America’s Civil War: The Operational Battlefield 1861-1863
by Brian Holden Reid
Prometheus Books, 2008
One can read extensively in Civil War historiography and not once come across the word “puerile.” Yet Brian Holden Reid, professor of American history and military institutions at King’s College in London, uses it twice in 11 pages—an unmistakable sign that he is, indeed, an Englishman. As such, he brings an exceedingly British tradition of experiences and historical mentors to America’s Civil War: The Operational Battlefield 1861-1863, his vigorously argued analysis of the war’s techniques and style of command and their relationship to strategy, tactics and logistics on the battlefield in the first three years of the conflict.
Reid’s spirited narrative style propels the reader across the important, and sometimes remote, Civil War battlefields—from Ball’s Bluff on the Potomac River, near Leesburg, Va., to the mile-high Glorietta Pass in New Mexico Territory 2,000 miles away. Throughout this journey, he shines a bright analytical light on many long-accepted interpretations of how the war was fought. He energetically takes issue with Stephen Ambrose’s argument that “New approaches to tactics and strategy did come during the war but the originators were field commanders operating in practical situations, not theorists in Washington.” Reid prefers a more integrated approach and contends that Ambrose’s “view is overly simplified and divorces the conduct of the war from its political context.”
Reid also trains his keenly discriminating eye on the Seven Days’ Campaign of 1862. He opines that “McClellan’s strategic concept was undoubtedly sound; his execution of it puerile” and that part of Union Maj. Gen. John Pope’s catastrophic failure at Second Bull Run just three months later occurred because the “level of Union intelligence gathered by the cavalry, as in the Peninsula, was puerile.”
Reid is not always so curmudgeonly. He lavishes praise on Robert E. Lee for his instincts, skill and imagination as a field commander and his keen sense of political and interpersonal relationships. But his approach leads him, at times, to be a trifle too enamored with his own similes. Take, for example, his description of the Army of the Potomac on the eve of the Battle of Chancellorsville: “Hooker had 130,000 men, but they stumbled about like partygoers pushed from a brightly lit anteroom into a deep, pitch-black cellar.” Come on, now. This is the Army of the Potomac, not a bunch of drunken late-night revelers heading home from an evening on the town.
An enthusiasm to analyze, while remaining firmly grounded in a bountiful lauder of 19th- and 20th-century tactical theories and logistical practices, seems to lead the author into some circular reasoning. At times, he criticizes military leaders for not understanding and doing what they could not have understood or done because they had no experiences on which to draw. Nineteenth-century European theories and practices were taught, albeit in an abbreviated form, at West Point, but the American Civil War was a giant petri dish militarily for everyone involved. Some learned from their experiences and grew into their appointed roles, but many others did not.
Nevertheless, taken as a whole, The Operational Battlefield should be on every student of the Civil War’s reading list. Between its covers, most readers will find something that counters their preconceptions and challenges their level of understanding. To our good fortune, we have not heard the last from Reid on this subject. He plans a companion volume covering 1864-1865, and maybe even one more after that.