Book review – The American Civil War

Catherine Clinton enjoys a sophisticated contribution to the library of top books on the American Civil War

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Reviewed by: Catherine Clinton
Author: John Keegan
Publisher: Hutchinson
Price (RRP): £25

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Most scholars in the field of US 19th-century history spend a fiendish amount of time trying to come up with some clever title, while John Keegan’s new study announces itself with deceptive simplicity: The American Civil War: A Military History.

This sophisticated survey is far more than its subtitle suggests. Keegan places battle strategy at the core of his narrative but does not get mired in the sandbox of the mechanics of war. His balanced interpretation illuminates changes shaped by combat, but his analysis moves beyond battlefield outcomes. His 23 chapters include the usual suspects, but also feature home fronts, disease, sectionalism and other cultural topics.

With fluid assurance Keegan distils the challenging literature that has made the Civil War one of the 19th century’s 
most popular subjects (the equivalent of 
a book per day since Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on 9 April 1865). The precision and punch of Keegan’s narrative will please a broad audience.

Some may want to quibble over minor issues: yes, 
I would have preferred more on the Emancipation Proclamation and its impact as well as more than those two paltry pages on women – even within his lean, mean 416 pages. But with elegant insights on everything from African American soldiers (impressive) to espionage (thin) to amphibious warfare (jolly good), and with several stanzas of Walt Whitman reproduced in his chapter on wounds, why complain?

Keegan weaves together America’s rebirth of freedom with the transformative powers of a war that turned home guards into warriors when citizen soldiers replaced professional combatants. Keegan’s asides offer fresh insight: “The armies of the Civil War were the worst tailored of any great conflict”. He sardonically suggests that the popularity of facial hair gave American soldiers a “preacherish” appearance, perhaps appropriate considering both sides were “fighting for an idea”.

Keegan conveys a genuine fondness for Ulysses S Grant even though his hair, beard, and wardrobe appeared undisturbed by grooming. Grant’s talent for engineering and fondness for maps were traits that secured his advancement when “terminal obscurity might have overtaken him”.

With economy and aplomb, the war unfolds across time and space: from the sap rollers digging in along the Mississippi who paved the way for Grant’s greatest victory (“The fall of the Confederacy was settled when Vicksburg fell”) to an encounter between ironclads which changed naval warfare forever. Keegan powerfully depicts the ghastly encounter at Shiloh: whether soldiers wore blue or grey,  American blood was being shed. Shiloh was one of the fiercest episodes of modern warfare until the Western Front in the First World War.

Keegan’s encyclopaedic knowledge pays rich dividends, as he invokes examples, from Waterloo to the Somme, from Sherlock Holmes to Churchill. His closing passages perhaps veer off course, when he suggests that European calls for a new social order under Lincoln were thwarted because American socialism was stillborn “on the battlefields of Shiloh and Gettysburg”.

He suggests that the First World War produced a Siegfried Sassoon for Britain, but why didn’t the Civil War? Like Edmund Wilson (who he discusses), Keegan fails to highlight that the Civil War’s literary star was stillborn as well – when the 16th president never got to write his memoirs, as Grant did. Lincoln’s prose and oratory surely figure as prominently as poets of the First World War?

Keegan reproduces the full text of the Gettysburg Address, as well as Lincoln’s letter to Grant after Vicksburg, which closes: “I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right and I was wrong, yours truly, Abraham Lincoln”. Moral issues reverberate throughout, calling attention to the significance as well as the frailty of wartime personalities.

This study winds down when the rebels surrender – and Union victors buy souvenirs at Wilmer McLean’s farmhouse, with Custer purchasing the desk Lee used for $20. But after Booth’s bullet and the burial of America’s first assassinated president, struggles of interpretation commence with reflections on “one of the mysterious great wars of history”. Its mystery has inspired terrific historians over the years, and Keegan’s book will make a welcome addition to the list.

Catherine Clinton teaches US history at Queens University Belfast. Recent books include Mrs Lincoln: A Life (Harper, 2009)