He Rewrote History

History professors often disparage writers who lack academic credentials, but they couldn’t ignore the quality of Catton’s work. “He liked to compare himself, untrained and learning on the job, to the so-called ‘political generals’ of the Civil War,” recalls his son, William, a retired history professor who lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In one of his books, Catton penned a revealing passage about Abraham Lincoln: “It would seem odd to find this untaught civilian lecturing professional soldiers on the elementary points of tactics except for the fact that many of the professionals obviously needed lecturing by somebody.”

Similarly, Catton could have given lessons to professors on how history ought to be written—not in dry academic tomes full of impenetrable jargon, but in beautiful narrative prose that tells an accurate and compelling story. Eventually, the elder Catton earned so many honorary degrees from colleges and universities that one of his assistants took the cowls and turned them into a patchwork quilt. In 1977, President Gerald Ford awarded him a Presidential Medal of Freedom. “He made us hear the sounds of battle and cherish peace,” said Ford.

As a young man, Catton may have wanted to get away from Benzonia. Yet he kept coming back. “He took my mother there shortly after they were married, and she promptly fell in love with the area,” William says. He liked to fish, play double solitaire, and catch up with childhood friends who had never left. There were family excursions to nearby Frankfort, to watch the comings and goings of ferries and trains. Catton whittled wood, too: he carved animal figures from Winnie-the-Pooh and The Wind in the Willows for his son, and later created dioramas featuring Civil War soldiers. Some of these are on display at the Benzie Area Historical Museum, in Benzonia.

“During the thirties, we rented cottages on Crystal Lake for two weeks or more almost every year,” says William. The visits would have been longer, but Catton always needed to get back to a desk in a faraway city. Then, in 1954, he “hit the jackpot,” as his son puts it. A Stillness at Appomattox, the final volume in the Army of the Potomac trilogy, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Civil War buffs continue to recognize it as one of the finest books ever written on their favorite subject. David McCullough, the author of Truman, 1776, John Adams and other bestsellers, has described his own experience of reading it as a senior at Yale: “I think it changed my life. I didn’t know that then, naturally. All I knew was that I had found in that book a kind of splendor I had not experienced before, and it started me on a new path.”

A Stillness at Appomattox was not merely a critical success, but also a commercial one with lifestyle implications. “From then on it was possible to start looking for a place to buy and spend whole summers in, as he had longed to do for decades,” says William. “My parents purchased a house on a bluff overlooking Crystal Lake. On a clear day, from his big living room picture window, you could see Lake Michigan, the Empire Bluffs, Sleeping Bear Point, the Manitous, and very nearly forever.” After that, he split his time between an apartment on the upper east side of Manhattan and the home he called Sumac Hill. A rambling, unpaved road led to the property. As a tribute, Benzie County named it Glory Road.

Despite the change in scenery, Catton continued to peck away at his typewriter. He wrote another trilogy to commemorate the Civil War’s centennial and completed the last two books of a three-volume biography of Ulysses S. Grant (another writer had died after finishing the first one).

Waiting for the Morning Train, a 1972 memoir of his boyhood, is in many ways Catton’s finest—a rich account of local history, a fond reminiscence of a bygone era, and thoughts both elegant and elegiac on the problems of resource scarcity and technological progress. Catton believed it didn’t receive enough attention: “He remarked once that if the book had been set in, say, New England, or in the right part of upstate New York, Eastern reviewers and readers would have been all over it; but Northern Michigan was too remote—not sufficiently ‘in,’” wrote his son in the foreword to a posthumous edition.

That may be, but Waiting for the Morning Train remains a favorite among Catton’s fans, especially those with roots in Michigan. In it, trains become metaphors for life and death, and Catton describes the appearance of the night train: “There is the headlight, shining far down the track, glinting off the steel rails that, like all parallel lines, will meet in infinity, which is after all where this train is going.”

For Catton, the night train to infinity came a few years later, in the summer of 1978, when he was at his home overlooking Crystal Lake. He was buried in Benzonia’s township cemetery—the one resembling Gettysburg’s, and alongside many of the Civil War veterans he knew as a boy and to whom he gave his own last full measure of devotion.

John J. Miller is a writer for National Review and the author of A Gift of Freedom.