A Military History
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North and South Divide
AMERICA IS DIFFERENT. Today, when American "exceptionalism," as it is called, has become the subject of academic study, the United States, except in wealth and military power, is less exceptional than it was in the years when it was to be reached only by sailing ship across the Atlantic. Then, before American culture had been universalised by Hollywood, the technology of television, and the international music industry, America really was a different place and society from the Old World, which had given it birth. Europeans who made the voyage noted differences of every sort, not only political and economic, but human and social as well. Americans were bigger than Europeans-even their slaves were bigger than their African forebears-thanks to the superabundance of food that American farms produced. American parents allowed their children a freedom not known in Europe; they shrank from punishing their sons and daughters in the ways European fathers and mothers did. Ulysses S. Grant, the future general in chief of the Union armies and president of the United States, recalled in his memoirs that there was "never any scolding or punishment by my parents, no objection to rational enjoyments such as fishing, going to the creek a mile away to swim in summer, taking a horse and visiting my grandparents in the adjoining county, fifteen miles off, skating on the ice in winter, taking a horse and sleigh when there was snow on the ground." It was a description of childhood as experienced in most prosperous country-dwelling families of the period. The Grants were modestly well-to-do, Jesse Grant, the future president's father, having a tanning business and also working an extensive property of arable land and forest. But then most established American families, and the Grants had come to the New World in 1630, were prosperous. It was prosperity that underlay their easy way with their offspring, since they were not obliged to please neighbours by constraining their children. The children of the prosperous were nevertheless well-behaved because they were schooled and churchgoing. The two went together, though not in lockstep. Lincoln was a notably indulgent father though he was not a doctrinal Christian. Churchgoing America, overwhelmingly Protestant before 1850, needed to read the Bible, and north of the Mason-Dixon line, which informally divided North from South, four-fifths of Americans could read and write.
Excerpted from The American Civil War by John Keegan Copyright (c) 2009 by John Keegan. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Review by William C. Davis
Any new book by John Keegan is an event. Ever since The Face of Battle appeared almost a generation ago, his work has been the benchmark for outstanding military history: thoughtful, incisive and so much more than repetitious accounts of which regiment went where. He has touched on the Civil War in past works, but now at last in The American Civil War: A Military History he takes on the whole story, and brings to it the accumulated skills of a career at the top of his field.
From the opening paragraph it is evident that this is a thoughtful work. In declaring that the war itself was necessary, he observes that the divisions between North and South had grown so great by 1860 that only what he calls “some profound shift of energy” could provide a resolution. That, of course, was war. Certainly warfare is never a desirable end, but at least it can bring an end to a conflict when all other remedies have failed.
It was, says Keegan, “a body-count war,” and indeed it was. For four years east of the Appalachians there was so little movement that victories and losses could be measured in few terms other than killed and wounded. West of the mountains, of course, victories were measured in hundreds of square miles or even major chunks of states changing hands, yet there, too, the body count dominated public awareness.
Keegan calls this “one of the most mysterious great wars of history” for a host of reasons that he explores, including the commanders themselves, and he offers some challenging assessments. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, “an undoubted master,” is still “not really a general of the highest gifts.” Braxton Bragg was “a considerable military intellect,” despite his shortcomings of personality and character. Lee was a great tactician, not a strategist. And Grant was “the greatest general of the war who would have excelled at any time.”
For those wanting to challenge Keegan’s judgments, they must read this cogent, well-argued and insightful book, which approaches so much of the story from a vantage different than that of most of our Civil War scholarship. Overall Keegan finds it remarkable that out of a cadre of no more than 3,000 trained officers, the Civil War produced such great soldiers as Grant, Lee, Sherman, and at a lesser level George H. Thomas, the “exotic” Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jackson.
The author also breaks down the elements of battle in the war, noting the unusual fact that they were so frequent compared to other wars of the time, and so intense, and ponders how a single democratic society could produce such a ferocious intensity of war against itself. That indeed is one of the great questions he addresses, for Keegan has no hesitation in saying that the Civil War was “the most important ideological war in history.”
Hardcover Book : 416 pages
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc./Random House ( October 20, 2009 )
Item #: 12-738277
Product Dimensions: 6.25 x 9.25 x 1.04inches
Product Weight: 25.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
I thought that a book written by John Keegan about the Civil War couldn't miss as a military history. I was mistaken. While the book contained some interesting comparisons of the war to the European military system, those insights were undercut by the numerous factual errors throughout the book. If he can't get the facts right, how valid are his opinions? The book is also redundant and in need of a good editor.
Reviewer: Frank P
It's been a while since I've read any Civil War history, so when I saw this as one of my main selection choices, I decided to return to the subject that initially attracted me to history.
Like many other reviewers, this was a BIG disappointment to me. The book is very redundant and rife with inaccuracies. For instance, Keegan claims North Carolina was not "invaded" until late in the war. Huh? Ever heard of New Bern? The Union occupied large areas in eastern North Carolina as early as 1862.
Instead of making my way through this, wish I had just reread _Battle Cry of Freedom_. I suggest those of you thinking about buying it to do likewise.
Reviewer: Dale M
I wish I hadn't. The other reviews have it right...except for that of Benet E. Rife with repetitions, inaccuracies, typos...it reads like a series of cheap magazine articles pieced together with marginal effort at continuity. References to Napoleon, WW I & II doesn't help.
Reviewer: Wayne H
Keegan's book reads as a failure of editing. Knopf used to be a reliable publisher. This book has factual errors (confusing Fitzjohn Porter and Admiral Porter; making Disraeli Prime Minister during the Civil War), typos, and repetitions of the same material. Did Keegan read his final proof?
Reviewer: David B
Why is this wretched book still being offered for sale? and why is the HBC review still posted? It was obviously written by someone who never bothered to read the book and relied upon some erroneous fluff provided by the publisher. It appears the HBC has abandoned the pretense of having standards any standards other than what can we sell.
As I noted in an ealier review, this is easily the worst single volume about the war I've encountered in the past 50 years. A real blemish on Keegan's reputation.
Reviewer: Mike S