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The American Civil War by [Keegan, John]
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

American scholars tend to write the Civil War as a great national epic, but Keegan (The First World War), an Englishman with a matchless knowledge of comparative military history, approaches it as a choice specimen with fascinating oddities. His more thematic treatment has its shortcomings—his campaign and battle narratives can be cursory and ill-paced—but it pays off in far-ranging discussions of broader features: the North's strategic challenge in trying to subdue a vast Confederacy ringed by formidable natural obstacles and lacking in significant military targets; the importance of generalship; the unusual frequency of bloody yet indecisive battles; and the fierceness with which soldiers fought their countrymen for largely ideological motives. Keegan soars above the conflict to delineate its contours, occasionally swooping low to expand on a telling detail or a moment of valor or pathos. Some of his thoughts, as on the unique femininity of Southern women and how the Civil War stymied socialism in America, are less than cogent. Still, Keegan's elegant prose and breadth of learning make this a stimulating, if idiosyncratic, interpretation of the war. 16 pages of photos, 12 maps. (Oct. 21)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

In his broad, single-volume history, Keegan offers an outsider's view of the American Civil War, providing fresh insights from a bracingly impartial perspective. However, though critics were quick to voice their admiration for Keegan's previous works, they were deeply disappointed by The American Civil War. His narrative is lamentably riddled with inaccuracies, including the dates, locations, and events of major battles. He incorrectly attributes well-known quotes, presents disproved myths as facts, and repeatedly contradicts himself. Critics also bemoaned the brevity of the book, which muddled the repetitive descriptions of battles and troop movements, and Keegan's obscure asides. "He's loath to leave any of his erudition off the table," opines the New York Times. Critics expected more from this eminent historian, and readers may be similarly disappointed.

Product Details

  • File Size: 9466 KB
  • Print Length: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (October 10, 2009)
  • Publication Date: October 20, 2009
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B002SE63ZW
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #453,774 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By John Wark on November 5, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I'm a big John Keegan fan. I'm also a serious reader of Civil War history. On both counts I'm very disappointed in this book. Keegan is usually an insightful historian and a solid writer. This book falls short in both areas. I can't recommend the book even for serious Civil War buffs as, at best, there's nothing new here. The book has annoying factual errors (doesn't anyone fact check anything anymore?) and is very poorly edited to the point that it's almost incoherent in several sections.

The factual errors tend to be related to details, e.g. on page 321 Keegan states that Winfield Scott was 85 years old at the beginning of the war while Scott's actual age was 75 or on page 218 the Confederates are described as making preparations to escape from besieged Vicksburg by crossing to the "eastern shore" where in fact Vicksburg was on the eastern shore of the Mississippi River. This doesn't distract necessarily from Keegan's larger point but it's highly distracting to any reader who has background in the period. These types of factual errors are scattered throughout the book and their accumulation eventually undercuts belief in the larger picture that Keegan attempts to paint.

But even more seriously the book is almost unreadable in a number of sections. The quality of the editing in this book is nothing short of appalling. There are serious problems with continuity throughout the book. There is significant repetition in the book. These problems seems to occur much more frequently in the sections describing the war in the "west" (i.e. Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama).
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Format: Hardcover
I'm a big fan of John Keegan. I first read The Face of Battle in the late '70s, soon after it was published. It convinced me he was going to be one of the more important historians of the last part of the century, and for the most part that's proven correct. He has since produced a large library of interesting, intelligent books, the content of which has been interesting. I can't say I agree with everything the author writes and advocates, but I can say that he's generally thought-provoking and intelligent. Which is why the current book is such a disappointment.

The American Civil War is perhaps one of the more written-about wars in world history. This is, of course, because the market for American history is so large, because there are so many Americans. It's also got something to do, I suspect, with the size of the conflict and its course. There's a tradition of foreign interest in the war (the current standard history of the Confederate Navy was written by an Italian historian, and then translated into English) and British historians have especially been fascinated by it. One of the older biographies of Stonewall Jackson was written by a British soldier, G.F.R. Henderson, in the late 19th Century, and early in the 20th J.F.C. Fuller and B.H. Liddel Hart wrote extensively about the war from various perspectives. Liddel Hart's biography of Sherman still has some followers; he made some good points.

Keegan has written about the American Civil War in the past. In his partially autobiographical book Fields of Battle, he recounts that he first came to America as a grad student with a grant to study the Battlefields of the American Civil War, what has to be 50 years ago or so.
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Format: Hardcover
Like at least one other reviewer, I found this book disappointing and flawed. My biggest problem with the book is the repetition among and within chapters, which occurs numerous times. The flow of the book is disjointed, as might be expected from a book that was generated from separate magazine articles written by the author. I always am disappointed when I find this because the author generally makes little effort to synthesize those articles into a coherent whole, and that certainly happened here. There also are quite a few factual errors, most obvious enough to have been caught had any serious review effort been made. Keegan early on makes what I thought to be an insightful analysis of how geography impacted the Civil War, but seems then only to consider in a conclusory way how geography affected any particular battle.

Keegan also concludes that Grant was a great general and better than Lee, which certainly may be correct, if for no other reason than that he won, but I didn't think that Keegan supported his conclusion well in light of the tremendous loss of life resulting from battles initiated by Grant. And I was struck--unfavorably so--by Keegan's comparison in an early chapter of McClellan to Patton. I confess I couldn't follow that, because whatever Patton's faults, and he had quite a few, he wasn't afraid of engaging the enemy in battle. Rundstedt said that "Patton was your best"; I daresay no Confederate General ever said that "McClellan was your best." Keegan either is extremely readable and informative --e.g., the First World War--or is impossible to follow--I thought his book on the Iraq war fell within this category--and this book falls much closer to the latter category.
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