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The Civil War: A Military History

by John Keegan, Alfred A. Knopf

Disappointment is the best word to describe what will be most readers’ reactions to John Keegan’s eagerly awaited The Civil War: A Military History. Widely acclaimed as the greatest living military historian, Keegan produced such classics as The Face of Battle and The Mask of Command. But this volume is flawed by errors that undermine the credibility of the author’s creative and sometimes controversial analysis.

For example, his primary “new” theme is that the war was driven and shaped by America’s geography. But he misplaces the Confederacy’s border. He also lists First Bull Run and First Manassas as two separate battles, omits the Cumberland River from the Ohio to Fort Donelson and shows the Battle of Nashville occurring on February (not December) 5- 16, 1864—all on the opening map.

The geographic confusion continues with references to moving down (not up) the Tennessee River from the Ohio; an inexplicable claim that “Grant cut across southern Tennessee to reach southern Georgia”; and erroneous statements that Washington and Richmond were “little more than two days’ march” apart, the Mississippi begins at its confluence with the Missouri, Pittsburgh is on the Great Kanawha River, Fort Henry was on the Cumberland River, Fort Donelson was on the Tennessee River, and Missouri is south of Tennessee.

Minor errors include missing Winfield Scott’s age and Grant’s presidential exodus by 10 years apiece; placing Grant’s childhood in Illinois instead of Ohio; claiming Grant was a “retired” (not “resigned”) officer in 1861; misdating the creation of John Pope’s Army of Virginia; stating that Henry Halleck replaced George McClellan as general-in-chief; saying that Ambrose Burnside crossed the Rappahannock before his “Mud March”; confusing Admiral David Dixon Porter with Maj. Gen. Fitz-John Porter and more.

More disconcerting are inaccurate statements that the 1860 Republican Party platform opposed slavery (in – stead of its extension into territories); the South did not prepare for fighting after secession; North Carolina was not invaded until the end of the war; the North (aside from Alan Pinkerton) did not form a dedicated intelligence service (overlooking the Bureau of Military Intelligence); Lincoln carried the popular vote 5-to-1 in 1864 (actually it was 55 percent to 45 percent); Pinkerton was to blame for McClellan’s November 1861 overestimation of Rebel strength in northern Virginia at 100,000 (a number McClellan used the prior summer before Pinkerton arrived in Washington); and Island No. 10 was “abandoned” (not captured).

Even descriptions of major battles and campaigns are flawed. Keegan says Lee arrived at Gettysburg just as Maj. Gen. John Reynolds was killed (in fact it was several hours later). He also says that Lee ordered Richard Ewell to take the high ground on Day 1 at Gettysburg without adding the critical words “if practicable” to the order. He misstates when Lee retired from Antietam (important to understanding Lee’s low opinion of McClellan). He says Benjamin Grierson’s preVicksburg Raid started when Grant’s army crossed the Mississippi to Bruinsburg on April 30 (Grierson’s Raid started on April 17).

All these—and many more—errors detract from Keegan’s interesting discussions of strategy, geography, generalship, legacy and other aspects of the war. What a disappointment that no subject-matter editor intervened to save this book.


Edward H. Bonekemper III is an adjunct lecturer in Military History at Muhlenberg College, Allentown, Pa.

Originally published in the April 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.