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Bruce Catton was once asked how he could describe Civil War battles with such freshness, accuracy and power. “I don’t know,” replied Catton. “Maybe I was there.”
He wasn’t, of course: Catton was born more than three decades after the War Between the States. Yet this son of Northern Michigan grew up around a handful of veterans who enjoyed telling tales from the conflict. “By the time I knew them most of them had long gray beards,” wrote Catton many years later, when he could have grown his own gray beard. “Those terrible names out of the history books—Gettysburg, Shiloh, Stone’s River, Cold Harbor—came alive through these men. They had been there.”
The old men who dusted off their blue uniforms for Decoration Day soon went to their patriot graves. Yet their stories didn’t die with them. Catton carried their legacy forward in a series of books known for their meticulous research and narrative flair. Volumes such as A Stillness at Appomattox and The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War helped Catton establish a legacy of his own—as one of the most influential historians of the 20th century.
Catton was born in Petoskey in 1899, the same year as Ernest Hemingway, another writer whose boyhood in Northern Michigan would shape his career. Whereas Hemingway was mostly a summer visitor to Walloon Lake and its environs, Catton was a native of the region. He grew up in what he called a “frost-bitten village,” along the shores of Crystal Lake. “The name of this town was Benzonia, and when we tried to tell strangers about it we usually had trouble because most people refused to believe that there was any such word,” he once wrote. According to legend, the name was a blend of Greek and Latin and it meant “good air.” Catton wasn’t sure about that, but knew that names have a way of evolving over time, as what was once La Riviere aux Bec Scies morphed into the Betsie River. So he didn’t fuss over Benzonia’s etymology: “The air was good there, and there was no harm in saying so.”
Religion was in the air as well. “Growing up in Benzonia was just a bit like growing up with the Twelve Apostles for next-door neighbors. You could never forget what you were here for,” recalled Catton. His father was a Congregationalist minister who taught at Benzonia Academy, a preparatory school, and later became its headmaster. The Cattons lived in a school building that still stands today as the Mills Community House. By the time it was built in 1909, lumberjacks had depleted Michigan’s forests so thoroughly that it was put up with pine imported from Georgia. The Benzonia Public Library, which includes a “Catton Room,” now occupies its first floor.
At the academy, Catton stumbled through Latin and hated geometry—and found that the study of history fired his imagination. He read about the Spanish conquistadors and the moundbuilding cultures of North America. He even tried his hand at writing a novel about a Mesoamerican king. “I realized after a time that I was not up to a novel,” he wrote many years later. “And anyway how could you do a piece of fiction whose hero is named Nezahualcoyotl? Utterly impossible.”