America’s Armageddon Revisited

Getting beyond romanticism about the Civil War.

Historically minded Americans like to think of their Civil War as a very big event but rarely reflect comparatively that the conflict raged throughout the “largest single landmass over which any conqueror had ever attempted to impose his will, larger than Napoleon’s Europe, larger almost than Genghis Khan’s Eurasia.” John Keegan, the foremost military historian of the past half-century, has treated mankind’s great folly from a world perspective in such widely read books as A History of Warfare, The First World War, and especially The Face of Battle. Thus, when such a craftsman offers a one volume narrative account of the American Civil War, we should pay attention.

Written in crisp prose and a confident, distinctive voice, Keegan’s assessment of America’s Armageddon is simultaneously insightful, amusing, frustrating, and confounding. Several essentially military questions animate his analysis: Why did Americans, who seemed so similar, North and South, collapse into such “passion of discord” in 1861? Why did the war become so “ferocious” and last so long? Why were Civil War battles so frequent and casualties so ghastly? How or why could ordinary American soldiers endure such “fear and horror” for so long? And, above all, why was this war ultimately a struggle over “geography”?

Keegan offers answers to all these questions, some more direct and insightful than others.  Political and social causes of the war are not his principal interest, and he ventures no real explanation of secession. Keegan does grasp the economic power of slave ownership in the South, as well as how racism and abolitionism co-existed in the North. But he veers into vagueness by pursuing the origin of the war in the sentiments and experiences of the wartime common soldier-types, Billy Yank and Johnny Reb. Keegan probes no deeper than to tell us that America was “separated by the features that the practice of slavery had inflicted on its southern half.” In hurrying to a Face of Battle approach, Keegan leaves the reasons for this war for others to explain.

On matters of grand strategy Keegan is at his best. He comprehends the Civil War as a whole, as a war won or lost in the vast western theater, and one in which the winners were those few generals, along with Abraham Lincoln, who developed a “geostrategic appreciation,” a national rather than local understanding, of the conflict. Keegan admires Ulysses S. Grant for his “topographical sense” and for performing as a “go and see” rather than as a “wait and see” general. He explains the pivotal Vicksburg campaign as a geographical problem, a challenge of maneuver and engineering, rather than merely of siege warfare. In his view, the crucial struggle for the border states of Kentucky and Tennessee was “not political but geographical,” a dubious claim, since the goal was to keep slaveholding upper South states in the Union. In this case the geography was also political.

Keegan’s own geographic range inspires comparative insights that will prod parochial American readers. He points out how the battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862 so directly anticipated the slaughter and trenches of 1916 on the Western Front, and how untrained American farm boys had to learn methods of formal “Old World fighting.” Keegan explores the psychological shock youthful volunteers of 1914 faced in comparison with those of 1861. He invokes World War II as well, noting that Antietam was bloodier than D-Day or Iwo Jima, and reflects that Winston Churchill, an experienced soldier, declined in effectiveness as his war ensued, while Lincoln, a “military innocent,” learned and grew in ability as commander in chief as his war enveloped him. 

For Americans who do not compare their big, homegrown war enough with those on other continents, this can be instructive. After showing Ken Burns’ film series on the Civil War to a class of German undergraduates, I was once confronted by a student who wanted to know “why are there so many moon rises and sun sets in this film, and why do you Americans always think that everything that happens to you is the biggest thing in history? Do Americans understand the scale of bloodshed and social destruction of the Thirty Years’ War?” To which I could only reply, “No, most have never heard of it.”

Keegan succeeds in challenging some elements of that romantic glow, even as he reinforces others. He confirms the grisly nature of “close formation fighting,” with soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder in two rows, facing deadly enemy fire rather than instinctively taking to the ground. He probes further, arguing that as the slaughter reached unimagined scale, some generals suffered from a new brand of “empathy” with their common soldiers, a “function of American democracy and the populist character of the Civil War.” Impatient with the buffs’ starry-eyed view, Keegan emphasizes that with the sheer frequency of major battles and a relative lack of strategic cities as objectives, the primary purpose of this war was killing the enemy’s soldiers and destroying the morale of kinfolk on the home front. This was a body-count war, and its heroism as well as its blundering madness should be understood through that lens.

Keegan’s book is also full of provocative, sometimes bizarre judgments. He dismisses abolitionist John Brown as merely a “wild man.” What could Keegan possibly mean when he writes that today Lincoln “would be unable to deliver the speeches upon which he won the nomination in 1860, would indeed be prosecuted under federal law”? Why he sees George McClellan as the “Patton of the Civil War army,” and not William Tecumseh Sherman, is hard to grasp. His reading of the Gettysburg Address is very curious. Its “genius,” he suggests, lies in Lincoln’s “refusal to differentiate between the sacrifice of the North and the South.” Oh, how we love to hear reconciliationist tones in Lincoln. But then what do we do with the speech’s central metaphor of “rebirth,” a bloody destruction of an old republic and the urgent genesis of a new one somehow based on the difficult concept of equality? Confederates were not fighting for that goal.

Some of Keegan’s puzzling judgments may reflect his very limited range of sources. The book seems written almost exclusively from secondary works, some quite old, such as the famous Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, published by Century magazine in 1884-88; an illustrated series of highly stylized reminiscences, written under strict editors’ guidelines by ex-soldiers, the accounts are treated today as marvelous artifacts of the war’s early memorial period but not as reliable evidence. Some chapters cite no sources at all, and many rely heavily on James McPherson’s modern narrative history, Battle Cry of Freedom. Keegan’s restricted range of reading in the burgeoning Civil War literature of recent years may explain some odd conclusions, such as the notion that the North’s economy grew steadily because it was “left to itself” during the war. Actually, the role of “big government” was born in the Lincoln administration’s aggressive promotion of war finance, manufacturing, the Homestead Act, railroad building, and other uses of centralized federal power.

Keegan’s conclusion that the South experienced no fundamental “loss of will” during the final years of the war seems innocent of the intense debate among American historians over that very issue during the past two decades. He is quite right that black soldiers in the Civil War “fought on probation,” but his awkward foray into that question is uninformed by masses of primary and secondary material on emancipation. Contrary to his assumption, Confederate dead are buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Someone might have saved Keegan from his arcane statements about Southern womanhood or his highly old-fashioned notion that the Confederate Lost Cause was only a “legend rather than a political movement.” And Keegan arrives at a rather baffling conclusion. “American socialism,” he argues, “was stillborn on the battlefields of Shiloh and Gettysburg.” Since hundreds of thousands of American men had experienced the army and warfare, Keegan believes, the working class willingly unionized but rejected radicalism and revolution. To say the least, this is an odd bomb to throw into a brief sketch of the war’s legacies.

Still, Keegan’s exploration of how and why the war was fought the way it was fought leaves us much to ponder. He concludes that Civil War soldiers continued to face battle on such a scale largely because they believed fiercely in their “cause” and bonded deeply with their “comrades.” This was, he boldly claims in closing, “the most ideological war in history.” With that bolt, he offers the kind of provocation we need to foster a thoughtful and inclusive, rather than a romantic, commemoration of the Civil War sesquicentennial.