Of the making of Civil War books there shall be no end.  There are so many, most of which cover the same bloody ground in much the same slogging way, without any new insight or contribution.  To make matters worse, American historians have rewritten the war as a simplistic moral melodrama between the forces of progress and (racist) reaction.  It was thus a relief to learn that the eminent English military historian John Keegan has turned his talents to our great but tragic internal war.

Keegan believes the American Civil War in many ways presaged the Great War in Europe.  There was trench warfare around Vicksburg and Richmond, battles were bloody but inconclusive, the war itself was “unexpected,” and early expectations, on both sides, of a short and decisive campaign were dashed and drowned in a sea of blood.  Near the end, it became a cruel war of attrition.  Keegan thinks he sees one difference: Unlike World War I, the Civil War was avoidable but necessary.  In other words, it need not have been fought, but it is a good thing that it was.

Keegan does not say what the war was necessary for until the last page of his conclusion.  All he will say initially is that the sectional crisis could have been resolved peacefully by more creative and reasonable statesmanship.  After all, the Americans had done it several times before.  But 1861 was different because the Southern states had actually seceded (instead of merely threatening to do so) and formed an independent government.  War was necessary to force them back into the Union.  Why not leave them be?  Keegan’s answer comes on page 356: “America was a nation . . . hardened by the Civil War to embark on its rendezvous with greatness.”  If the states had permanently separated in the 1860’s, they could not have become the imperial colossus that now bestrides the globe.

Keegan thinks the conflict “one of the most mysterious great wars of history.”  He wonders why it was fought, why it was so intense, and why it went on so long.  He blames slavery for driving Americans apart, but still doesn’t understand why Northern and Southern Americans should have “fought each other as if imbued with a mutual deadly hatred from the outset,” and why so many “who lacked a rational interest in the war” fought “so fiercely.”  Does Keegan not know that most wars have been fought by those “who lacked a rational interest in the outcome”?  Or that internecine wars have been among the fiercest ever fought?  He wonders why “a country which from its earliest times had devoted itself to peace between nations” should have fought such a war.  But America was never really that country.  Americans were averse to fighting in Europe’s wars of imperial ambition, but they were not averse to fighting close to home when there was something tangible to be gained or when there was honor to defend.

Keegan argues persuasively that Northern advantages in manpower, industry, finance, and naval power were so great that the South was doomed to defeat from the start.  He concedes that “the South could have survived longer than it did.”  For him, the better question would be how the Confederate states could have fought so well and held out for so long.  In his view, the successful execution of Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan of strategic strangulation decided the war, and the land campaigns merely finished off the South.  Yet Keegan also posits several turning points—the string of western defeats in 1862, after which “the South could now only await defeat,” and the loss of Vicksburg and Lee’s repulse at Gettysburg (both in July 1863)—as a result of which “the war took a fatal turn for the South.”  I shouldn’t need to point out that, if the outcome were inevitable, there could have been no “fatal turn” toward defeat.

Keegan makes the mistake, all too common among military historians, generals, and statesmen, of ignoring what B.H. Liddell Hart calls the moral or psychological aspect of war.  Wars are sometimes won, not by the side with the greater military resources, but by the side with the superior talent, intelligence, and will to win.  Here, the Southern soldiers had the advantage, because they were fighting in defense of their homeland, making the war for them one of necessity; while their Northern opponents were weakened because they were fighting for an idea (an integral union), making it for them one of choice.  The turning points Keegan describes are real because each one had the effect of bucking up Northern morale.  The Northern antiwar movement was far stronger than Keegan or any other historian working in the field today realizes.  Had the Southerners won a few more battles, or had they simply held out longer, they might well have won their independence, not by defeating the Northerners militarily (that was impossible) but by outlasting them.  Both Sherman and Grant were relieved when they learned that Davis had removed Gen. Joseph Johnston from command of the Confederate armies guarding Atlanta.  Johnston’s Fabian defensive strategy would concede ground in order to keep his army whole and in good fighting order.  He would fight only from a strong defensive position where he could inflict heavy casualties on the attacking force.  Grant wrote,

I think that Johnston’s tactics were right.  Anything that could have prolonged the war a year beyond the time that it did finally close, would probably have exhausted the North to such an extent that they might then have abandoned the contest and agreed to a separation.

Walt Whitman made the same point.  In Specimen Days, he recalled that there were “three or four . . . crises” when the war was almost lost.

Keegan makes several erroneous assertions—for instance, that “there was no amphibious tradition in the American way of warfare” and that “the United States had scarcely employed its navy in the campaign against Mexico in 1846.”  He apparently does not know that the U.S. navy blockaded the ports of Mexico, that it landed Gen. Winfield Scott’s expeditionary army on the beaches south of Vera Cruz (“the first large-scale amphibious operation in U.S. military history,” according to Richard B. Morris’s Encyclopedia of American History), and that more marines and sailors fought in California than army regulars.

Keegan asserts that Lincoln’s “federalisation of the militia” in April 1861 was “an entirely constitutional act under a law of 1795.”  Not really.  Under the Constitution of 1787, only Congress has the authority to call the state militias into federal service.  Also, the test of constitutionality is the Constitution, not a former federal law.  The law to which Keegan refers dealt with a backcountry rebellion.  Many of the finest legal minds of the country did not believe that secession constituted rebellion.  Andrew Jackson thought it did, but Tocqueville didn’t, and neither did Thomas Jefferson.

Keegan asserts that “the Union paper dollar held its value” throughout the war and that Secretary Chase “raised the money to fight the war without debasing the currency.”  Neither assertion is true.  The greenback depreciated steadily, falling to as low as 39 cents on the dollar by the summer of 1864, and currency inflation was Chase’s chosen mode of war funding.  Most government bonds were purchased with depreciated paper.

Keegan praises the “genius” of Lincoln at Gettysburg in “refusing to differentiate between the North and the South.”  If only that were true.  When Lincoln praised “those who here gave their lives that that nation might live,” he wasn’t talking about Southerners.

Keegan often refutes Keegan.  He thinks that “Grant was accused of adopting the strategy of attrition—but that was not his intention.”  Yet just five pages earlier he writes, “Grant had decided that the only certain way of overcoming the enemy was by the relentless reduction of his fighting numbers.”

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels closely followed the war in America.  Keegan calls them “objective observers” whose interest “was not political.  As revolutionaries they hoped for nothing from the United States.”  Yet 200 pages later, he describes Marx as a “passionate” observer who “believed and argued that [the war] should inaugurate a new social order.”

For Keegan, the burning of Columbia, South Carolina, in 1865 “remains a matter of dispute to this day.”  He concedes that Sherman “inaugurated a style of warfare that boded the worst sort of ill,” but he doesn’t bother to explain, except in the most general way, what Sherman’s army actually did.  Finally, he ventures into dangerous unsupported territory by stating that black soldiers in the Union Army were rather lacking in the martial virtues.  “Faced by the ferocity of their southern antagonists on the battlefield they simply could not stand up to combat as white soldiers.”  That may have been true, but Keegan includes no evidence to support it.

This reviewer must dissent from such fashionable dogmatism as that sermonized in The American Civil War.  This was our Peloponnesian War, an unnecessary bloodletting that ended America’s classical period of federal republicanism and constitutional government.


[The American Civil War: A Military History, by John Keegan (New York: Knopf) 396 pp., $35.00]