Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Book Review - The American Civil War by John Keegan

The American Civil War : a military history by John Keegan

New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2009                             ISBN 9780307263438

What a strange and disappointing book. John Keegan was a well known military historian; one of his books, The Face of Battle, broke new ground in the description of the experience of fighting, from generals to the humble private. Unfortunately, the book under review does not attain the standard of that earlier work.

I picked up this book after watching the film Lincoln, which I enjoyed immensely. I realised while watching the film that my knowledge of the American Civil War was pretty sketchy at best, so I thought I'd remedy that and Keegan was close at hand.

Keegan calls his book a military history, yet the first description of battle does not appear until the reader is one third of the way through the book. The hundred pages or so before our first taste of battle is filled with a confusing mash of discussion  - a brief and inconclusive foray into the causes of the war, and then a description of the armies involved which actually tells us more about what was going on in Britain at the time rather than America, and a treatise on the "Military Geography of the Civil War", which is simplistic and repetitive.

Repetition is in fact the bane of this book - Keegan is forever jumping forward or backwards in the Civil War chronology to make a point, most annoyingly referencing battles that are yet to occur to illuminate a point about the one he is currently writing about. He continually makes the same points about the advantages and disadvantages of the rivers in the battle areas, and of the railroads. It almost seems as though the chapters of this book are a collection of separate essays that have been brought together, without any editing process.

For a war that had, "By common computation, about 10,000 battles, large and small", the book intersperses the major battles sparsely throughout the text, with much intervening material. The reader gets no feel for how close in time battles might have been to each other, or how wins or losses affected the public at large, apart from brief glimpses.

Once Keegan actually gets on to the fighting, he takes us up to the Fall of Richmond, and then proceeds to wander off the chronological path again, with chapters on Black Soldiers (which restates much he has already stated), the Home Front, Walt Whitman, and chapters on Generalship, Battles, and on whether the South could have survived (which again is a re-hash of earlier sections of the book). Only after this 50 page foray does he get to the final climax of the War, which is then followed by a very strange section which purports to show how the Civil War inoculated the American worker against Socialism!

This book is really all over the place, and the good points - some of the battle descriptions, the pen portraits of the major Generals - are overburdened by the meandering repetitious nature of much of the rest of the book.

The maps are sometimes helpful (although there are not enough of them), and the apparatus is OK (although there are some gaps in the index), but overall, I'd have to recommend not to read this book if you want to be any clearer on the American Civil War. In fact I've found it difficult to write about in any coherent way. One for aficionados - if only to pick holes in.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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