Entrenched Enemies

The American Civil War: A Military History by John Keegan

infantryman (Getty Images)

John Keegan is the leading military historian of the English-speaking world. He is so for five main reasons. First, his knowledge of military history is profound, encyclopaedic and ranges over an immense span of time, from antiquity to the current campaigns in the Middle East, where he has served as unofficial adviser to the White House. Second, he has the necessary ability to combine a broad understanding of wars in their overall strategic aspects, with a detailed grasp of tactics, weapons, terrain and professional soldiery. Third, he has a good nose for politics and thus is able to understand how politics and military matters interact and influence each other. Fourth, he has made a special study of the qualities that make up a great commander, and is an excellent judge of them; this gives him a particular skill in showing how individuals of military genius can determine the outcome of wars. Finally and perhaps most important, he writes with vivacity and often with notable power, describing the course of conflict with admirable clarity and bringing home to the reader the excitement and pathos, the horrible routines and the unexpected turns of events which characterise warfare, and the human spirit which gives it nobility amid all the squalor and savagery of professional killing. 

He has now turned his hand to writing a comprehensive military history of the American Civil War, a giant subject at which he has hitherto only glanced. I say a giant subject because it was a long and bitterly contested war, very evenly matched for most of its duration. The casualties were appalling. It is the central event in America’s history as an independent nation and still casts long shadows. As any historian who writes about it discovers, a huge number of American males take an immense interest in the subject, and know a vast amount about it, especially in the details of its forces, commanders and, above all, its battles.

The battles are the essence of the American Civil War and give it its unique horror and interest. As Keegan writes: “By common computation, about 10,000 battles, large and small, were fought in the United States between 1861 and 1865. This enormous number of battles, seven for every day the war lasted, provides the principal key to the nature of the war.” By comparison, the English Civil War musters barely a dozen, and even if we include sieges, not much over a score — one reason why the number of those killed was so small, compared to the half a million dead in the American conflict. 

It was an ideological war, in which not just the politicians, and the generals on each side, were impelled to fight by profound convictions, but the common soldiers too. It is hard to think of a war in which the rank-and-file were so strongly motivated. That is why there were so many battles and why soldiers were prepared to fight so often and so fiercely. In effect, as Keegan argues, the only way either side could win was to destroy its opponents’ armies. The soldiers on both sides wanted passionately to win. The Northerners believed that the United States was the greatest nation on earth, which provided for them and their families a standard of living, and a freedom in things great and small, unobtainable anywhere else on earth. All that depended on the Union, and Lincoln persuaded them — greatly assisted by the stupidities of the Southern politicians — that the preservation of the Union was the object of the war. The Southerners were “rebs”, combining to form a force of destruction which would end the United States and so their way of life. 

Unfortunately, the Southern soldiers felt they were fighting for a way of life too, though a different one in a vital respect. By Northern standards they were comparatively poor, and 20 per cent were illiterate, compared with only five per cent in the North. As Keegan says, “They were almost without exception small-town boys, or the sons of small farmers.” Only a minority were slave-owners. The total white population of the South was only five million and of these only 48,000 could be described as planters who owned over 20 slaves. Only 3,000 owned more than 100 slaves and just 11 more than 500. Those 11 were, of course, very wealthy, for a healthy young field-hand cost $1,000 or more. But as these figures show, the tip of the Southern pyramid of economic power was tiny. Most whites owned very little or nothing at all. There were four million slaves in the South, but half belonged to farmers who owned fewer than 20. Most owned only one or two and used them to work farms barely above the subsistence level. 

However, an enormous gulf separated the poor Southern white and the negro slave. The poor whites formed a superior class, a ruling caste, simply because they were white. It gave a kind of dignity to their otherwise unimpressive existence and it was essential to their sense of well-being. As whites, they felt they could not be happy without slavery, and therefore they fought for it as hard as they could and for as long as they were able. It is difficult to say which provided the stronger motivation for ordinary soldiers — preserving the Union or preserving slavery. Both were very strong and that is why the war lasted and so many battles were fought. 

There was a further factor, entirely military, which Keegan identifies. As he says, the Civil war battles were numerous, but “strangely inconclusive”. What made them so was “the proliferation of entrenchment, thrown up on the battlefield at high speed and in the face of the enemy”. They first appeared in 1862 and by 1863 hasty entrenchment “was an automatic response to enemy fire, and a very effective one”. It had, says Keegan, “a stalemating effect”. By 1864, the trenches had imposed a universal stalemate, though it did not reduce the number of casualties. Indeed, if anything, it increased them. And this was achieved without the use of barbed wire and machine-guns, the two factors which, in the First World War, made the trench so indestructible. 

Thus the American Civil War, in its last two years, anticipated the terrible mud-conflict of Flanders, 1914-18. It is curious, then, that the Franco-Prussian War, fought a few years later, was a war of rapid movement and therefore of short duration. This may have been because the French army was totally unmotivated, unlike the “rebs”, and was commanded by a pasteboard emperor who was a Napoleon only in the name, whereas the Prussians were a highly professional army at all levels. It is a fact, as Keegan points out, that though the English took a certain amount of interest in the military side of the American conflict, the Continental nations showed none, thinking they had nothing to learn from America, a view which is still widespread on the other side of the Channel. Thus Europe made no use of the transatlantic lessons, and plunged into the slaughter of the Great War, a catastrophe from which the Continent has never really recovered. 

I have discussed only one aspect of the Civil War that Keegan highlights in his rich and nutritious book, though it seems to me the most important. But there are many others, and Keegan has fascinating things to say on all of them. He has an excellent chapter on “Civil War Generalship”. As he says, “the American Civil War continues to provide a wealth of material for the study of generalship of the highest order”. He has excellent portraits of all the principal commanders on both sides, listing their strengths and weaknesses. In order of ability he lists the two Union generals, Ulysses S. Grant and William Sherman, as the best. 

Just below, he thinks, was the confederate hero Robert E. Lee, whom he considers a great tactician and “a gifted battle-winner”, but a poor strategist. He takes the view, which I share, that Lee was too much of a gentleman to issue decisive battle-orders — that is why he lost Gettysburg. After these three, in Keegan’s order of merit, come Nathan Forrest, James (Jeb) Stuart, Philip Henry Sheridan and Stonewall Jackson. The war also produced some very bad generals, led by George Brinton McClellan, always anxious to avoid a fight. 

This chapter shows Keegan at his best, but every page of his book is incisive and readable. Even American experts on this terrible and absorbing conflict will learn much from Keegan’s account of it, and for British readers it will provide a first-class introduction to the formative event in the history of our closest ally.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"