A Military History

By John Keegan

Alfred A. Knopf. 416 pp. $35

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Reviewed by Chris Patsilelis

The American Civil War has been exhaustively researched and written about. Popular and scholarly historians from Alan Nevins and Shelby Foote to James McPherson and Stephen Sears, not to mention scores of others, have all rendered their rich portraits of America's pivotal tragedy.

Now comes The American Civil War: A Military History by British author John Keegan, widely regarded as one of the world's foremost military historians. Formerly senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and former fellow at Princeton University and professor of history at Vassar College, John Keegan is the author of eighteen other books including The Face of Battle (1976) and A History of Warfare (1993).

At the beginning of his assiduously researched and comprehensive new work Keegan gives us a vivid, panoramic overview of dynamic, mid-19th century America.

The North was industrializing. "The proportion of farm workers in the labour force had fallen below 40 percent, while it remained above 80 percent in the South," Keegan writes.

And the transportation system had grown to support burgeoning industry. "By 1850 there were 9,000 miles of track in the United States; by 1860, 30,000," Keegan informs us - and most of it was in the North.

The cities of the North were growing, too. Chicago's population grew astoundingly, from 5,000 in 1840 to 109,000 in 1860, Keegan writes.

In slightly more than 400 pages, The American Civil War covers a lot of ground. Besides providing an insightful description of the more urban, industrial North and the slaveholding, agricultural South, Keegan takes us on an authoritative grand tour of Civil War battles.

He guides us through the war's opening shots with the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., on April 12, 1861; to Shiloh, Tenn., on April 6-7, 1862, where thousands of wounded soldiers "uncollected and unprotected" on a cold, stormy night "lay on sodden ground, calling out for help" that did not come.

He takes us to the horrific "landscape turned red" environs of Antietam (Sharpsburg, Md.) on Sept. 17, 1862, where casualties numbered 12,400 on the Union side and 10,300 on the Confederate in the bloodiest single day of battle in American history, including the World War II landings on Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima.

Aside from the cinematic battle descriptions, Keegan delves deeply into the psychological makeup of the leading generals. George E. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac in 1862, "not only lacked the killer instinct" but "deprecated hard knocks . . . so no confiscation of enemy property, no living off the land, certainly no emancipation of slaves."

Gen. Robert E. Lee's defects, Keegan tells us, "were excessive sensitivity to the feelings of subordinates and a failure to insist upon his own judgment, both of which emanated from his breeding as a Virginia gentleman."

And Gen. Ulysses S. Grant: "an efficient organiser of men . . . a decisive and successful commander with remarkable intellectual power, who dictated clear orders without hesitation in a steady stream." He was also an aggressive risk-taker.

Keegan writes that when the war started, generals on both sides were still under the spell of Napoleon's decisive victories. They firmly believed that a single stroke - similar to Napoleon's Jena-Auerstedt triumph over Prussia in 1806 and his almost conflict-ending engagement at Borodino against Russia in 1812 - could end the war. They could not know that their campaigns would more resemble those of a conflict half a century in the future - World War I - than those of the Napoleonic wars, half a century in the past. Like the leaders of World War I, they would find themselves mired in an attrition-centered, entrenchment stalemate instead of facing off in a Napoleonic super-battle.

Throughout his book, Keegan pays close attention to the geography and logistics of battles and how they related to grand military strategy. He has walked these killing grounds and he clearly and knowingly describes Grant's formidable geographical problems in attacking fortresslike Vicksburg along the Mississippi River in Tennessee (April -July 1863); the support logistics of Gen. William T. Sherman's long, devastating "March to the Sea" (autumn 1864), and the complex design behind Gen. Winfield Scott's "Anaconda Plan," intended to cut off the Confederacy's external and internal trade and eventually bring the South to its knees.

In his 1995 book Fields of Fire, Keegan confides that as a young undergraduate in 1957, he was selected for an Oxford scholarship that allowed him to tour American Civil War battlefields for several months. While there, he fell in love with the United States.

I would suggest that it is because of this love, and perhaps because he sees America through an outsider's eyes, that he is able to examine American history more objectively and with insights that might elude an American historian. In the 1995 book, for example, he writes: "Pain is a dimension of old civilisations . . . the tread of occupation, the return of beaten men. The South has it. The rest of the United States does not."

Written for the general reader, The American Civil War is a wonderfully concise, comprehensive and insightful work. It is also heartfelt history.