A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History, 1861-1865

By Tokar, John A. | Military Review, March/April 2002 | Go to article overview
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A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History, 1861-1865


Tokar, John A., Military Review


A GREAT CIVIL WAR: A Military and Political History, 1861-1865, Russell F. Weigley, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2000, 612 pages, $35.00.

Russell F. Weigley has a grand legacy of studying, teaching, and writing military history and applying critical assessment to the art and science of military operations. A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History, 1861-1865, does not disappoint.

Historian Bruce Catton once described the American Civil War as "a risky new experiment which involved nothing less than working out the relationships that must exist between a popular government and its soldiers at a time when the popular government is fighting for its existence." This chronological weaving of political and military events as they unfolded is precisely what makes Weigley's book a real achievement.

Despite Weigley's vast knowledge of the subject, a one-volume narrative of this crucial point in the nation's development is a daunting task. He lists James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford University Press, NY, 1988) as perhaps the best of this genre. As a veritable Civil War bible in its own right, however, Weigley's book will have no problem sitting next to Battle Cry on most readers' shelves.

Weigley notes individual unit participation in most actions down to brigade and regimental levels, and he lists general officers and their dates of rank. He also meticulously lists the numbers of killed, wounded, and missing from each engagement. These numbers support one of his central conclusions: that the South, despite numerous victories, could not afford the accumulated losses as the war progressed. The book is also painstakingly footnoted, with nearly one-quarter of the 600 pages devoted to references, providing the reader with a nearly endless list of follow-- up sources for additional research.

One of the most interesting threads throughout the book is Weigley's attention to the evolution of what has become known as operational art, which he describes as "thinking in terms of campaigns to link individual battles to the entire war effort." He credits the Prussian and German armies as the first to actually develop this idea, but he notes several instances during the war that point to the beginning of this progression. However, it was the lack of true operational thinking that limited the armies of the North and South and prevented them from exploiting situations that had the potential to end the war quickly.

Weigley points to Confederate General Robert E. Lee's orchestration of General Stonewall Jackson's Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862 as the first instance of the South's emerging perception of operational art. Similarly, when Lee maneuvered Jackson's and General James Longstreet's forces against Union General John Pope's army in the Battle of Second Manassas, he showed understanding of operational warfare and came close to achieving a decisive victory over the North as a result.

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