Catton didn’t merely encounter history in books, but also from the accounts of Benzonia residents who had witnessed it. Elihu Linkletter had lost his left arm at the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia and went on to become a gun-toting birdwatcher who waged a one-armed war against Michigan’s squirrel population. Lyman Judson rode with the cavalry under General Philip Sheridan and had a horse shot from under him. The hard fall left him with severe back pain. During Catton’s boyhood, however, Judson slipped on ice, banged his spine again, and suddenly was cured. John Morrow recalled the time General William Tecumseh Sherman yelled at him in “language that would make a mule driver blush.” Another veteran told Catton that Benzonia’s village cemetery resembled a famous one in Pennsylvania: “it looked out over the rolling countryside just as the Gettysburg cemetery does, and the main road that came up from the south went past the base of the hill much like the Emmitsburg road that Pickett’s men had to cross.”
Years later, Catton really did write a novel. Banners at Shenandoah is about a boy who runs away from home in Northern Michigan, joins the Union army, and, like Judson, serves under “Fighting Phil” Sheridan. The opening pages are plainly autobiographical, with their descriptions of schooners on Lake Michigan and big snowdrifts perfect for tunneling. “Altogether I liked our little town,” says the book’s first-person narrator. “Yet somehow I always wanted to get away.”
Catton himself got away in 1916. He attended Oberlin College in Ohio but never finished his degree. Instead, he served briefly in the Navy and started a family. Professionally, Catton worked as a newspaper reporter. When the Second World War broke out, Catton was a syndicated columnist in Washington, D.C. Then he became director of information for the War Production Board, a civilian agency that regulated manufacturing and rationed materials. From this experience, Catton wrote his first book, The War Lords of Washington. It came out in 1948, making him a late-bloomer as an author: He was a year away from his 50th birthday.
The middle-aged Catton then made the daring decision to become a full-time book writer, turning his passion for the Civil War into his occupation. Ruth Catton, a niece who lives in Benzonia, remembers family trips to visit her uncle in Washington. “He and my father would go to as many battlefields as they could,” she says. In 1951, Doubleday published Mr. Lincoln’s Army, the first volume in what would become a trilogy about the Army of the Potomac. In the next volume, Glory Road, Catton praised “the stand-up valor of the private
soldier.” His readers began to appreciate that he was doing something different from earlier Civil War historians: The heroes of his books weren’t so much the generals and men of rank who issued orders, but the grunts who did most of the actual fighting. Catton relied heavily on their thoughts and observations, drawn from regimental histories and other sources. He approached his research like a good journalist: He took careful notes, made sound judgments, and relished in the discovery of colorful quotes and details. He also embodied a kind of Midwestern nationalism that endorsed the war’s outcome but was willing to give Southerners their due. Catton, for instance, made no effort to hide his admiration of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.