two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
44-Jan-Feb-2010
By: 
John Keegan
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A Military History

A-AmericanCivilWarEsteemed British author and journalist John Keegan, widely regarded as one of the world's leading military historians, has held influential positions at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Princeton University, and Vassar College. His 20th book offers a broad analysis of the American Civil War.

The Topic: From its opening shots at Fort Sumter to its conclusion four years later at Appomattox, the American Civil War, argues Keegan, was decided as much by geography as it was by military strategy. By deconstructing its battles, Keegan highlights the tactics employed by the chief commanders of both sides, all of whom had been convinced by the recent Napoleonic Wars that a single, strategic blow could end the conflict. However, the agricultural South's lack of industrialization and major urban centers forced Union commanders to target Confederate troops over what amounted to 800,000 square miles of varying terrain, and the sites of their subsequent skirmishes shaped the methods and maneuvers of both armies, which would more closely resemble the corrosive deadlock of World War I fifty years later.
Knopf. 416 pages. $35.00. ISBN: 9780307263438

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"Written for the general reader, The American Civil War is a wonderfully concise, comprehensive and insightful work. It is also heartfelt history." Chris Patsilelis

New Yorker 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Keegan's account is knotted by some redundancies, but it is vigorous. As he summarizes battle after battle, an uneasy monotony establishes itself, perhaps approximating the experience of the war itself."

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Keegan's new book, The American Civil War, bristles with data that will send a thrill down any military geek's leg: details about tactics, geography, economics, ideology, generals, psychology, demographics, weaponry, even weather. But the human element has, puzzlingly, gone missing. Distant and chilly, The American Civil War seems to have been written by a mainframe computer buried deep in a fortified bunker." Dwight Garner

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"The analytical value of Keegan's geostrategic framework is marred by numerous errors that will leave readers confused and misinformed. I note this with regret, for I have learned a great deal from Keegan's writings. But he is not at top form in this book." James M. McPherson

Seattle Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"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. ... Those, however, are minor transgressions compared with Keegan's muddled descriptions of several military campaigns, especially Chattanooga, Knoxville and Atlanta." Steve Raymond

Critical Summary

In his broad, single-volume history, Keegan offers an outsider's view of the American Civil War, providing fresh insights from a bracingly impartial perspective. However, though critics were quick to voice their admiration for Keegan's previous works, they were deeply disappointed by The American Civil War. His narrative is lamentably riddled with inaccuracies, including the dates, locations, and events of major battles. He incorrectly attributes well-known quotes, presents disproved myths as facts, and repeatedly contradicts himself. Critics also bemoaned the brevity of the book, which muddled the repetitive descriptions of battles and troop movements, and Keegan's obscure asides. "He's loath to leave any of his erudition off the table," opines the New York Times. Critics expected more from this eminent historian, and readers may be similarly disappointed.

Also by the Author

The Face of Battle (1976): Concentrating on medieval Europe, Napoleonic Europe, and World War I, Keegan discusses the cultural context of warfare, the practical mechanics of the battlefield, and the actual experience of soldiers during combat in this groundbreaking work of military history.