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Showing 1-10 of 45 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 105 reviews
on September 1, 2017
Liked it so much that I read it twice in a row. I thought it was excellent! The military aspect was explained very adequately. War was presented in chronological order. Editing seemed fine. Really liked how he covered out the importance of the colored soldiers and how they helped fight for their own freedom and were crucial in winning the war for the Union.
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on April 27, 2013
With characteristic acumen, in this work Keegan strikes a perfect balance of tactical and strategic, technical and philosophical. We see battles from the private's perspective as well as the general's and politician's. This book functions well as a narrative, but brilliantly as both a medium-level analysis of the methods of waging war in this era--and this war in particular, and a high-level analysis of the war's causes and effects.

The author begins with several chapters of highly incisive explication of the political, social, and economic causes of the war. I did not expect him to devote that much space to the pre-1861 years, but I'm glad that he did. The next major portion takes us through the events of the war, incorporating Keegan's awesome powers of analysis throughout.

Around the three-quarter mark, he brings the narrative right up to the eve of the surrender at Appamattox and then puts it on pause to devote several chapters to broader topics such as black soldiers, the home fronts, generalship, and even Walt Whitman. Then he covers the surrender and aftermath in the final chapter. I found this jarring, but on the other hand it is an innovative approach to the problem of how to incorporate sidebar topics into a narrative work. Those familiar with the sequence of events probably will not mind so much; those reading this story for the first time may be left hanging in suspense.

Which brings me to my recommendation--that this book is not for neophytes to Civil War history. While it does succeed at covering almost everything important, I think that a reader with a previous knowledge of the facts would benefit most from Keegan's analyses. Even in the opening chapters he refers to outcomes that are years in the future, and many of his conclusions seem best pondered through the prism of one's pre-existing opinions about the war. I had a nice lively mental debate between myself and the phantom John Keegan after finishing this book.

As a narrative this volume is a solid success but as an incisive military history it is a treasure, like most of Keegan's work.
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on December 6, 2009
For students of military history, John Keegan needs no introduction. If you're reading this review, you know who he is. So it was with great surprise that I discovered he had written a history of the American Civil War, the war that first got me into military history in elementary school. Having long ago moved on from the subject to specialize in other areas, I enjoyed revisiting the Civil War as I read it. I then turned to other reviews--including McPherson's in the New York Times--and became concerned.

But first, this is what Keegan tries to do: the first chunk of the book is topical, treating a number of special issues with pre-war relevance, such as geography, life in the various parts of the antebellum United States, and the state of the American military. Keegan's reach is so broad that to subtitle this book "A Military History" is really a disservice to the book, since it treats a lot more areas than the military. The second part of the book is a roughly chronological treatment of the war itself. The third is another topical section, in which Keegan discusses issues that arose as the war went on--wounds and medicine, the war in the arts, the role of African-Americans, and so forth. He wraps up with Appomattox Courthouse.

I freely admit that the quality of the book is uneven. The most noticeable problem as I read it was the choppy editing. The book is very repetitious. At first I thought it might be helpful for the general reader, but by the end so much information had been repeated that I was getting impatient each time I recognized things I'd already read. A few chapters are inexplicably constructed like this: first, Keegan describes a battle and its results in general terms, and immediately follows with a detailed description of the battle. This structure gives his chapters on the war in the west a loop-da-loop feeling that was odd, to say the least. And there are factual errors. According to specialists on the Civil War, a lot of them. Looking at a number of them after having read the book, I'd agree with James McPherson in that they are probably the result of carelessness or sloppy research, but had the book been edited properly most of them should have been caught before the book went to press. A number of reviewers on Amazon have taken issue with the conclusions Keegan drew from the war, but these are hardly factual errors and lie within the zone of legitimate interpretational debate.

So why do I still like the book? First, despite its frequent redundancy, it is readable. Keegan's style was far more dense at the beginning of his career, and though this book does not represent his best work, heavy editing for a second edition should improve it--as well as fix the factual errors. Good editing would also fix what I think are only perceived errors, where Keegan failed to make his point clear. One such area is in his discussion of the rivers of the western theatre. McPherson, in his review, points out that Keegan says two contradictory things about the rivers--that they both posed as obstacles to Union advance and avenues for Union advance. Keegan did say both--what I think he meant, in context, was that they were obstacles to infantry and cavalry unsupported by gunboats and riverine craft, and only later became useful axes of advance. And returning to the repetition of information, it occurred to me at some point that the redundant information would actually make the book useful as a classroom text (provided it is cleansed of errors), so chapters could be cherrypicked for a reading list.

The biggest problem I had with the book was the maps. They were not good. They rarely included important names and locations Keegan discussed in the book, and though I couldn't find any credit for the maps in the copyright information or back matter, I suspect they were cribbed from an earlier book.

Despite this book's problems, it's still got a healthy dose of vintage Keegan. His analysis of the leaders in the Civil War was very good--I disagree with some of his points, especially in the Grant vs. Lee debate, but his critical insight is appreciated. A vicious editing process before the issue of the paperback and a few corrected facts will make this good book excellent.

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on January 14, 2010
This is a very strange book to come from the pen of John Keegan, who usually produces works that are cogent, well-written and persuasive. Aside from a few interesting insights into the nature of the American Civil War, the book is appallingly edited and apparently not fact-checked at all. While the writing in places shows Keegan's normal facility with the language, the flow is often poor and information is sometimes repeated almost verbatim several times, causing one to page back to check that, yes indeed, you just read the same thing four pages ago.

Most distressing to anyone with a reasonable knowledge of the Civil War are a host of factual errors. He gets dates wrong, names wrong, roles wrong... and those are just the ones I recognized en passant. The rationale for a book like this collapses if the reader can't trust the information on which conclusions are based.

This book is at such variance with Keegan's usual output that I really wonder what the backstory is. How could it have been written and published? Did some third party cobble it together from his notes while he was doing something else? As is, The American Civil War will do serious damage to Keegan's reputation.
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It is fair to ask why one would write a one-volume history of the Civil War--a subject that has been discussed in thousands of previous studies, some multi-volumed and magisterial, some very narrow, focusing on the seemingly smallest of subjects. That John Keegan, perhaps the greatest living military historian, should write such a book is a matter of interest to all readers. Unfortunately, the book is unlikely to satisfy many of those readers.

I would expect a one-volume treatment of such a vast subject to be undertaken for one of two reasons: a) to provide an introduction to the subject for the reader who requires such an introduction; or b) to offer a new `interpretation' or `theory' or set of theories concerning it. This book offers neither. The central chapters--chronological, narrative history concerning the principal events of the war--are framed by thematic chapters, dealing with such subjects as the conditions in the country prior to the war, the logistical challenges of the war (e.g. the fact that railroads were often sparse and track was multi-gauged), the skills of individual generals and the roles played by black soldiers.

In my judgment the thematic chapters are more successful than the accounts of specific battles; most are quite interesting. The accounts of the battles are less successful. Some are abbreviated in the extreme (Antietam, e.g.) while the accounts are dense with detail. There is both too little and too much information for the reader seeking an introduction to the subject. The maps are helpful, but relatively few in number, considering the fact that situations developed and changed over a considerable period of time in some cases and multiple maps would be required to clarify the subject for the inexperienced reader.

Experienced Amazon reviewers have complained of repetitiousness in the book, for me a problem but not a major one (Keegan continues to ask, e.g., why the combatants stood their ground and continued their efforts through multiple battles and multiple days of fighting when the weaponry was so deadly and the slaughter so overwhelming). They have also complained of factual errors. I am not a rank amateur with regard to the civil war, but I am far from an expert, so I must take them at their word. The book certainly held my attention. It included a great deal of interesting detail and some interesting speculation on the contexts of the conflict and its many, important ramifications. Ultimately, however, it is unlikely to meet the needs of the inexperienced reader and its summary generalizations and explanations are not so new and fresh as to spark the interest of those who have already read hundreds or even thousands of books on the subject.

There are relatively few notes and only three pages of bibliography, few photographs and insufficient contextualizing material (charts, chronologies, timetables, e.g.). The book was helpful to me but its limitations disappointed me.
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on December 6, 2009
Anytime I put up with atrocious editing (I have not seen worse) & keep reading a book it is because I am learning something. From Keegan's, The American Civil War I am learning a bunch. I expected nothing less from one of the best military historians of our time. Anytime I can get a new perspective on the American Civil War I jump at the chance. There has been so much written that has been good it is easy to get jaded. Keegan offers valuable new insights into that cataclysmic & still influential American event. Because he is not an American & because he is such a preeminent military historian his view is almost unique & very special. Don't be put off by the poor editing. Although it may be a good introduction I think this book is better for those of us who have read a lot about the war. It is like sitting down over a cup of tea with John Keegan & letting him spin yarns about the war. His introduction of U.S. Grant is among the best to capture the essence of that famous general I have read. I didn't know Grant was such a cartography buff. He knew ground well & now I understand why. I appreciate Keegan's ability to explain how geography influenced the strategy of the North. I have read so much I have taken the geography of the various theaters for granted & forgotten how important it was to those planning military campaigns at the time. Keegan's speculation of what the geography of Virginia must have done to the mind of McClellan & how McClellan's knowledge of amphibious campaigns gained from his observation of the Crimean War may have come together with the geographic realities to result in the birth of the Urbanna Plan is worth the price of admission (note to Keegan's editor: it is, Urbanna, and not, Urbana). And don't expect detailed descriptions of the individual battles. There have been better introductions written. But it would be a mistake to put this valuable contribution to the literature of the Civil War aside just because of its shortcomings. Read through them.
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on January 26, 2017
The introduction is the most engaging. The rest of narrative contains some valuable insights, after all Mr. Keegan is British, and his insights are refreshing
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on August 27, 2014
Good read. Contains factual errors. Maps hard to follow. Not well organized. First 6 or 7 chaps and last 6 or 7 chaps very good. Some conclusions not supported. Last chap doesn't belong. Expected more from Keegan. He needs an editor.
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on January 14, 2010
Pls note: I'm dyslexic and, try as I might, I can't catch every error or missing word. I appreciate your patience.

Despite the nit-picking by some reviewers (both from readers and professional reviewers), this book is an excellent addition to the canon of Civil War histories. (This is not to say the nit-picking is wrong; I too was surprised when I came across the passage where Sir John misstated that Eisenhower desegregated the military; or the error about US casualties in the WWII). It can't really be disputed that the book needs a good second editing/fact checking.

These things having been noted, none of them detract from the quality of the book as a whole or Keegan's engaging prose. This book is something of an expansion of his study of Grant's generalship in his landmark "The Mask of Command" and the themes developed in the section of that book on Grant are fully fleshed-out here.

Also, being a foreigner, Keegan has no axe to grind. Nor does he romanticize the South's fall--as has so often been done in both history, literature and film. For example, the late Shelby Foote was a wonderful writer but he was a Southern partisan thru-and-thru. (In fact I was unable to finish his trilogy on the war so blatant did Foote's bias become by the middle of the second volume.)

Much of the dissatisfaction, in my opinion, comes from Keegan's decision to follow his usual methodology, i.e., avoiding a straight narrative in exchange for breaking the war down into its different aspect and exploring them individually. This has been his approach, essentially, throughout all of his books--as even any casual reader of Sir John's work will have noted.

As a Briton, he avoids the usual cliches about Civil War generals: that Lee and Jackson were military geniuses of the very highest order and Grant and Sherman were nothing but clumsy butchers and vandals. Both, are of course, myths. Especially potent since Southerners still make up a disproportionate percentage of both officers and enlisted personnel in the modern US military.

Sir John demolishes all of that and does so deftly. He gives Lee and Jackson credit where it's due while also noting the disastrous short-comings of their opponents (McClellan, Joe Hooker, Burnside, et al). Given the latter three's catastrophic battle management, it's hard to believe even mediocre generals wouldn't have beaten them. Sir John also notes that despite early Confederate successes, Lee and Jackson lacked the strategic ability to exploit them or find a way to force the Union forces to fight THEIR war--exactly what Grant and Sherman did. The South paid dearly for this lack of imagination.

I for one found it refreshing not to have to wade through the usual fog of the "Lost Cause" myth that still attaches itself to many Civil War histories.

Keegan lays out the appalling difficulties faced by leaders military and political, on both sides, in trying to fight a war in a country whose terrain--even today--is almost completely unsuited for applying standard doctrines of warfare. Whether they were the stale, diagrmatic Jominian theory (of Napoleon's generalship) that led to so many bloody encounters or the strategy developed from the mechanized warfare of the WWII. The wilderness of America, so quick to reassert itself so aggressively (anyone needing proof of this need only visit the eastern half of the country where so much farmland has reverted to second-growth forest in a mere 60s years since family farming became economically unsustainable), and the land's topography were so difficult that only commanders of genius could hope to cope with it and learn to use it (as well as the railroads) to achieve victory.

Grant and Sherman, as Keegan points out in careful analysis, did so. Lee, Johnston, Bragg and Hood (only Jackson showed a feel for terrain that came anywhere near Grant and Sherman's) failed to do so and lost the war despite the fact that the Southern soldier was, arguably, better, on average, than his Northern opponent. I also have a theory about the quality of Southern non-commissioned officers being superior to their Union equivalents--but that's a book length exercise of its own.

The careful analyses of all the major factors shows us why Northern victory was inevitable given that the political will was a constant (not something to be taken for granted as Lincoln's aggressive measures to quash decent demonstrated).

One thing I did find curious was Sir John's failure to mention something Shelby Foote noted in Ken Burn's famed documentary of the war: "The North fought the war with one hand tied behind it's back." Unlike World War II, the North failed to harness its economic and military potential for total war against the rebellious states. Had Lincoln done so (or been able to?), the war would almost certainly have ended much sooner and with much less bloodshed. And the hatred burned so deeply into the hearts of my Southern ancestors would have been greatly mitigated. The closest Sir John comes to grasping this is in his justified castigation of McClellan's timid mediocrity as a battlefield commander. For a few short days, in the Peninsula Campaign, the "Young Napoleon" (if ever a nickname was more inappropriate I can't think of one!) had the South by the throat. As even the most casual viewer of the Burns' docu knows, he frittered away the chance to almost bloodlessly capture Richmond and throttle the Confederacy in its cradle.

Lastly, as he did in "The Mask of Command", Keegan notes the dismissive and condescending attitude of European generals (even quoting the Elder Moltke's insulting description of the two armies as "mere armed mobs") which, coupled with the unique circumstances of the Wars of German Unification against Austria and France, led the Continental "titans" to ignore completely the horrific rehearsal of trench warfare in the desperate fighting for Petersburg and Richmond in the last year of the war. The failure to draw any lessons from, and the contempt for, the American experience would have the most disastrous consequences for the human race in the 70 years following the Battle of Sedan (1870).

One wonders if a historian such as Keegan had been writing in the 1880s or 1900s, if the lessons of the American Civil War could have penetrated the thick skulls of German, French and British general staffs and saved the world from the barbarism of the Great European Civil War of 1914-45? It's a nice thought but it's doubtful that even a Sir John Keegan's words could have made any impact at all in the set-in-cement military thinking prior to 1914.

Grade: A-. Very much recommended--especially when read in tandem with "The Mask of Command".
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on November 27, 2009
I know about the Civil War. Not everything about it, but as an American, I know about the Civil War. I like John Keegan's writing, and I liked his pervious books. Further, a European historian would certainly bring a different point of view to the American Civil War.

So I got this book. Now I am confused. Was the US Navy out of date in 1860, or one of the world's most modern? Where does the Ohio river form, and from which rivers? Every book has mistakes, but this one has so many obvious ones that I have a sense of doubt about the rest of it.

Is Keegan's description of the Peninsular Campaign correct? Chattanooga? Gettysburg? I have no idea, but since I know he is wrong on other stuff, I cannot trust his comments on anything at all.

It is all very unsettling.

Keegan ought to revise his work and reissue it. There is no sin in making mistakes, and there is honor in admitting you are wrong. Untill the revised version comes out, I would not recommend this work.
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