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.

The American Civil War - A Military History.

Historically minded Americans like to think of their Civil War as a very big event but rarely reflect comparatively that the conflict raged throughout the "largest single landmass over which any conqueror had ever attempted to impose his will, larger than Napoleon's Europe, larger almost than Genghis Khan's Eurasia." John Keegan, the foremost military historian of the past half-century, has treated mankind's great folly from a world perspective in such widely read books as A History of Warfare, The First World War, and especially The Face of Battle. Thus, when such a craftsman offers a one volume narrative account of the American Civil War, we should pay attention.

Written in crisp prose and a confident, distinctive voice, Keegan's assessment of America's Armageddon is simultaneously insightful, amusing, frustrating, and confounding. Several essentially military questions animate his analysis: Why did Americans, who seemed so similar, North and South, collapse into such "passion of discord" in 1861? Why did the war become so "ferocious" and last so long? Why were Civil War battles so frequent and casualties so ghastly? How or why could ordinary American soldiers endure such "fear and horror" for so long? And, above all, why was this war ultimately a struggle over "geography"?

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Keegan offers answers to all these questions, some more direct and insightful than others.  Political and social causes of the war are not his principal interest, and he ventures no real explanation of secession. Keegan does grasp the economic power of slave ownership in the South, as well as how racism and abolitionism co-existed in the North. But he veers into vagueness by pursuing the origin of the war in the sentiments and experiences of the wartime common soldier-types, Billy Yank and Johnny Reb. Keegan probes no deeper than to tell us that America was "separated by the features that the practice of slavery had inflicted on its southern half." In hurrying to a Face of Battle approach, Keegan leaves the reasons for this war for others to explain.

On matters of grand strategy Keegan is at his best. He comprehends the Civil War as a whole, as a war won or lost in the vast western theater, and one in which the winners were those few generals, along with Abraham Lincoln, who developed a "geostrategic appreciation," a national rather than local understanding, of the conflict. Keegan admires Ulysses S. Grant for his "topographical sense" and for performing as a "go and see" rather than as a "wait and see" general. He explains the pivotal Vicksburg campaign as a geographical problem, a challenge of maneuver and engineering, rather than merely of siege warfare. In his view, the crucial struggle for the border states of Kentucky and Tennessee was "not political but geographical," a dubious claim, since the goal was to keep slaveholding upper South states in the Union. In this case the geography was also political.

Keegan's own geographic range inspires comparative insights that will prod parochial American readers. He points out how the battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862 so directly anticipated the slaughter and trenches of 1916 on the Western Front, and how untrained American farm boys had to learn methods of formal "Old World fighting." Keegan explores the psychological shock youthful volunteers of 1914 faced in comparison with those of 1861. He invokes World War II as well, noting that Antietam was bloodier than D-Day or Iwo Jima, and reflects that Winston Churchill, an experienced soldier, declined in effectiveness as his war ensued, while Lincoln, a "military innocent," learned and grew in ability as commander in chief as his war enveloped him. 

For Americans who do not compare their big, homegrown war enough with those on other continents, this can be instructive. After showing Ken Burns' film series on the Civil War to a class of German undergraduates, I was once confronted by a student who wanted to know "why are there so many moon rises and sun sets in this film, and why do you Americans always think that everything that happens to you is the biggest thing in history? Do Americans understand the scale of bloodshed and social destruction of the Thirty Years' War?" To which I could only reply, "No, most have never heard of it."