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)
The most serious problem with this book is the substantial questions it raises regarding HBC's selection and review process. It looks like pick-a-book, any book, and pay someone to give it a good review regardless of content. Subscribers are well advised to check somehwere else -- e.g. Amazon -- for information before deciding on a purchase.
Reviewer: William I
Okay, I haven't read this book. It was on my Wish List, but after reading the negative reviews it's received, I removed it. If the reviews are correct, and the book is riddled with inaccuracies, what does that say about the author, the book's publisher (was any proofreading done?), and William C. Davis, the noted author and professor of history who reviewed the book for the HBC?
Reviewer: Douglas H
I am disappointed in this book. The editing breaks down at critical moments, facts are just wrong (Gen. Scott was 85?)
(Adm Fitz-John Porter?). I have learned from each of the author's books, but this one is bad. I suppose his conclusions are worth reading, especially for his perspective. Major problems, major disappointment. I wish the club reviewer had alerted us to these defects.
Reviewer: Fred W
This book has many mistakes. I am surprised it has been chosen as a book club selection. James MacPherson reviewed it and basically said it was filled with inexcusable mistakes and not reliable. Makes you wonder whether Keegan really wrote it.
This book has too many errors. In the map in the front of the book the Battle of Gettysburg is located in northern Maryland instead of southern Pennsylvania. On p. 61 Keegan states that Lincoln carried the popular vote in the 1864 presidential election by 5-1. He actually won 55%-45%. On p. 362 he states that Grant retired from the presidency in 1887 instead of 1877. Grant died in 1885. On p. 27 he states that as part of the compromise of 1850 California was admitted as a free state while two others, Utah & New Mexico were created in which slavery was to be decided by settler vote. Neither New Mexico or Utah was created as a state in 1850. On pp 290-91 he makes the incorrect statement that by the time of the Iraq War the Marines and Army had become very dependent on black recruitment into combat formations especially the infantry. Not true. The heaviest concentration of black enlisted personnel was and is in communications not the infantry. I was a History major in college but make no claim to be an expert in military history. If even I can find these obvious errors by "the foremost military historian of our time" what other errors of interpretation and fact must there be in this book. This book needs to be recalled, reworked and reedited.
Reviewer: John A