John Keegan's The American Civil War: A Military History.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 14 2009 7:05 AM

America's Armageddon Revisited

Getting beyond romanticism about the Civil War.

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Keegan succeeds in challenging some elements of that romantic glow, even as he reinforces others. He confirms the grisly nature of "close formation fighting," with soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder in two rows, facing deadly enemy fire rather than instinctively taking to the ground. He probes further, arguing that as the slaughter reached unimagined scale, some generals suffered from a new brand of "empathy" with their common soldiers, a "function of American democracy and the populist character of the Civil War." Impatient with the buffs' starry-eyed view, Keegan emphasizes that with the sheer frequency of major battles and a relative lack of strategic cities as objectives, the primary purpose of this war was killing the enemy's soldiers and destroying the morale of kinfolk on the home front. This was a body-count war, and its heroism as well as its blundering madness should be understood through that lens.

Keegan's book is also full of provocative, sometimes bizarre judgments. He dismisses abolitionist John Brown as merely a "wild man." What could Keegan possibly mean when he writes that today Lincoln "would be unable to deliver the speeches upon which he won the nomination in 1860, would indeed be prosecuted under federal law"? Why he sees George McClellan as the "Patton of the Civil War army," and not William Tecumseh Sherman, is hard to grasp. His reading of the Gettysburg Address is very curious. Its "genius," he suggests, lies in Lincoln's "refusal to differentiate between the sacrifice of the North and the South." Oh, how we love to hear reconciliationist tones in Lincoln. But then what do we do with the speech's central metaphor of "rebirth," a bloody destruction of an old republic and the urgent genesis of a new one somehow based on the difficult concept of equality? Confederates were not fighting for that goal.

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Some of Keegan's puzzling judgments may reflect his very limited range of sources. The book seems written almost exclusively from secondary works, some quite old, such as the famous Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, published by Century magazine in 1884-88; an illustrated series of highly stylized reminiscences, written under strict editors' guidelines by ex-soldiers, the accounts are treated today as marvelous artifacts of the war's early memorial period but not as reliable evidence. Some chapters cite no sources at all, and many rely heavily on James McPherson's modern narrative history, Battle Cry of Freedom. Keegan's restricted range of reading in the burgeoning Civil War literature of recent years may explain some odd conclusions, such as the notion that the North's economy grew steadily because it was "left to itself" during the war. Actually, the role of "big government" was born in the Lincoln administration's aggressive promotion of war finance, manufacturing, the Homestead Act, railroad building, and other uses of centralized federal power.

Keegan's conclusion that the South experienced no fundamental "loss of will" during the final years of the war seems innocent of the intense debate among American historians over that very issue during the past two decades. He is quite right that black soldiers in the Civil War "fought on probation," but his awkward foray into that question is uninformed by masses of primary and secondary material on emancipation. Contrary to his assumption, Confederate dead are buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Someone might have saved Keegan from his arcane statements about Southern womanhood or his highly old-fashioned notion that the Confederate Lost Cause was only a "legend rather than a political movement." And Keegan arrives at a rather baffling conclusion. "American socialism," he argues, "was stillborn on the battlefields of Shiloh and Gettysburg." Since hundreds of thousands of American men had experienced the army and warfare, Keegan believes, the working class willingly unionized but rejected radicalism and revolution. To say the least, this is an odd bomb to throw into a brief sketch of the war's legacies.

Still, Keegan's exploration of how and why the war was fought the way it was fought leaves us much to ponder. He concludes that Civil War soldiers continued to face battle on such a scale largely because they believed fiercely in their "cause" and bonded deeply with their "comrades." This was, he boldly claims in closing, "the most ideological war in history." With that bolt, he offers the kind of provocation we need to foster a thoughtful and inclusive, rather than a romantic, commemoration of the Civil War sesquicentennial.

David W. Blight is Class of ’54 Professor of American history at Yale University and the author most recently of American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, published in September by Harvard University Press. This essay is an adaptation of a chapter from that book. Copyright © 2011 by David W. Blight. Used by Permission. All rights reserved. Blight is also the author of the Bancroft Prize-winning Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.

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