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.