'The American Civil War': a too-short book about an epic conflict
In "The American Civil War: A Military History," British historian John Keegan tries to compress the story of the Civil War into one volume, with less than successful results.
Special to The Seattle Times
'The American Civil War: A Military History'
by John Keegan
Knopf, 395 pp., $30
It took Shelby Foote three massive volumes to describe the Civil War. Bruce Catton needed a pair of three-volume sets. James McPherson ("Battle Cry of Freedom") is the only recent author to tackle the war credibly in a single volume — and it took him 882 pages.
Now comes eminent British military historian John Keegan, trying to duplicate McPherson's feat in only 395 pages. Does he succeed?
The short answer is no.
A four-year war with thousands of battles simply can't be described adequately in 395 pages. Many significant battles warrant scarcely a paragraph; others are not mentioned at all.
Moreover, Keegan's narrative is shot through with errors. Examples: He attributes a Ulysses S. Grant quote to Robert E. Lee, then 40 pages later attributes it correctly to Grant. He locates the Battle of Champion's Hill on the wrong side of the state of Mississippi, says Confederates surrounded at Vicksburg planned an escape to the east side of the Mississippi River when they were already on the east side, and has Confederate General James Longstreet wounded in the arm on one page (wrong), in the throat (correct) on another.
Those, however, are minor transgressions compared with Keegan's muddled descriptions of several military campaigns, especially Chattanooga, Knoxville and Atlanta. He gets events out of sequence, confuses landmarks, loses track of commanders' identities and repeats himself endlessly.
Publishers employ copy editors to correct such problems, but Knopf's editors must have been taking a long lunch when this manuscript passed through their shop.
Keegan does offer some highly original perspectives on the Civil War. Its whole purpose, he says, "was to inflict suffering on the American imagination. The suffering was equally distributed between the two sides, and was felt particularly by those not present. The whole point of the war was to hold mothers, fathers, sisters, and wives in a state of tortured apprehension."
Then there's this: "Southern women are a distinctive breed even today, admired for their femininity and outgoing personality. Their difference must surely be ascribed to the war, not perhaps to the work they were obliged to undertake as to the role they were forced to assume in the lives of their menfolk."
Maybe he's talking about the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders.
Keegan's evaluation of Civil War generalship is not likely to be well received by American military historians, especially his assertion that Robert E. Lee's "failure was in a lack of boldness," or his argument that General Daniel Sickels' unauthorized movement of troops saved the Union position on the second day at Gettysburg (most historians believe Sickels' movement opened a gap that almost cost the Union the battle).
As for the overall performance of Union military leadership in the Civil War, Keegan says: "Only Lincoln showed greatness from beginning to end."
Nobody is likely to argue with that.
Whidbey Island resident Steve Raymond, a former Seattle Times editor, reviews Civil War and American history for The Seattle Times.
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.