Tag Archives: Bruce Catton

Ender’s Game, Catton’s war

A lot of people think Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is the best science fiction novel ever, or at least one of the top contenders, so I decided to read it before seeing the new movie adaptation.  I enjoyed it, although it didn’t have the impact on me that it seems to have had on thousands of other readers over the years.  The movie’s not bad, either.

A story about children training to fight space aliens is just about the last place you’d expect to find anything relating to popular Civil War historiography, but in his introduction Card identifies the work of Bruce Catton as one of his main influences:

I remembered so well the stories of the commanders in that war–the struggle to find a Union general capable of using McClellan’s magnificent army to defeat Lee and Jackson and Stuart, and then, finally, Grant, who brought death to far too many of his soldiers, but also made their deaths mean something, by grinding away at Lee, keeping him from dancing and maneuvering out of reach. It was because of Catton’s history that I had stopped enjoying chess, and had to revise the rules of Risk in order to play it–I had come to understand something of war, and not just because of the conclusions Catton himself had reached. I found meanings of my own in that history.

I learned that history is shaped by the use of power, and that different people, leading the same army, with, therefore, approximately the same power, applied it so differently that the army seemed to change from a pack of noble fools at Fredericksburg to panicked cowards melting away at Chancellorsville, then to the grimly determined, stubborn soldiers who held the ridges at Gettysburg, and then, finally, to the disciplined, professional army that ground Lee to dust in Grant’s long campaign. It wasn’t the soldiers who changed. It was the leader. And even though I could not then have articulated what I understood of military leadership, I knew that I did understand it. I understood, at levels deeper than speech, how a great military leader imposes his will on his enemy, and makes his own army a willing extension of himself.

Card thus takes the Civil War (at least the war in the East) primarily as the story of an army in search of its commander.  Framing the war with this narrative is not at all uncommon, but is it accurate?  And is it possible to draw such broad general lessons about the nature of war and the human experience from the study of one particular conflict?

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