Man makes war, he always has. Fighting is just part of our animal nature. The founding of our country was forged by war. In the twentieth century the United States rose to world dominance by winning a world war. This new millennium, America has been at war for every year. But only one war has seared the American soul as completely as the American Civil War. The fissures of that conflict are still evident. The British author, John Keegan, has written a new history of that war entitled, The American Civil War. I am a fan of Keegan’s writings and have recently read this new work.
Keegan is a distinguished military historian. He has written some twenty books about war. His seminal work, The Face of Battle, condenses mankind’s warring nature down to three battles, Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, all nice and neat and all very British. Still it is a good work of history. His suppositions of how the course of Agincourt occurred seem plausible and given the lack of any countervailing evidence, must serve as the truth.
Keegan’s viewpoint is European and as such is centered around the two world wars of the twentieth century. It is with the First World War that he draws the most analogies with our civil war. The Civil War and World War I’s Battle of the Somme were roughly fifty years apart. Likewise, Waterloo and the Civil War are also separated by about fifty years. In those hundred years, the Civil War stands astride the transition from the toy soldier warfare of the eighteenth century to today’s total war. Nuances of this transition are emphasized by Keegan. At the beginning of the Civil War, enemy lines stood in the open, facing and firing at each other, just as it was done at Waterloo. By the end of the Civil War, soldiers would entrench themselves as soon as possible, like they did at the Somme.
What I found most interesting about this book, was Keegan’s treatment of the generals. He loved Ulysses S. Grant and thought that he was the first man to demonstrate understanding of the dynamics of modern warfare. He actually says that Grant was the greatest general since Wellington, tall praise indeed coming from a Briton. Sherman is held up as a close second. In comparison, Robert E. Lee is reduced to merely being a great tactician. Confusing to some reviewers of this book is Keegan’s comparison of George McClellan to the World War II American general, George Patton. As a general McClellan was timid, while Patton was not. I think that from Keegan’s viewpoint it was their similarly pompous manners that drew this analogy.
This is hardly Keegan’s best work, mistakes abound. I’m not sure that he has ever visited Tennessee. He is confused on the location of the Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. Usually geography is one of Keegan’s strengths. This selection from a New York Times review categorises some of his errors:
- Keegan states that Lincoln never learned the value of a country’s leader visiting its army in the field. Lincoln actually visited the armies 11 times.
- 10 percent of the United States soldiers in 1865 were black, not 3 percent.
- Britain recognized the Confederacy’s belligerent status in 1861, not 1863.
- The British prime minister during the war was Palmerston, not Disraeli.
The last two bullets aren’t particularly pertinent to the history of the war, but speak volumes about the quality of the book. Still it was an enjoyable read. The casual reader will get an accurate enough reading of history. Most of Keegan’s insights are valid. The student of history might enjoy enumerating Keegan’s mistakes, but might be still better served by critically thinking about his thesis and determining which of them have merit.