The American Civil War

November 26, 2009

The American Civil War, or as we prefer to call it in the South, the War Between the States (or, alternatively, the War of Northern Aggression or the War for Southern Independence), has captivated me since sometime around my eighth birthday. I started reading about it even then, and I have continued my study of the war from those early years until now. It remains my favourite historical subject and occupies much of my disposable thinking time. Wholly and fractionally, it is a complex subject.

For example, its origins are more numerous and intricate than the simple view that the war was fought over slavery; granted, however, that was a major factor. The societal differences between North and South were fundamental in bringing two sections of the country to the brink of war.

But it was secession - the Southern states leaving the Union - that supplied the final spark. That, in itself, produces what I, as a lawyer, view as a wholly unclear legal issue - was secession a legal act? Did the Confederate states have the legal authority to leave the Union and, conversely, did Washington have the legal authority to prevent it? Granted, the country that emerged from Philadelphia in the late 1700s was a more cohesive entity than the one that fought for independence, but the United States of the 1860s was equally "United" and "States". The Founding Fathers had not devoted much constitutional ink to whether states could leave the union, perhaps because they were too busy getting them to join in the first place - not to mention dealing with those pesky Redcoats.

Given the immense challenges inherent in tackling the Civil War's origins alone, I was surprised that someone had undertaken to present the entire matter - origins, fighting and the required denouement - in one volume. In contrast, Douglas S. Freeman's Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command (1942-44) runs to three volumes, as does the splendid work by Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative (1958-74). Most single volumes on the war are biographical, discuss a single battle, or cover such topics as music, clothing, African-American troops, individual states' contributions, and even counterfactual history, as in MacKinlay Kantor's If the South Had Won the Civil War (1961).

Having learnt that the British historian John Keegan had undertaken other massive historic events in a single volume - The First World War (1998); The Second World War (1989); and even A History of Warfare (1993) - I began reading with a genuine eagerness to see how he would manage this one. In a word, well.

Keegan excels at explaining the events and circumstances leading up to the Civil War, and explores how it might not have happened. He depicts with great clarity the haphazard nature in which both governments and armies entered the war. Keegan describes President Abraham Lincoln's frustrations with his generals with such realism that you almost have a sense of being there with Lincoln and have to refrain from shouting: "Fire him! - What's taking you so long?"

Keegan begins the chapter "The Military Geography of the War" with the categorical statement that geography is "the most important of all factors that impinge on war-making". Then he proceeds with a somewhat esoteric explanation of why certain things happened as a result of geography.

As a retired military infantry officer and helicopter pilot, and a student of war - especially this war - I know the tactical and strategic importance of land and water features. But I disagree with the author as to the prominence he gives geography. Certainly, in some situations it can be the major factor, but it is conditional, like weather, logistics, numbers, technology and leadership.

As I was marching through Keegan's chapters describing the end of the war - "Vicksburg", "Cutting the Chattanooga-Atlanta Link", "The Overland Campaign and the Fall of Richmond", "Breaking the South" - suddenly the trek slammed to a halt as Keegan inexplicably inserted "postscript" chapters: "Black Soldiers", "The Home Fronts", "Walt Whitman and Wounds", "Civil War Generalship", "Civil War Battle" and "Could the South Have Survived?" These are worthwhile, highly informative and interesting, but their interposition doused my mental momentum and snapped me out of fascinating action into epidemiological study.

Finally, in "The End of the War", Keegan takes us to Appomattox with an intimate description of Robert E. Lee's surrender - one of the best I have read. Here, Keegan shows his talents as a historian as he states that Americans recognise the Civil War as "the struggle which completed the Revolution and made possible the realism of the ideals on which the Founding Fathers launched the Republic in the 1770s". Amen.

While speaking to us all, I felt as if Keegan were speaking specifically to me, as he summed up the continuing interest in the war: "the causes for which it was fought have been settled, but the determining facts of its scenes and action remain, as dominating and impressive as they ever were". This British historian has thereby nailed the American psyche's captivation with its Civil War.

The American Civil War

By John Keegan. Hutchinson. 416pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780091794835. Published 17 September 2009

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