The American Civil War, by John Keegan

AbeIf you do not have access to Ken Burn’s outstanding documentary on the US Civil War this is an okay introduction to the subject. It is a straightforward and relatively concise narrative of the war, started by the Southern States as a repudiation of a democratic election, the result of which offered a glimmer of a threat to their brutal slavery practices.

But there are better introductions to the subject, and there are certainly better books by John Keegan: This displays little of the novelty of Keegan’s “Six Armies in Normandy” or the insight of “Mask of Command”. Rather it seems to me to have been published to capitalise on Keegan’s reputation and little else.

African American soldierIt lacks editing with much repetition. Some of his judgements seem bizarre – the drawing of a lineal relationship between Sherman’s practice of total war, brutal as that was, and Hitler’s campaigns of the twentieth century is strange and certainly under-argued. But this is as nothing to his apparent endorsement (contradicting himself from a few pages earlier) of Bedford Forest’s judgement of the inferiority of black troops: citing a probable war criminal and subsequent Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan on this issue is both dubious and offensive irrespective Bedford Forest’s genius as a cavalry commander.

American-Civil-War-casualtiesTowards the end of the book brief discussions of Walt Whitman and the impact of the Civil War on development of American revolutionary socialism redeem the book somewhat. It is a pity that Keegan did not explore the war from perspectives such as these rather than the more conventional approach that he adopted.

Overall a book to file under the “could do better” category for John Keegan. A reader looking for insights to the American Civil War could also certainly do better – time spent on Shelby Foote’s 3000 page magisterial work on the war, or Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s exquisite biography of Lincoln, Team of Rivals, would never be wasted.

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