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.