Charles Bruce Catton was born in Petoskey, Michigan, to George R. and Adela M. (Patten) Catton, and raised in Benzonia, Michigan. His father was a Congregationalist minister, who accepted a teaching position in Benzonia Academy and later became the academy’s headmaster. As a boy, Catton first heard the reminiscences of the aged veterans who had fought in the Civil War. In his memoir, Waiting for the Morning Train (1972), Catton explained how their stories made a lasting impression upon him:
[These stories gave] a color and a tone not merely to our village life, but to the concept of life with which we grew up … I think I was always subconsciously driven by an attempt to restate that faith and to show where it was properly grounded, how it grew out of what a great many young men on both sides felt and believed and were brave enough to do.
Catton attended Oberlin College and, after serving in the Navy in World War I, began a career as a newspaperman. He worked for the Cleveland News and the Cleveland Plain Dealer and later for the Scripps-Howard Newspaper Enterprise Association.
In 1949, at the age of 50, Catton began the work for which he is renown, a 13-volume series on the Civil War. Of these, perhaps the best known is A Stillness at Appomattox (1953), for which he won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Catton was also the founding editor of American Heritage: A Magazine of History, which he edited until his death in 1978.
In 1977, the year before his death, Catton received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Gerald R. Ford, who noted that the author and historian “made us hear the sounds of battle and cherish peace.”
Of the many Civil War historians, Catton was arguably the most prolific and popular. Oliver Jensen, who succeeded him as editor of American Heritage magazine, wrote:
No one ever wrote American history with more easy grace, beauty and emotional power, or greater understanding of its meaning, than Bruce Catton. There is a near-magic power of imagination in Catton’s work that seemed to project him physically into the battlefields, along the dusty roads and to the campfires of another age.
Bruce Catton died on August 28, 1978 in a hospital near his summer home at Frankfort, Michigan, following a respiratory illness. He was buried in Benzonia Township Cemetery in Benzie County, Michigan.
Bruce Catton, Waiting for the morning train : an American boyhood, Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday, 1972.
John J.Miller, “He Rewrote History“, MyNorth, June 3, 2009.