Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America

Article excerpt

Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America. By JOHN KEEGAN. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. xiv, 348 pp. $30.00.

"I love America," affirms British military historian John Keegan in the opening sentence of his new book. The American landscape has awakened in him "a powerful and continuing curiosity in what it means for what I do.... In constructing a narrative, in charting the movements of armies, the facts of geography stand first" (p. 8). Four decades of travel have taken Keegan to many military sites in North America, among which the fortified points especially have impressed him. He believes "the pattern of fortification that human settlement has left since Europeans first began to venture inland from North America's coasts . . . is a cipher to the American mystery" (pp. 63-64). Having first underscored geography's importance as a point of departure, Keegan undertakes a loosely structured, undocumented journey through the military history of the North American territory that became the United States and Canada.

Keegan gives readers both less and more than he promises by his title. Anyone expecting a full military history of North America will be disappointed. Following a long meditation about his travels in America, he employs an episodic approach in five long, roughly chronological chapters titled "The Forts of New France" (colonial wars between France and Britain), "The Fort at Yorktown" (the American Revolution), "Fortifying the Confederacy" (the Civil War), "Forts on the Plains" (late nineteenth-century wars against the Indians), and "Flying Fortresses" (projection of United States military might through air power). Idiosyncratic coverage marks each chapter, as when Keegan devotes just five pages of "The Fort at Yorktown" to the climactic campaign that forced Lord Charles Cornwallis's surrender and half of "Fortifying the Confederacy" to George B. McClellan's 1862 Peninsula campaign.

The narrative offers more than the title suggests by ranging far afield of strictly military topics to probe broader aspects of United States and world history. In the chapter on the post-Civil War conflict in the West, for example, Keegan gives considerable attention to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century white exploration and to the peopling of the Plains by migrating Indians. …