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Weak offering from a normally stellar military historian
on November 5, 2009
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). It is literally impossible to read the sections on Chickamauga or Hood's Nashville campaign and not get seriously confused and misled regarding what actually happened relative to who did what, in what sequence, etc. When poor editing leads to creating factual confusion, as in the discussion of the end of the siege at Vicksburg when we have the Confederate General Bowen seemingly described as a subordinate ("his emissary") of Union commander Grant, the results should be embarrassing to a publisher like Knopf and an author like Keegan.
There are many good single volume treatments of the American Civil War. This is unfortunately not one of them.