A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History, 1861-1865. By Russell F. Weigley. Indiana University Press, 2000. 624 Pages. Reviewed by Colonel Cole C. Kingseed, U.S. Army.
The U.S. Civil War, 140 years after its beginning, remains the defining event in American history. To military historian Russell Weigley, the conflict defines the national mythology from which Americans draw the understanding of their national character. In what is likely to become the definitive single-volume military and political history of this country's bloodiest conflict, Weigley has produced a superb monograph that rivals James McPherson's epic Battle Cry of Freedom.
Weigley views the war as essentially a political conflict characterized by uncontrolled violence. What makes this book indispensable is the author's assessment of the deficiencies in strategic thinking and the inability of either side to develop a warwinning strategy before the war's final stages. Noting how fast the Confederacy collapsed in 1865, Weigley also questions whether the South really represented a true nationalist movement. It is in his willingness to challenge the conventions of history that his book makes its greatest contribution.
The author also provides a provocative analysis of generalship from both Union and Confederate perspectives. Noting Ulysses S. Grant's mastery of the intricacies of maneuver warfare, it is hardly surprising that Weigley views Grant as the most capable general of the war. Grant's protdgd William Tecumseh Sherman emerges from these pages as a ruthless commander intent on employing a strategy of abject terror to break the enemy's will to continue the struggle. As for Confederate General James Longstreet, traditionally the scapegoat of Gettysburg, Weigley states that his reputation for sluggishness is at least partly undeserved.
Weigley also gives high marks to Robert E. Lee, noting that the Confederate chief tain's penchant for the tactical offensive may have bled the Confederacy white, but Lee was correct in devising a realistic strategy that gave the South its only real chance of winning the war. …