BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR, by John Keegan
, April 3, 2010
America's bloodiest conflict
THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR
by John Keegan
Hardback: 416 pages
Rec. price: AUD$69.95
Reviewed by Michael Daniel
Perhaps no other military conflict, apart from the two world wars, has inspired so many works of literature, film and television as the American Civil War.
Lasting almost four years from 1861 to 1865, the conflict resulted in the deaths of approximately 600,000 combatants, from war and disease, and redefined many aspects of American life. It saw not only the end of slavery but also the shift of the centre of gravity of the American economy from the agrarian South to the rapidly-industrialising North.
John Keegan, the well-known military historian and author of numerous monographs of various conflicts, analyses not only individual battles of the Civil War, but also the underlying strategic trends that ultimately led to the Northern victory. He also places the conflict in its historical-social context.
The American Civil War falls into three sections. The first explores American society before the war, the causes of the war, the geography of the war and a typical soldier's life. The geography of the South, where the bulk of the war was fought, largely determined why there evolved two theatres of war, one in the west and one in the east. Keegan also observes that, on the eve of battle, the United States standing army had only 16,000 troops, and the armies of both sides consisted essentially of poorly trained and untried troops.
The middle chapters detail the conduct of the war. Keegan organises his analysis chronologically and by theatres of conflict.
The final section of the book draws together the threads of many of the themes and ideas examined in this middle section. Keegan particularly examines issues such as leadership in the war and the question of whether the South had any likelihood of winning.
Central to Keegan's analysis is the thesis that the South was not in a position to win the war. To secure its independence, the South needed to resist the North long enough for the North to tire of the war and sue for peace. By contrast, the North's objective was simply to destroy the South's capacity to fight.
Not only did the North have more troops, it also had the industry that the South lacked. The South also lacked a navy, and this enabled the North to establish a blockade of the South's ports, known as the Anaconda plan, which lasted for the duration of the war and which became more effective as the war progressed.
The result was that the South was largely prevented from exporting cotton, its primary source of economic wealth, and was hindered from importing weapons and other items needed to fight the war. The blockade was also a principal cause of the hyperinflation that destroyed the South's economy.
Nevertheless, the Confederate army was comprised of soldiers loyal to the Southern cause and determined to fight to the end. Furthermore, it also had some outstanding leaders, particularly Generals "Stonewall" Jackson and Robert E. Lee. Ironically, the latter had been offered command of the Union Army at the commencement of the conflict, which he had declined because he refused to fight against his home state, Virginia.
On the Union side, by contrast, it took between 18 months to two years for commanders capable of leading the North to victory to rise to the fore. Early in the war, George B. McClellan - who became for a brief time general-in-chief of the Union Army - proved himself to be a capable organiser, but was essentially risk-adverse, missing key opportunities to press home the North's military advantages against Confederate forces.
President Lincoln eventually found the general he was looking for in Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union forces to victory in the western theatre, particularly at Vicksburg. The result was that the North secured its control over the Mississippi River, thereby cutting the South in two. Although the western section of the US was sparsely populated, it provided significant quantities of meat for the Confederacy.
Early in 1864, Lincoln made Grant commander of all the Union forces. Unlike McClellan, Grant was prepared to take calculated risks. He was determined, despite the significant losses that his campaigns sustained, to maintain the pressure on the Confederate armies, eventually pinning them down in the long-running Siege of Petersburg, Virginia.
At the same time, General William T. Sherman led his army into the heart of the Confederacy, through Georgia and then into South Carolina. His troops destroyed supplies and infrastructure as they advanced, as part of a deliberate strategy to destroy the South's ability to continue waging war.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee evacuated his troops from Petersburg, which resulted in the Union's capture of Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. Lee soon realised that it was impossible to continue the fight and surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, the date designated by historians as the end of the American Civil War.
Keegan concludes by observing that the conflict had a profound impact on the American identity. Before the war, ordinary citizens had little affinity to the United States of America; afterwards, however, Americans developed a strong sense of nationhood.
It is true that the latter stages of the war saw the North engage in the calculated destruction of the South. However, according to Keegan, this did not produce irreconcilable divisions within the country. In 1913, at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg, elderly veterans of both sides of the conflict greeted each other affably.
Strange to say, despite its scale and bloodshed, the American Civil War had surprisingly little impact on military thinking in continental Europe.
However, the trench warfare and war of attrition that characterised the latter parts of the Civil War, particularly at the Siege of Petersburg, were a grim forerunner of the bloody stalemate of the Western Front in World War I.
As with his previous military studies, Keegan's The American Civil War is a thoroughly researched monograph. His account of this significant conflict is accessible, both to the student of history and to the general reader, and is highly recommended.