Robert Stewart

Karl Marx got it right

Whether the refusal to allow the Confederate states the right to self-determination, flying as it did in the face of the Declaration of Independence, was the first overt act of American imperialism is a question that goes largely undiscussed.

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The American Civil War

John Keegan

Hutchinson, pp. 394, £

Whether the refusal to allow the Confederate states the right to self-determination, flying as it did in the face of the Declaration of Independence, was the first overt act of American imperialism is a question that goes largely undiscussed. John Keegan does not raise it. For him, unlike World War I, which was ‘cruel and unnecessary’, the American Civil War was cruel and necessary. (What constitutes an uncruel war is not explained.) Necessary both sides deemed it. At the outset volunteers came forward in such numbers that equipping them and finding capable officers to lead them proved nearly beyond both the Union and the Confederacy. Cruel it certainly was, one of the bloodiest wars in modern history, though two-thirds of its casualties succumbed, not to gunfire, but to disease (much of it caused by bad cooking).

That ratio, Keegan informs us, contemporaries would have accepted as ‘perfectly normal’: it was higher in the Crimea and much higher in Napoleon’s wars. Had the first major battle, the stalemate at First Bull Run, not been greeted by southerners as a victory, encouraging them to believe in ultimate triumph, the war might have ended quickly. Instead, it lasted for four years, and one of its most striking aspects was ‘the remarkable ability of infantry on both sides to accept casualties’. It became, like the Vietnam War, a ‘body-count’ war, but whereas the Vietcong could sustain heavy losses, the Confederacy, much less populous than the North, was eventually bled to death.

Geography was fundamental in contributing to the war’s attritional nature. The theatre of the war, fought almost entirely on southern soil, was vast, yet the South had no strategic centres of population, offering the North the possibility of a knockout blow. The result was an extra-odinarily high number of battles, 257 of them named, fought at close man-to-man combat. The South had only one available strategy, to repel the invader wherever he was encountered. The North struggled to find a winning one. The Anaconda Plan, framed by General Winfield Scott at the beginning of hostilities, looked to the asphyxiation of the South by blockading its Atlantic seaports and taking control of the Mississippi valley, thus depriving the south of foreign trade, especially the import of arms, and grinding it into submission. Though well-conceived, the plan had a defect. ‘Notable,’ writes Keegan, gently droll, ‘was the omission of any mention of battle.’ The South was to capitulate without protest.

Marvellously, it was Karl Marx who, as early as March 1862, foresaw what had to happen. ‘Does there exist’, he asked, ‘a military centre of gravity whose capture would break the backbone of the Confederacy resistance, or are they, as Russia still was in 1812, unconquerable without … occupying every village and every patch of ground along the whole periphery?’ His answer was that the centre of gravity was Georgia, the loss of which would cut the Confederacy in half and dismember it. So it turned out. Lincoln’s first general-in-chief, George McClellan, deeply lamented the hatreds that had led to war and sought to minimise bloodshed: no seizing nor destruction of enemy property, no living off enemy land. His failure, after the mighty contest at Antietam in September, 1862, to pursue Robert E Lee’s retreating soldiers across the Potomac broke Lincoln’s patience.

His replacement, Ulysses Grant, was of a different stamp, able to appear untouched by the bloodiest of battles ‘perhaps because he had conceived for himself a philosophy of war in which the celebration of its glories played no part’. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg in the west in the summer of 1863, coinciding with the Union victory at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, itself a devastating blow to Confederate morale, transformed the course of the war by exposing Confederate garrisons in Tennessee and Kentucky to attack and opening a line of advance into Georgia, where Sherman was to conduct the war’s culminating campaign. ‘War is cruelty,’ Sherman wrote, ‘and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.’ The ruthlessness of his burning-and-looting march to the sea ‘inaugurated a style of warfare that boded the worst sort of ill for peoples unable to keep a conqueror at bay, as Hitler’s campaigns in eastern Europe 75 years later would testify’.

Keegan tells an old story in ample, uncomplicated prose and the scale of the book is well judged, sufficient to allow for richness of detail and depth of analysis without overwhelming the reader. Occasionally words seem to get the better of him. Does it make sense to say that ‘the purpose’ of the war was ‘to inflict suffering on the American imagination’, that ‘the whole point of the war was to hold mothers, fathers, sisters, and wives in a state of tortured apprehension’? Footnotes are so spasmodic that the criteria for citing sources are impossible to discern. Keegan has to be taken, for the most part, on trust. But his command of the war’s geography, his thorough understanding of military organisation and his deep humanity, all nourished by a lifetime’s immersion in military history, imbue his account with the authority that we have come to expect from him.