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The American Civil War: A Military History

by John Keegan; Random House

Forcing readers out of their comfort zones is British military historian John Keegan’s stock in trade. So readers seeking a thorough overview of the Civil War, or even of its operational aspects, should be warned that he takes a very different approach. After affirming the war’s necessity in his third sentence, he presents a sophisticated shopping list of why it was not unavoidable.

He sees the conflict as a compound mystery. War erupts across a country whose founding principles emphasize peace and fraternity. Southerners who do not own slaves willingly fight for a slaveholding society. An exponentially overmatched South sustains four years of an unprecedented death grapple. “America is different,” Keegan concludes dryly.

Underlying all the key factors that shaped the war, in Keegan’s view, was the absence of obvious geographic objectives for either side. Armies were the only targets that guaranteed a decisive outcome to the sprawling conflict, and that made the Civil War among the fiercest ever waged. The improvised nature of the forces enhanced the ferocity. So did the high learning curves of both Union and Confederate troops. But as with the British Expeditionary Force of World War I, their tuition was paid in blood, not least because the available technology, from railroads to rifles, did not decisively favor either combatant.

Military and political leadership characterized more by personality than talent heightened the blood price. The war produced a host of colorful characters. But of the able ones— Grant, Lee, Sherman, perhaps even Jefferson Davis—only Lincoln showed greatness from beginning to end.

Leaders, like the troops, had no historical precedents to guide them for such an unstructured, chaotic conflict. Nor did they have much time for reflection as the series of battles unfolded. Strategy took a distant fourth place to operational, administrative and political matters while the fighting grew increasingly bloody and uncontrollable and mass slaughter came to represent success. A million casualties later, the Civil War emerged as America’s defining experience.

To respect Keegan’s virtuosity is not to accept his arguments tout court. This work will be controversial. But he presents an impressive body of ideas for specialists and general readers alike to ponder.


Originally published in the February 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here