The Civil War (John Keegan)

The Civil War (John Keegan)

As we have now entered the 150-year period of the Civil War (1861-65), it's the turn of the Anglo-Saxon world's most famous military historian, the British John keegan, to tackle the civil war that ravaged - and forever transformed - the United States. Known for his innovative approach and the breadth of his vision of military history, Keegan examines this conflict in a book, the French version of which appeared earlier this year in the collection For history from Perrin editions.

An atypical war

Former professor of history at the military academy of Sandhurst, John Keegan was one of the spearheads of a new vision, that rehabilitating a military history until then discredited by a “history-battles” too often summarized with a list of dates and meaningless names. The use of new sources, such as testimonies from veterans or experimental archeology, and the analysis of previously neglected contextual elements (topography, equipment), characterize his major works such as Anatomy of battle and Six armies in Normandy, just like his ability to grasp the war as a whole - read for example History of war, from the Neolithic to the Gulf War.

With his latest work, soberly titled American Civil War, Keegan, in a way, closes the loop. He who was one of the main popularizers at the world level (to the point of collaborating on several television documentary series) is indeed part of a movement initiated by American historians in the 1950s, at a time when the last were disappearing. witnesses of the civil war and the approach of the centenary of the conflict. The English historian is not mistaken, by the way, paying homage in his book to Bell Irvin Wiley, who was one of the very first to question the daily life of the soldier.

In his introduction, Keegan does not fail to recall how the Civil War was an atypical conflict; from this point of view, it could only interest him. For him, the mystery lies both in the suddenness of a seemingly unexpected conflict arising in an America that is almost completely demilitarized and still largely self-centered; and the surprising intensity of the war, waged to the last extremity by men whom nothing seemed to have prepared for it. Added to a taste of World War I (industrial warfare, trench warfare, all-out war), this enigmatic character could only make Keegan lean on it.

The Keegan style

After this questioning, Keegan gets to the heart of the matter by exploring the causes of the conflict, with a deep dive into the social, political, economic, cultural structures of the pre-war United States. In this sense, he understood that the conflict, far from being due to the sole issue of slavery, has its roots in a complex web of factors and events. The author's genius is to manage to tackle the essence of these causes in a clear and understandable way, even if this will necessarily be less detailed than in other works on the same theme.

It is in these circumstances that Keegan's "style" works wonders: remarkable fluidity in the flow of ideas; an amazing ability to switch from one topic to another, as naturally as if he were following his train of thought while discussing the topic with someone… except that despite this appearance, the whole of its purpose is rigorously structured.

After a second chapter recounting the immediate period preceding the conflagration (from the election of Lincoln to the bombing of Fort Sumter), Keegan deals with a series of general themes. He thus recalls to what extent the armies of 1861 were improvised and amateurish, before becoming more professional with time and fighting. He also looks at the political leaders of both camps and their effectiveness. The author also addresses - a theme that could not leave him indifferent - the paramount importance of American geography on the course of the war, as well as the daily life of the fighter of the Civil War.

Between history and anecdote

Keegan then assesses the strategies of the two belligerents and their implementation. In a typical illustration of the style already mentioned, he immediately follows the story of the war itself, without bothering to stop. This second part - the chronological narrative of the conflict - thus begins in the middle of a chapter! The hyphenation with the previous one, made of contextualizations, is no less clear. The historian knows very well what he is doing and does not jump from cock to donkey.

The chapters recounting the course of the war do not add much new to what can be found elsewhere in other writers such as Bruce Catton and James McPherson. It must be admitted, however, that much of the work in this area has already been done and what is more, Keegan could not afford to go into too much detail while considering the Civil War as a whole. He could be criticized for stumbling sometimes in the anecdotal, especially when it comes to the moods of the generals - but this is ultimately hardly surprising from the author of The art of command.

Keegan stops her narration just before the war ends, ending Part 2 as it started, in the middle of a chapter. This time it’s the story of the famous fight between CSS Alabama at USS Kearsarge off Cherbourg, which gave him the opportunity to continue with a chapter devoted to naval operations in general. Others then follow: on the role of the rear and that of the blacks, on the fate of the wounded, or - themes dear to the author among all - on the place of combat and generals.

It was only after wondering if the South was a viable nation that he returned to the end of the war, the better to conclude. Unlike many writers, it doesn't stop with Lee's surrender and Lincoln's assassination. Evoking in a few pages "Reconstruction" and its aftermath, Keegan thus reminds us of how the consequences of the Civil War were made and are still being felt today in the United States.

At the end of this 500-page overview, it is clear that John Keegan's purpose was as much to answer his initial problem as to embrace a comprehensive vision of the topic at hand. The bet has been paid: true to his breadth of vision, the British historian discusses all aspects of the conflict and although he rarely goes into detail, he leaves nothing out, which is already a feat in itself. American Civil War by John Keegan is, in this sense, an excellent summary of what there is to know about this conflict: if it is obviously less detailed than other eponymous works, like that of McPherson (a block of more than 1,000 pages), however, it will be much more affordable for the interested reader, who will not need to be a specialist to understand its purpose. It is a popularization book and from that point of view it is a success.

John KEEGAN, American Civil War, Paris, Perrin, collection " For history », 2011; 504 pages.


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