Book review: 'The American Civil War' by John Keegan

By Gary Gallagher
Sunday, January 10, 2010


A Military History

By John Keegan

Knopf. 396 pp. $35

John Keegan has nibbled around the edges of the American Civil War in his work over the past 25 years. "Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America" (1976) gave considerable attention to the topic, and "The Mask of Command" (1987) included a perceptive essay on Ulysses S. Grant as a practitioner of "unheroic leadership." With "The American Civil War," Keegan offers an expansive treatment that has attracted wide attention. A first printing of 200,000 copies attests to the publisher's faith in his drawing power, and a large potential audience surely awaits any offering from the author of "The Face of Battle" and other celebrated books.

Unfortunately, "The American Civil War" fails to provide anything particularly new. The structure is straightforward: The first six chapters address the background of the war, the challenges of raising and provisioning armies, the risks of a soldier's life and the importance of geography; the next nine present a chronological narrative of campaigns by the major armies; and the final eight return to a topical format that examines, among other things, African American military participation, the naval war, the home fronts, medical care, generalship and the experience of battle.

The main interpretive themes will be familiar to readers even marginally aware of older works. Keegan plays up the importance of geography, especially when observing that the "principal problem confronting the Federal government in its effort to restore the union is that of distance" -- a problem exacerbated by the absence of a good transportation network in the Confederacy. Union advantages of manpower and industrial capacity receive considerable attention, as does the Confederacy's inability to control its coastline, which "presaged doom" by undermining the breakaway republic's "claim to be sovereign and independent by cutting it off from the outside world."

Assessments of the leading generals also fit into well-worn interpretive grooves. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman stood out among all commanders, with Sherman's "brutal and decisive" approach to war-making ensuring that his "legacy was the more lasting." Robert E. Lee was "undoubtedly a very great soldier" but also "a great gentleman and an indulgent colleague" who failed to control subordinates in key situations.

The list could go on without encountering a single interpretive surprise or scrap of fresh testimony. Part of the problem lies in Keegan's heavy reliance on older literature. With a handful of exceptions, the most recent books cited in his notes are from the 1980s. Keegan accepts the hoary convention, for instance, that Confederates from the slaveholding class avoided military service in disproportionate numbers; in fact -- as is demonstrated in "General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse," Joseph T. Glatthaar's recent study of the Army of Northern Virginia -- the opposite was true.

A substantial number of Keegan's statements will bring knowledgeable readers up short. Three examples will illustrate this point. "No one on either side," he observes in discussing the Western Theater in February 1862, "seems to have appreciated that the water lines in the Mississippi Valley formed an avenue of military advance into the Deep South, culminating eventually at New Orleans." This surely would have come as news to Winfield Scott, whose Anaconda Plan of early 1861 emphasized the critical importance of the Mississippi. Similarly, Keegan asserts that Lee "conducted the Seven Days' Battles with great skill," a statement that overlooks poorly coordinated Confederate efforts at Mechanicsville and Gaines's Mill and utterly unimaginative frontal assaults at Malvern Hill. (Coverage of the Seven Days also ignores entirely the campaign's immense impact on Confederate civilian morale, which had reached a desperate low point in late spring 1862.) Finally, Keegan attributes "the genius of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address" to its refusal "to differentiate between the sacrifice of the North and the South." In fact, Lincoln's brief remarks in November 1863 focused entirely on Northern soldiers who "gave the last full measure of devotion" to the Union cause.

Even gifted generals have bad days -- and so do many able historians. Grant stumbled at Cold Harbor, as did Lee at Gettysburg and Sherman at Kennesaw Mountain. "The American Civil War" must be reckoned a comparable performance for Keegan.

Gary Gallagher is the Nau professor of history at the University of Virginia; his books include "The Confederate War."

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