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A Military History

by John Keegan

Pub Date: Oct. 21st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-307-26343-8
Publisher: Knopf

A solid history of the Civil War by the grand master of military writing.

After two modern classics—The Face of Battle (1976) and The Price of Admiralty (1988)—Keegan has followed with numerous coffee-table books as well as fine histories of World Wars I and II and a less-successful account of the Iraq war. Here he turns his attention to America, with dependably satisfying results. Downplaying battle descriptions, the author delivers a shrewd portrait of mid-19th-century America and the background to the war. Keegan stresses big-picture issues of politics, diplomacy, strategy and daily life, so history buffs who skim the battle scenes will still have plenty of rich insights to contemplate. Though he is no revisionist, the author delivers a few jolts, including the fact that, on a per capita basis, the Confederacy was wealthier than the Union—provided slave property was included in the calculation. The Union’s vaunted industrial superiority was a fact but contributed only modestly to victory; Southern troops never lacked arms and ammunition. In war, the side with the most soldiers wins unless the opponent acts with particular brilliance, a scarce quality among Confederate leaders. With most of the population and media on the East Coast, writes the author, both sides’ obsession with the fighting in Virginia disguised the steady retreat of the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee’s triumphs notwithstanding, the war in the East remained a stalemate until his sudden collapse in 1865. In the West, notes the author, Union armies began advancing in 1861 and continued with barely a pause.

Though James McPherson is still the preeminent Civil War historian, no reader should pass up the chance to read Keegan.