Clouded view as two wars collide

A Great Civil War

June 14, 2002

As Russell F. Weigley observes in his substantial study, the civil war is a never-ending "source of defining mythology" for Americans. Weigley began his career as a civil-war historian. His first book, published in 1959, was a biography of the Union's quartermaster general, Montgomery C. Meigs. He has now returned to the field after 40 years, and much has changed on the civil-war landscape. Perhaps the most striking feature is the legacy of the American defeat in Vietnam. This has led to doubts concerning the utility of military force, which stand in such sharp contrast to the confident and robust outlook of historians of the second world war generation, such as T. Harry Williams.

Weigley always ensures that his discussion of the war keeps the political dimension very much in the foreground. His exploration does not always take the very latest writing into account, but there is much to admire in the breadth of his coverage. Weigley explores war finance, industrialisation, party politics, the struggle for the emancipation of slaves and the arming of black troops, and the use of reconstruction policy as a tool to end the war more quickly. Inevitably, this takes up a lot of space, and some of the accounts of important campaigns (Gettysburg is a conspicuous exception) are rather abbreviated. Murfreesboro gets two paragraphs.

Weigley's other books on American military policy and institutions have given him a very keen sense of the context in which the civil war was fought. In one of his most original passages, he makes links with the frontier experience. American violence, he avows, has been "individualistically entrepreneurial". Both sides in 1861 were wholly unprepared to fight a great war, and the result was the "ramshackle and chaotic manner in which Americans of the 1860s could not help but conduct war". The gradual and improvised harnessing of social and industrial resources (and here the Confederacy scores high marks) led to "a conflict of peculiarly intense destructiveness, of peculiarly unrestrained military means deployed in pursuit of notably absolute objectives".

The quest for organisation and increased control over underdeveloped military institutions bred a readiness, stimulated by initial failures, to inflict greater levels of violence on the enemy. The muddle inherent in this process (and the implication that such ferocity could have been avoided) is underscored by Weigley's use of the concept of operational art. Both Union and Confederate leaders found it difficult to assign strategic priorities, work out the means to attain them, and apportion resources accordingly. There was widespread confusion concerning the difference between strategy and operations, and public opinion became fixated with great battles.

Weigley thus assumes there were good political and social causes that by 1864 produced a war of attrition. He buttresses his discussion by drawing out the technological dimension. The case is far from new, but Weigley claims that the advent of the rifled musket and other improvements in weapons "made the climactic, decisive Austerlitz battle almost impossible". Therefore, to win a war of attrition, commanders had to sustain their armies in the field logistically in order to wear down the enemy's capacity to resist. A degree of determinism exists in this approach, which does not convince. It contradicts Weigley's view that the performance of civil war armies could have been improved by more coherent thought and planning. A striking success on the battlefield, therefore, was not out of the question - a victory that could have been won by the side that was better prepared.

The other objection to Weigley's thesis is that he neglects the importance as a systemic factor of the failure of command (although he is strong on rating individual generalship). The generals of 1861-62, notably George B. McClellan and Don Carlos Buell, failed to exploit their opportunities fully. If McClellan had displayed a modicum of tactical control at Antietam in September 1862, he could have crushed Robert E. Lee in a battle as important as Koniggratz, which ended the Austro-Prussian war of 1866. Weigley rather misrepresents the critics of such generals. He claims that the Union war effort evinced "purposelessness". What appeared to critics in the early months of 1862 as purposeless was the creation of great armies that were then left idle for many months.

As for the Confederacy, Weigley takes a more adventurous tack. At the beginning of his book he rejects an argument that has gained favour over the past 30 years, namely, that the South could have won only by employing a defensive strategy; Lee's two invasions of the North were mistakes. This view tends to embrace the defensiveness of the contemporary American military outlook since Vietnam with its dread of casualties. In his discussion of 1862-63, Weigley argues that Lee was right to seek a decision in the east - for it was only here that the war could be won. Yet, by the time he considers Joseph E. Johnston's campaigns in north Georgia in 1864, the doubts that he has expressed in his earlier books about Lee's strategy resurface. Weigley concludes that Johnston's ultra-cautious, defensive methods were the only expedient by which the Confederacy could have gained its independence - even though Johnston failed to halt Sherman's advance on Atlanta.

The persistence of some aspects of the Vietnam legacy can be discerned in Weigley's treatment of morale. He explores Sherman's determination to destroy Southern fighting spirit in some detail, but he devotes little space to the resilience of Northern opinion. Despite the rise of anti-war sentiment in 1864, which proved transient, northern opinion demonstrated a resolve to fight on whatever the cost. Weigley stresses the fragility of Confederate nationalism; secession he believed to be "tragically unnecessary", and its supporters, he seems to suggest, were half-hearted in their efforts to gain independence. He certainly underestimates the strength of Confederate nationalism, half-formed though it was. Its chief symbol, the army of northern Virginia, fought on in 1864-65. Weigley seems to attribute this doggedness to a narrow code of duty among the Confederate leadership rather than the reflection of a genuine impulse, and therefore all but inexplicable.

Weigley ends his book by claiming that the genuine benefits of the civil war, not least the destruction of slavery, undercut the fashionable belief (especially among the American intelligentsia) that war is "always futile". Yet a suspicion lurks that Weigley could have reached this conclusion only because the right side won. A paradox lurks at the heart of his thought-provoking book. If the expert military planning, passed on by a superbly professional general staff, had been available to the North in 1861-62, then the civil war would have ended with the Union restored and slavery intact. There is more than an echo in Weigley's description of the war as a "tragedy" of the "revisionist" school that thought the war "needless" and avoidable. Surely the results of the war, including the frightful loss of life, were not tragic or somehow wasted. Men (and women) were prepared to sacrifice themselves for a cause they believed in. Some historians have explored and stressed the ideological dimension of war among the men in the ranks on both sides, but this work has had little impact on Weigley's synthesis. The shadow of Vietnam still lingers over the pages of A Great Civil War .

Brian Holden Reid is professor of American history and military institutions, King's College, London.

A Great Civil War: A MiIitary and Political History, 1861-1865

Author - Russell F. Weigley
ISBN - 0 253 33738 0
Publisher - Indiana University Press
Price - £24.50
Pages - 612

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