Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Review: John Keegan’s American Civil War

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Besides World War II, in which many still-living men fought, the Civil War excites the national imagination as no other war does, foreign or domestic. Reasons abound for this fascination. They include: in the South, the notion of the Lost Cause can still inspire tearful reflections of the antebellum South; the long-awaited emancipation of the slaves stands a great moral moment in American history; the close proximity of most Americans to some field of Civil War battles; and the fact that Americans comprised both armies, rather than Americans fighting some distant foreigners.

However, for some reason, I have never read much about the Civil War. Many years ago, I took a stab at Shelby Foote’s ponderous The Civil War, but halted after only 200 pages. It was just too much, at least at the time, although I would like to take it up again. I have read biographies of Generals Robert E. Lee, U.S. Grant and William T. Sherman. (But I have not read the autobiographies of Grant or Sherman, which I should do). I have read a couple biographies and analyses of President Lincoln, and perused the book accompanying Ken Burns’ series on the war. In short, my knowledge of this great conflict has centered on people rather than events.

Enter John Keegan’s new book, The American Civil War: A Military History. As a brief, one-volume synopsis of the causes, events and results of the war, it makes for useful reading. As a reflection and analysis of the key themes of the war, it also achieves notable heights. It does, however, contain more inaccuracies than a historian of Mr. Keegan’s reputation should tolerate. This point is well-covered by James McPherson in his New York Times review.

Two aspects of Mr. Keegan’s history make for excellent reading. The first derives from his position as a foreigner. He constantly offers reflections on how the Civil War compared to or contrasted with other wars. He particularly notes instances of how the Civil War anticipated the horrors of World War I. This position as a foreigner, an outsider in a sense to this war, allows him to make some unique and fascinating observations. He contends, for example, that the Civil War explains why socialism never took root in America, as it did in Europe: “The American worker…had no desire to form industrial armies, having in his hundreds of thousands already formed and served in real armies and learnt by his experience that armies brought hardship and suffering.” He ends the book with a startling conclusion: “American socialism was stillborn on the battlefields of Shiloh and Gettysburg.”

Mr. Keegan also excels in his analysis of leadership. (For interested readers, his The Mask of Command, provides the outstanding history of battlefield leadership.) His description of General Montgomery Meigs, the Union quartermaster general, made me want to find a full biography of the soldier. He analyzes the major war figures in short, punchy paragraphs.

About General Lee: “Lee’s great talents were as a tactician rather than as a strategist,” a fact reinforced by Lee’s waging of – in some sense – an already-antiquated style of war. He was a general of the past, certainly not of the future. And, as Keegan points out, his traits as a ‘great gentleman..could detract from his powers of will and decision.”

Indeed, something has always bothered me about Lee. While undoubtedly a noble and honorable figure, he lacked some virtue. Aristotle teaches that prudence – the intellectual virtue — is the highest of the virtues, because through prudence, the other virtues are exercised. And I have wondered whether Lee lacked this prudence, this intellectual discernment, in choosing the South over the North. Curiously, perhaps war instilled that prudence in him, for his surrender exhibited not just nobility, but prudence. His presidency at little Washington College, now Washington & Lee University, also served as a notable example of what a man in retirement should do.

Mr. Keegan offers similarly insightful views of Generals Stonewall Jackson, McClellan, Grant and Sherman, among others. General McClellan largely failed because “he took counsel of his fears.” General Grant owed his success to his profound understanding of “war in its entirety.” He also excelled at communication, both the apprehending the uses of new modes of it, and in the clear distillation of his ideas for execution by his subordinates.  Leaders of today could learn a great deal by pondering these lessons of success, failure, and character at its apex and nadir. If war is the greatest crucible of men’s character, then the Civil War, Mr. Keegan posits, may have been the most demanding crucible of all.


Written by Russell S.

February 5, 2010 at 10:44 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Keegan’s a great writer, but MAN did McPherson savage him in that review!


    February 6, 2010 at 3:08 am

  2. […] The American Civil War: A Military History – John […]

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