanooga 6 comments

Although Bruce Catton’s books are far better than many others written about the American Civil War, they cannot be said to be free from substantial mistakes. Starting at the bottom of page 295 in the 1956 edition of This Hallowed Ground, Catton outlined General Ulysses Grant’s plan for the battle at Chattanooga: “Grant proposed to hit the two ends of the Confederate line at once. Hooker would strike at Lookout Mountain, and Sherman . . . would hit the upper end of Missionary Ridge. While they were breaking into the Confederate flanks, Thomas’ men could attack the center.”

But it was not Grant’s intention “to hit the two ends of the Confederate line at once.” Hooker’s motley force on the Union right had been given no objective in the final plan. His assault of Lookout was ordered by George H. Thomas, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, only after Peter Osterhaus’ division couldn’t cross the Tennessee, while his assault against Missionary Ridge around Rossville the next day was not initiated by Thomas until late November 24th or early on the 25th. As to the statement that “Thomas could attack the center,” Thomas’ planned attack by Gordon Granger’s two divisions was to be on the far left to link up with William T. Sherman. A third division was to demonstrate up Chattanooga Valley. The idea of an attack in the center—straight at Missionary Ridge—did not come until late on the 24th or on the 25th. Catton’s stating that “It was ordered so . . .” confirmed that he meant the planning of the battle, and not the last minute changes to the plan, confirming his mistake. On page 299 of This Hallowed Ground, Catton claimed that “Grant then swung on Granger: was he responsible?” Instead, it was Thomas who questioned Granger on Orchard Knob that day, as per Fullerton’s account (although a multitude of authors have added a link to this long chain of error).

Catton further asserted that Hooker “outnumbered the Confederates on Lookout Mountain by a fantastic margin—five or six to one.” Obviously, he was only considering the first brigade Hooker confronted and not the three others that came up later in the day and defended Lookout against the Federals, much less those Confederates remaining on the mountain’s inaccessible top, who contented themselves with cannon-fire and sharpshooting. Catton’s accusation that Hooker “went astray somewhere in the wooded plain; there was a stream that needed bridging, the pontoons were missing, and this blow at the Confederate left missed fire completely” contains two major errors: Hooker was delayed by the burned bridges over Chattanooga Creek, but he did not go astray, and his three-pronged assault of Missionary Ridge from the south, just as Thomas men were attacking from the west, greatly supplemented the Union victory and probably facilitated the successful ascent of the ridge by the Army of the Cumberland.

In his description of Sherman’s initial move on the 24th (“Sherman’s men no sooner took one hill than they found themselves obliged to go down into a valley and climb another one, with cold-eyed Rebel marksmen shooting at them every step of the way–and occasionally rolling huge rocks down on them”), Catton is wrong on the topography, the extent of the fighting, and the weapons. The terrain was flat until Goat Hill was reached, there was negligible fighting, and the rocks did not come into play until the next day.

To his credit, Catton correctly noted in This Hallowed Ground that the advance to the rifle-pits at the foot of Missionary Ridge was not part of Grant’s purported intention to carry the crest: “Grant told Thomas to have his men attack the Confederate line at the base of Missionary Ridge, occupy it, and await further orders; the move seems to have been regarded as a diversion that might lead Bragg to strengthen his center by withdrawing some of the men who were confronting Sherman. No one had any notion that the Army of the Cumberland could take the ridge itself.” But Catton later reversed himself and got this wrong with his pronounced pro-Grant perspective in Grant Takes Command.

In fact, Catton had faulted many of Grant’s actions and operations in his earlier histories but, upon assuming Lloyd Lewis’ unfinished biography of U.S. Grant, he reversed many of these critical judgments. He replaced the perfectly correct conclusion in Mr. Lincoln’s Army, that “Grant fought the battle of Shiloh—fought it inexpertly, suffering a shameful surprise, losing many men who need not have been lost,” with a tortured defense in Grant Moves South, which admitted little more than that Grant and Sherman erred in responding to accusations of a complete surprise. Catton gave the General the benefit of almost every doubt on his purported intention to charge up Chattanooga’s Missionary Ridge, his plan to pass through the Wilderness, his delay in requesting a truce at Cold Harbor, and his hectoring of George H. Thomas at Nashville. As Grant disliked Thomas, Catton changed his stance, too. The author originally concluded that the “aggressive and mobile” Thomas “could move fast and he could hit with pulverizing impact.” Rating him very nearly as good as Lee, Catton decided that “perhaps this man actually was the best of them all.” Writing as Grant’s biographer, on the other hand, Catton now asserted that the “notoriously deliberate” Thomas showed “genius’s legendary capacity for taking infinite pains, and while he was taking them there was no rushing him.” New research did not apparently account for these revisions.

Although a fine writer in many respects, Bruce Catton’s conclusions should be assayed before being accepted as history.

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6 thoughts on “Bruce Catton’s reliability, Ulysses Grant, and the Battle of Chattanooga

  • Mike Maxwell

    Unfortunately, George H. Thomas left very little behind (in the way of documents and written records) and Catton had to make educated guesses, based on the information available at the time. What seemed logical in 1956 probably does not today, for a large number of reasons. But, above all else, Bruce Catton attempted ‘to make sense’ faithfully; and referenced his sources, allowing future researchers to confirm/improve upon his work.

    • Joseph Rose Post author

      But Bruce Catton had this information available to him. The battle plans for Chattanooga are in the Official Records and Fullerton’s anecdote is in Battle and Leaders, but Catton relied on the likes of Samuel Hawkins Marshall Byers for his apocryphal stories. And Catton’s changing his tune, when the cites didn’t show new evidence (and for Missionary Ridge, Catton admitted that he didn’t use new evidence), indicated that his conclusions followed his preconceptions.

  • Lawrence Albert Coughlin

    Don’t know when I have read anything, including my years as a principal/superintendent, like your original 700 page gem and now the “pissing contest” back and forth that is so well researched and to the point. Congratulations and huzzah for what you have/are doing for those of us who have taken the CW to heart.

  • Mike Maxwell


    I’ve just had a re-read of Catton’s 400-page work, and find that it still reads pretty well after all this time… though suffering (as does ANY summary) from ‘omission,’ and ‘arguably misplaced emphasis.’ In regards to Chattanooga, in the pages leading up to p. 295 the author appears to be ‘setting the stage’ for why the Army of the Cumberland felt hard-done-by… and why they were ‘primed’ to make that Charge (one of the most remarkable feats of the war — at least to Westerners), with or without orders. Sherman and Hooker merely get equal billing as ‘favored,’ to the perception of Thomas’ men as ‘operating without favor’ …whether it be under General Grant, or just ‘bad stars’ in general.

    • Joseph Rose Post author

      Mike, I would agree that Catton’s This Hallowed Ground “reads well,” until one looks at the details. His comment, that Grant “gave the big assignments to Sherman and to Hooker, and to the outlanders these officers had brought in with them,” is only half true (the part about Sherman and the Army of the Tennessee). Grant positively tried to keep Joe Hooker out of the battle, repeatedly. If Catton had really studied the battle, it should have been very hard for him to reach that conclusion.

      • Mike Maxwell

        But it’s a great talking point, isn’t it?

        And that’s my point: in 400 pages of summary, one cannot comprehensively cover the American Civil War. All that can be accomplished is to provide a suitable primer for school kids… and hope that interest is sparked, getting some to go further, and conduct more in-depth research. (Sometimes ‘something that doesn’t look right’ is what it takes, to get research happening.)

        As to the particular passage under review: 1) perhaps Catton did not proof-read it; 2) perhaps Chattanooga wasn’t his strong suit; 3) maybe he relied too heavily on someone else’s work. Or perhaps he was trying to explain an iconic ‘moment of the war,’ without letting extraneous details get in the way… ‘This Hallowed Ground’ is only suitable as introduction to the Civil War; it should not be taken (nor should ANY work be taken) as the final word. [As with any study, multiple resources must be consulted, compared one to another, and ‘the truth’ discovered.]

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