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Reviews

The Elusive Conflict

Of the making of Civil War books there shall be no end.  There are so many, most of which cover the same bloody ground in much the same slogging way, without any new insight or contribution.  To make matters worse, American historians have rewritten the war as a simplistic moral melodrama between the forces of progress and (racist) reaction.  It was thus a relief to learn that the eminent English military historian John Keegan has turned his talents to our great but tragic internal war.

Keegan believes the American Civil War in many ways presaged the Great War in Europe.  There was trench warfare around Vicksburg and Richmond, battles were bloody but inconclusive, the war itself was “unexpected,” and early expectations, on both sides, of a short and decisive campaign were dashed and drowned in a sea of blood.  Near the end, it became a cruel war of attrition.  Keegan thinks he sees one difference: Unlike World War I, the Civil War was avoidable but necessary.  In other words, it need not have been fought, but it is a good thing that it was.

Keegan does not say what the war was necessary for until the last page of his conclusion.  All he will say initially is that the sectional crisis could have been resolved peacefully by more creative and reasonable statesmanship.  After all, the Americans had done it several times before.  But 1861 was different because the Southern states...

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