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Thursday, September 11, 2014

“The American Civil War: A Military History”, by John Keegan

416 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN-13, 978-0307263438

The American Civil War: A Military History is typical of many of John Keegan’s books: it is disorganized, repetitive, and the narrative is confusing and not very chronological; a person with no previous knowledge of the Civil War would easily get lost in this book. It appears to be a compilation of individual articles which have not been unified. He makes several factual bloopers, as when he states that Eisenhower ended segregation in the US military, when every American knows that it was Harry Truman who did so. He thinks Tennessee is much closer to Indiana and Ohio than it actually is. The Great Kanawha River, with all due respect, is NOT a “major waterway”. And he has a lapse in his usually impeccable language usage when on page 361 he uses “nauseous” when he means “nauseating”. All of this is not because Sir John was a poor historian, but rather that he was a chatty one: while he intends, certainly, to educate his audience, he does so in a casual, laid-back fashion; as if he and his students were gathered ‘round a warm fire to talk of many things, rather than as a professor standing at a podium and holding forth to a throng of know-nothings.

Thus, this book is well worth reading by any serious student of the Civil War, mostly because anything Keegan wrote is worth reading, but also because he spent many years studying American wars and the American military and its methods and personally visited numerous American battlefields. He was well-versed in the history of European warfare and, therefore, was in an excellent position to make illuminating comparisons between the American and European experience of war. Although this is a “military” history, he defined this term broadly and had much to say about the political and social background of the war, as when he illustrated the bitterness with which the war was fought by noting the lack of respect given to Confederate war dead on Northern battlefields. His chapters on Walt Whitman, the role of African-American soldiers, the role of women, and the role of religion are quite interesting and to the point.

His military analysis is, of course, the heart of the book. His first and most important point is the role geography played in the course and outcome of the war. The great problem of the Union forces was how to get at the heartland of the South, and here geography was as great an obstacle as the Confederate Army. The rivers of the Piedmont Plateau were severe obstacles to any 19th Century army, as were the rivers, mountains, and forests of Tennessee. The general question was how to subdue an enemy whose country has no concentrated economic targets and few concentrations of population? In essence, there were only two useful military targets for the Northern forces to attack: the Southern mind and the Southern fighting man. This is what Grant and Sherman realized, accepted, and put into effect, and what previous Union generals (and even Abraham Lincoln himself) did not: The South would fight until it ran out of will – and that is what precisely happened.

In his excellent chapter on Civil War Generalship (perhaps the most important chapter in the book) Keegan notes that the Civil War was fought by amateurs. Although by the end of the war the Union Army would have been a match for any European army of the time, Keegan is not impressed with the quality of Civil War generals. In my opinion, he gives Lee too much credit and Jackson not enough. He calls McClellan “one of the most interesting psychological cases in military history”. Keegan does not say this in his discussions of Grant and Sherman, but in my opinion, their strength as military leaders was in their absolute realism about what had to be accomplished in order to defeat the South. Grant destroyed the military manpower of the South in the Overland Campaign, knowing that he had virtually unlimited re-enforcements to call on, while Sherman attacked the South’s spirit by breaking into the heartland of Georgia and South Carolina and ruining it. Morality aside, this strategy did not require brilliance to execute. Keegan’s summation of most Civil War generals, North and South: “…too much personality in play, and far too little talent.”

As to the causes of the Civil War, they seem to be somewhat of a mystery to Keegan. He mentions the popularity of the amateur “militias” of the day as an inciting factor, lighting a fire that quickly roared out of control. But Keegan compares and contrasts the American Civil War with World War One, calling World War One an “unnecessary” war but stating that the American Civil War was NOT unnecessary, that the divisions over slavery were too deep to be resolved by peaceful means. So, mysterious though the causes of the Civil War may be, Keegan seems to think that war was unavoidable. Whether he is correct or not continues to be one of the key questions of American history.

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