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The American Civil War: A Military History

3.65 of 5 stars 3.65  ·  rating details  ·  682 ratings  ·  109 reviews
The greatest military historian of our time gives a peerless account of America’s most bloody, wrenching, and eternally fascinating war.

In this long-awaited history, John Keegan shares his original and perceptive insights into the psychology, ideology, demographics, and economics of the American Civil War. Illuminated by Keegan’s knowledge of military history he provides a...more
Paperback, 432 pages
Published December 7th 2010 by Vintage (first published 2009)
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Ed
Feb 06, 2011 Ed rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone looking for a clear history of the U.S. Civil War
Shelves: history, reviewed
Excuse my naivete but I'm shocked that one of the best histories of the U.S. Civil War has been written by an Englishman. Granted that I'm a Keegan fan and thought his history of WW I helped me understand that war for the first time. Nevertheless, I would have thought that there was no room for new insights into the Civil War until I read this book.

His ability to show the impact of geography on the conflict was outstanding. His analysis of the economic aspects of the conflict was clear. His expl...more
Donna
Nov 12, 2009 Donna rated it 2 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: military history buffs
I started this book with great enthusiasm. As I was reading there were things that started bothering me about the text, though I couldn't put my finger on what exactly was wrong. Then I read McPherson's review in the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/01/boo...
in which he lists a number of factual errors in the book. Now I'm just a Civil War buff, not a historian; but I've read enough Civil War literature to know that something was wrong here.

Secondly, the book just didn't seem to be...more
Bookmarks Magazine
In his broad, single-volume history, Keegan offers an outsider's view of the American Civil War, providing fresh insights from a bracingly impartial perspective. However, though critics were quick to voice their admiration for Keegan's previous works, they were deeply disappointed by The American Civil War. His narrative is lamentably riddled with inaccuracies, including the dates, locations, and events of major battles. He incorrectly attributes well-known quotes, presents disproved myths as fa...more
Steven Peterson
John Keegan is a major military historian. His book, "The Face of War," is a fascinating examination of major battles from a very different perspective. But his one volume history of the Civil War disappoints.

On the one hand, this is a standard one volume history of the Civil War. It takes a largely chronological view of the war, with some concluding chapters on very specific aspects of the war, such as naval battle, black soldiers, the war at home, Walt Whitman's role in and view of the war, an...more
Bill Rogers
I bought this book expecting to be impressed. I was, but not in a good way.

Some time in the past, I don't know when, I read Keegan's single volume histories of World War I and World War II. I liked these, so when I saw he had also done a book on the US Civil War I jumped on it. I expected this to be as good. Unfortunately, while there are many things to like about this book, it wanders and is sloppily written.

On the good side of the ledger, Keegan emphasizes the practical issues of the war, whil...more
James (JD) Dittes
Keegan is simply the best military historian writing today, and his "American Civil War" gets the perspective just about right. American history buffs are used to seeing dozens of new books about the CIvil War come out every year, focused on individual battles, specific regiments, letters, etc.

It took an outsider--and a Brit with no less than Keegan's military expertise--to write a definitive book like this. Keegan has made a close study of American geography (his account of the assault on Vicks...more
John Bianchi


John Keegan remains the most exciting military historian currently writing, and I had looked forward to The American Civil War. Keegan could have benefitted from a more active editorial hand; several passages, which were key points in what is essentially an expanded essay, were repeated nearly verbatim several times over the course of the argument when a simple reference would have sufficed. Not a narrative and therefore not as engaging as James MacPherson's single-volume history, Keegan's effo...more
Roger
What a strange and disappointing book. John Keegan was a well known military historian; one of his books, The Face of Battle, broke new ground in the description of the experience of fighting, from generals to the humble private. Unfortunately, the book under review does not attain the standard of that earlier work.

I picked up this book after watching the film Lincoln, which I enjoyed immensely. I realised while watching the film that my knowledge of the American Civil War was pretty sketchy at...more
Greg
John Keegan is a brilliant military historian, and he turns his attention in this book to the Civil War. There is, in truth much to like about this book. First, unique among Civil War historians, Keegan does fair justice to Montgomery Meigs, the “supremely competent and incorruptible” officer who erected the dome of the Capitol, built Washington’s water supply, and most importantly for the North, ensured the strategic use of transport capabilities to keep the Union army well supplied throughout....more
David Roberts
The book I read to research this post was The American Civil War by John Keegan which is an excellent book which I bought from kindle. This book must be one of the if not the definitive books on the American Civil War and I can't praise it enough. It reads almost like a thriller and goes into almost every aspect of the war in great detail. Over a million people died in this war so in terms of casualties it is one of the worst wars ever on a par with the 2 world wars. The Union & the Confeder...more
Florent
Très plaisant à lire, un auteur agréable qui approfondi l'aspect humain et social du plus grand conflit des USA. Seules réserves, les évenements sont abordés par théatres et non chronologiquement, ce qui est parfois un peu difficile quand on n'a qu'une vague connaissance initiale du sujet, et la cartographie est un peu faible.
Christopher
Keegan returns again with a single volume military history of an epic war. While not his strongest work (the factual errors are highlighted in various other outlets), the book is generally strong and highlights Keegan's penchant for finding geography to be the primary determinant in most warfare. Beyond that general focus, it's a straightforward, and fairly brief, history of the war. One fact that surprised me, even as a moderately knowledgeable Civil War reader was Keegan's claim that there wer...more
Mark Bates
A interesting perspective on the political and geographical influences on the War.
Darren
I was impressed with Keegan's in depth review of the American Civil War. It was detailed, well organized, and pretty thorough. He pulls heavily from McPherson's works and at times this seems like a retelling of "Battle Cry of Freedom". However, it is hard to compare the two works (this one and McPherson's masterpiece) in fair regard. To give such a detailed description of this era of American history in one volume is going to take on a similar characteristic feel to any preceding attempt, assumi...more
Matt
Dense but good read on the American Civil War. Written by a Brit, so some distance from the topic, at times startling (the book opens with, more or less, 'The South never had a chance' - strong words even for a Northerner like me) but on the whole appreciated. He weaves in references to comparable European wars and battles, which I liked. Little hard to pin down at times, he slides around time periods with ease and it's occasionally a little tricky to follow - one page we're reading a detailed a...more
Kyle
This was probably not the best choice for my first history book about the American Civil War. It is less of a chronicle of events than it is an analysis of several arguments about why the war turned out how it did. As a result, Keegan jumps around with his coverage of events and theatres of war to make conclusions about his theses. He also breezes over some major events in order to talk more about the results than the process. Having very little exposure to the details of the Civil War myself, t...more
Ben B
Keegan is always brilliant in his analysis and description. This book seemed unevenly edited -- there were repetitions that seemed unintentional, and some of the material seemed unorganized. But overall it was an excellent read.

I was struck by comparisons to the Napoleonic wars and World War I. In the former the standard infantry weapon was a musket with an accurate range of 50-100 yards and a rate of fire of 2-3 rounds per minute. In the latter the standard infantry weapon was a repeating rifle...more
Robert
The American Civil War is a fine book by an accomplished British military historian who has the range of knowledge necessary not only to give a detailed account of the Civil War but also to compare it to other wars in other places at other times. For example, he notes that on entering the war both sides had the idea of a decisive Napoleonic battle in mind, a kind of Austerlitz, which would settle things quickly.

But that didn't happen. Keegan offers one major reason why not: Neither side was equi...more
Frédéric Bey
Keegan nous offre avec cet ouvrage une excellente synthèse sur la Guerre de Sécession. Son style vif et le plan de son ouvrage, qui n'oublie aucun des aspects de cette guerre fondatrice, rendent la lecture très agréable. Keegan règle aussi son compte à la "cause perdue" (page 460) : "Savoir si le Sud aurait pu remporter la guerre est devenue l'une des questions les plus débattues après le conflit. La réponse est non."

Il dresse des portraits tout en psychologie des plus grand généraux de la guerr...more
Daniel Bratell
After reading a book about Vanderbilt I became eager to know more about the American Civil War so this book became the next one on my reading list.

I now know much more about the American Civil War (previous knowledge was: lots of dead people, end of slavery) but not as much as I had hoped. The American Civil War: A Military History is more or less what it says, a lot about the military, especially the generals and not very much about anything else. And still, for a 3-5 year long war it only scra...more
Mark
It's fascinating to look at a familiar story from an unfamiliar perspective. Having been into Civil War history for a significant part of my life, I would have thought that a general survey of the military aspects of the war would hold comparatively little additional interest for me; yet I found myself glued to John Keegan's masterly treatment of the American Civil War. I'd read his "Six Armies in Normandy" some years ago, so I expected clear analysis and interesting writing, and I was not disap...more
Mason
Having thoroughly enjoyed Keegan's history of WWII and The Price of Admiralty, I got quite excited when this book was announced. Perhaps I had expected too much, because it did not deliver.

Keegan presents the war through the lens of geography. To that end, he was quite successful, showing how the different theaters were geographically separated, as well as showing how geography becomes a third entity of any battle.

Using this foundation creates a structural challenge in writing history - lots of...more
port22
A book about the Civil War is rarely the first to introduce its reader into that subject. John Keegan is a well know British military historian, research into the nature of battle makes his "The American Civil War" a valuable contribution to the body of work written on that topic.

What I found new and interesting is his analysis of the conditions in the North and the South before the hostilities begin. From a population of 5 million, 48 thousand owned more than 20 slaves, 3000 thousand owned more...more
Matthew Griffiths
It's a rare work that can make military history interesting and prior to reading this particular book I would only count Anthony Beevor's Stalingrad as a highly enjoyable military history but after completing this book there is certainly another contender for that crown. Keegan writes in such a way that in his descriptions of battle he offers great swathes of technical information without being overbearingly technical which makes the history of battles a lot more enjoyable to read for the amateu...more
Ryan
I'm not as familiar with Keegan as most of the people who have previously reviewed the book, so I cannot contrast it with his other works. But I did enjoy reading this book. I have read Shelby Foote's 3000+ page tome on the subject, so there was little truly new in terms of the military strategy.

Keegan's description of generals is in stark contrast to Foote's undying admiration for Lee and Jackson. Grant and Sherman are the strategic geniuses of the bunch, while Lee and Jackson are fantastic tac...more
Jeremy Styron
The most interesting part of this book is how Keegan uses his research into World Wars I and II to reflect on ways in which military combat during the Civil War anticipated strategies in the 20th century. I think he would have done more a service to readers if he would have included more of this material because it's one of the more interesting side-topics that he presents.

As a basic history on the Civil War, this one doesn't stand out, compared, say, to McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom." With...more
Brian T
I thought that this was a very good overview of the American Civil and I would definitely recommend it. While I am a history buff, and particularly fond of the era, I had my reservations about reading it, since I am not terribly interested in battle history. Flanking maneuvers and cannon placements don't much interest me. I worried that this book would be too battle laden, but I found it to be a wonderful blend of the important reasons for certain victories throughout the war.

The book had fantas...more
Graham Russell
I'm a fan of John Keegan, but this was a disappointment. It's muddled, often repeats itself and some sections feel like a first draft that hasn't been refined and edited into something worthy of publication.

It's not a terrible book - I certainly understand the American Civil War much better having read it and there are sections where the author demonstrates his usual clarity in outlining complex miltary strategy. However, its hard not to come away with the impression of a great historian whose p...more
Albert
Written by a Brit, this book gives a good overview of our American Civil War with some decent sociological analysis, but overall the writing is dry and uninspired. This is like you are grading someone's thesis, more than reading an inspired piece of writing. The book is very well organized although there are many points where the author repeats himself in such a way that recalls the absentminded friend who repeats the same stories over and over, forgetting that theybhad told you, although in thi...more
Scott Archer
The author is quite opinionated so it's an interesting read. I read a lot of Civil War history, and Keegan raises some interesting "what if" questions- and it's always fascinating to debate those questions. The problem for me is that I disagree with many of his conclusions, especially his discussion of the abilities of numerous generals. He lauds far too much praise on Grant and Sherman. He actually ranks Lee, Forrest and Stonewall Jackson in the bottom half of the top 10 generals of the Civil W...more
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Sir John Desmond Patrick Keegan OBE was a British military historian, lecturer and journalist. He published many works on the nature of combat between the 14th and 21st centuries concerning land, air, maritime and intelligence warfare as well as the psychology of battle.

More about John Keegan...
The First World War The Face of Battle The Second World War A History of Warfare Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris; June 6 - Aug. 5, 1944

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