The American Civil War: A Military History

By Urwin, Gregory J. W. | The Journal of Southern History, May 2011 | Go to article overview

The American Civil War: A Military History


Urwin, Gregory J. W., The Journal of Southern History


The American Civil War: A Military History. By John Keegan. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. Pp. xvi, 396. $35.00, ISBN 978-0-307-26343-8.)

With the approach of the American Civil War's sesquicentennial, major publishers are bound to flood bookstores with new histories of that off-studied conflict. John Keegan, the British military historian who has frequently graced best-seller lists since the release of his blockbuster, The Face of Battle (New York, 1976), has stolen a march on the competition by publishing The American Civil War: A Military History two years before anniversary observances commence. Keegan deliberately primes his readers to expect something special. His new book's dust jacket copy hails him as "the greatest military historian of our time." Unfortunately, Keegan's overview of the American Civil War falls far below the level of excellence that he established three decades ago.

The most charitable description one can apply to Keegan's take on the Civil War is old-fashioned. The book reads like a relic from the 1960s. Keegan's sparse endnotes and bibliography reveal a fondness for works that may have represented the cutting edge during the Civil War centennial but have been long supplanted by subsequent research. Keegan also overlooks the decades of historiography that demonstrate how the social revolution ignited by the Civil War shaped its conduct and outcome. He stubbornly clings to the paradigm cherished by legions of buffs. "To an extraordinary degree," Keegan proclaims, "the Civil War was a war of battles" (p, 357). Such an approach lends itself to the kind of dramatic narrative that pleases mass audiences, but it distorts the nature of this complicated popular rebellion and that of modern warfare in general. The belief that wars are won mainly on the battlefield contributed to Britain's loss of the thirteen colonies between 1775 and 1783, America's disaster in Vietnam, and the near defeat of American and British forces during the second war in Iraq.

Shackled to tradition, Keegan depicts the Civil War as essentially a succession of Napoleonic-style clashes. He transforms a people's contest into simply a chess match between generals. Consequently, he has little to say that would contribute to a new interpretation of how this war was fought and won. He stresses the importance of geography, arguing that the topography of the Confederacy provided a formidable challenge and greatly delayed the Union's ultimate victory. While there is no disputing this insight, it is not original to Keegan. Like contemporary European observers, Keegan disparages the fighting abilities of Union and Confederate armies, forgetting that the supposedly professional British, French, and Russian forces that fought in the Crimean War a decade earlier failed to establish a standard worthy of emulation. At the same time, he seems to pander to acolytes of American exceptionalism by labeling the Civil War as "the most important ideological war in history" (p. 357). That declaration may have been more telling had Keegan paid adequate attention to the role that ideology played in the struggle. He fails into the trap of ignoring the spontaneous eruptions of guerrilla violence that dogged Union forces almost everywhere they went in the Confederacy and how that moved generals in blue to inexorably embrace hard-war policies targeting the enemy populace.

Keegan paints with a broad brush in this book, which is to be expected in a survey of any major conflict. Sadly, an uncertain grip on salient facts leads to a blurred picture. Keegan exhibits an imperfect mastery of the American way of war and the military system that emerged during the Civil War. He attributes the outcome of the U.S.-Mexican War to marksmanship, an absurdity since the vast majority of American soldiers carried inaccurate smoothbore muskets.

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