The American Civil War by John Keegan

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The American Civil War by John Keegan

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robert James
Reviewed by Robert James
Summary: Despite being a bit heavy going at times, this is an authoritative view of the battles fought during the American Civil War, with a reasonable insight into the causes and effects.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: August 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0712616102

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While before reading this book I considered myself to be vaguely familiar with the major facts about the American Civil War – the fight to liberate the slaves, the well-known battles, and the towering figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S Grant, and Robert E Lee – I was keen to learn more about the war and get an in-depth view of it from a renowned historian. After finishing the book, I certainly consider myself to be far better informed on the military, and tactical, side of things, but found it a little lacking in certain other areas such as the causes and effects.

Part of my gripe here, such as it is, is with the way the book's presented. The front cover and the side clearly state the title to be “The American Civil War”, and gave me the impression it would be rather more well-rounded than it actually is. On opening it up, we get “The American Civil War: A Military History”, and the added subtitle is a far fairer description of it which would give readers a much better idea of whether they'll want to tackle it or not.

Anyway, once I'd realised that it was going to be a lot more focused on the tactics used during the battles, and the author's excellent command of the way that the geography of the nation affected the war – illustrated by numerous maps of various battles – I settled down and enjoyed it thoroughly for what it was. Keegan's style is occasionally a little drier than I'd have liked, but he shows an impressive insight into the problems faced by the two armies and is excellent at describing the strengths and weaknesses of the military leaders on both sides.

The analysis after the war ends is a little patchier, but contains some superb writing, notably a chapter on the poet Walt Whitman which is exceptional. Despite being just 7 pages long, with about 1 page of that being poetry of Whitman's, it really fleshes out the character of the man, who worked as an unpaid hospital visitor and wrote When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd' , an elegy for both Lincoln and the war itself.

Overall, this is a definite recommendation for those with a strong interest in military tactics, and a moderate recommendation for people who want a fairly concise history of the civil war as long as they accept the rather narrow focus.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: For a rather quirky military history, Sealing Their Fate: 22 Days That Decided the Second World War by David Downing is an interesting read.

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