The American Civil War by John Keegan

The largest war fought on the North American continent and the bloodiest war for the United States, the Civil War is a huge part of the heritage of every American.

John Keegan is among the most respected historians of this age.  So what do we get when a great British writer explores the greatest of American wars? Join me for a look at an irresistible history.

I know I have many non-American readers on this site, its hard to explain what our Civil War means to us.  I always think of it as the American Iliad.  The personalities and battles are larger than life, mythic to us.  Names of Generals like Grant, Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, Sherman even McClellan can generate a strong emotional response.  Names of Battles like Antietam,  Shiloh, Chickamauga and Gettysburg send a chill down the spine.
John Keegan suggests the Civil War is to Americans what World War One is to the British. I guess its hard for any of us to explain, but maybe that helps?  It was certainly a ferocious war; while Napoleonic armies typically fought one major battle a year, the Civil War had, in four years, 10000 identified battles, 300 of which would count as “major”.

Readers familiar with John Keegan’s work will recognize the approach he takes here.  This is more of a thorough analysis than a narrative history.  He starts with the political, social and economic issues that led to war; then looks at the efforts of both sides to organize and strategize for a far larger war than the nation had ever faced before. And the US was a very young nation at the time, 87 years (four score and seven…) since independence had been declared.  There was no precedent and no experience for anything like this.  The South actually had a stronger military tradition and a simpler strategic problem (defending their territory), while the North had all the advantages of numbers, wealth and industry.  And Keegan does an excellent job of exploring how those strengths played out and how they were used…   or neglected.

The middle chapters look at how events unfolded in the very different eastern and western theaters.  For the North, its an interesting story of how many leaders showed promise but ultimately disappointed (McDowell, McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, Halleck, etc) until US Grant finally emerged.  The South found men of tactical ability fairly quickly, but none had the strategic vision to overcome their other shortcomings.
This analysis of the great generals was perhaps the most fascinating part of the book to me, especially with the writer’s comparisons to European experience.  Keegan credits Grant as the one truly great general of the war, to which I can only respond its about time. Too often Grant has been dismissed as a butcher, a simpleton or a drunk.  But he was a man with strategic insight, an intuitive understanding of tactics and he never made the same mistake twice.  One other strength I found interesting, Grant could apparently issue complex orders clearly and quickly to a large number of subordinates.  Obviously a useful skill!
Other Union officers getting praise include Sherman, Sheridan and Meade.  He was a little harder on some of the Confederate Generals than we normally see; I think the normal assessment of Lee is as a tactical genius with more limited strategic abilities.  Keegan is maybe more cautious than this.  Jackson seems to get the highest praise for southern officers, yet Jackson had some serious and well documented limitations.

There are also chapters here for the naval war, black soldiers and the home front. There is always so much to say about this very large conflict and obviously every one of these has generated many books on their own.I believe the Civil War has generated the most books of any topic in the United States, while World War II is probably the most documented event worldwide.
So where does John Keegan’s book fit in? It is not a good introduction to the subject.  The best narrative history is probably James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom or, if the reader is very ambitious, Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy.  But for those with a basic knowledge of the events this is an excellent analysis. I most appreciated getting a European perspective on some issues, and the insightful look at the various generals. Call it three out of four stars.

~ Dave 

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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21 Responses to The American Civil War by John Keegan

  1. jfwknifton says:

    An excellent review with a really good conclusion. It’s nice to be told what the good introductory books are.

    • atcDave says:

      Thanks John!
      I know most of my readers are already history nerds, but i worry about recommending something that I think needs background first.

  2. thinkling says:

    It is both interesting and curious to me that there are some Brits keenly interested in the American Civil War. When I was a child, my parents hosted a British couple as part of a Teacher Exchange Program. They specifically wanted to come to Chattanooga because he was a Civil War buff.

    Who knew?

    • Ernie Davis says:

      I always thought one of the fascinating things about the American revolution was that the cultures of the north and south could unite long enough to kick out the Brits. The south was a culture essentially transplanted from England. Wealthy landholders, often inherited grants from royal decree with indentured labor or slaves who owed their living to the “nobility”. The north, though it had aspects of the same in places, was largely recalcitrant protestant professionals and working class descended from those, or who themselves had left England to escape the stultifying class system that was still ascendant in much of the south.

      • atcDave says:

        And not surprising, much of the British upper classes were pro Confederacy. But slavery ensured they would never make that official.

    • atcDave says:

      That is interesting. There are military history buffs all over the world who sometimes developed unexpected passions. I still remember doing a Yorktown battlefield tour, with a young Russian woman as our guide. Very odd!

      It’s also interesting to me that Europe did not take the American Civil War seriously until late in the 19th Century. Perhaps due to the emergence of the US as a world power?
      Keegan makes the observation that the armies of 1861 really were just armed mobs. But he feels the Union Army of 1865 could have bested any in the world.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        If nothing else they might have learned about the kind of carnage created when trying to advance over open ground while the enemy is firing modern weapons from covered positions.

      • atcDave says:

        Yes absolutely.
        One of the things Keegan explores is the emergence of trench warfare. It was never ordered and never doctrine; but by 1864 both northern and southern armies had become quite skilled and energetic about it.

  3. Ernie Davis says:

    I’m not a big student of the civil war, but I have read enough to realize that Grant and Sherman are probably the most unappreciated military minds of their age, at least in the general public’s understanding. In addition the western theater (where they both served and were the authors of several important campaigns and victories) is largely overlooked considering the critical part victories there played in the eventual defeat of the Confederacy.

    • atcDave says:

      Yeah no doubt the Eastern campaign got (and still gets) most of the press. But Grant and Sherman did show their qualities in the west.

      The Civil War is unique to me. So often my interests are driven by equipment and weapons; but apart from some of the naval weapons this war is sort of boring from a hardware perspective. It’s the personalities that are the irrestible draw to me.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Considering that some of the biggest personalities served the Confederacy in the eastern campaigns I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised that it gets all the press then.

      • atcDave says:

        I think its absolutely true the east is more interesting for southerners. And its arguably more dynamic. But yeah, Lee, Jackson, Stuart; that’s where I think the whole romance of the “lost cause” hits full speed.

        But Grant has always been my personal favorite, so the west has more appeal for me than it may for many.

  4. Theresa says:

    Great review on a fascinating topic.

  5. A really interesting review. I must admit I know very little of the American Civil war not its real importance to the development of the US in general. A sad failing on my part I’m afraid, so thanks for this.

  6. I am not a American but I admire your history. Despite your differences you managed to preserve your unity.

    • atcDave says:

      Thank you for the comment Timothy!
      Strangely the Civil War seems to have made us more unified than ever; I think it was Shelby Foote made the observation that before the Civil War the adjectives for the United States were always plural (“the United States are…”) but after they became singular (“the United States is…”) It was a whole shift in how we see ourselves.
      Sadly, we may currently be the most divided we’ve been since that terrible war. American politics currently seem more like 1850s than the 1950s! It’s the curse of living in interesting times.

  7. Autumn Cote says:

    Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. There is no fee, I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our commufnity and I liked what you wrote. If “OK” please let me know via email.


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