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3.7 out of 5 stars
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3.7 out of 5 stars
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on 11 October 2009
An outstanding and very readable comprehensive history by one of the finest military historians complementing his earlier work 'Warpaths' exploring the campaigns on the ground.

Whilst being a military history it also extensively covers and explains the political and nation-building background to the first industrial war which killed more Americans than all that country's wars put together.

It is likely to become the definitive British book on the conflict
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on 9 October 2014
Having read a number of the one volume histories of the American Civil War I'm puzzled by some of the reviews. It's a well researched, well written history. It covers topics from the living and social conditions of slaves to the naval war and all major points in between in a logical manner. It generally avoids simplistic stereotypes and tries to accurately characterise the people and events involved in the war. It doesn't say anything that's particularly original but what's there to say that's really new. I think it's an interesting well written book and the best of the one volume histories of the war that I have read.
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on 14 June 2013
This book is very suitable for those, like myself, who know next to nothing about the subject matter and who want to get a good overview without having to wade through 1000s of pages. With some 350 pages this book serves its purpose. What I really liked is that Keegan does not get lost in the details of every individual skirmish but rather tries to keep a broader perspective, and tries to explain why things worked out the way they did.
For example, he explains the high casualty rate not only from the introduction of the Minie rifle, but more because the two armies had no real other meaningful targets (e.g. strategic places or cities) than each other. As a result the war inevitably became a war of attrition that would only stop when one army would have been ground down entirely. Not sure if this is really true - could the North not have used its advantages better & perhaps have brought the South down by a number of simultaneous invasions behind enemy lines or something?
I also think Keegan goes overboard when he explains diverse phenomena such as the reported femininity of southern women and the lack of American socialism from the civil war experience (the southern women had to console their beaten menfolk, becoming exceedingly feminine in the process, and the American working class had seen so much bloodshed that they were unwilling to embark on bloody uprisings). Even more ridiculous is his assertion that soldiers found it mightily difficult to 'get used' to high-velocity shot from the new rifles - as if traditional musket balls where slow enough to see them coming or dodge them??

All in all, still a useful book despite the fact that there is a lot of repetition (as many other reviewers pointed out already).
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on 19 September 2009
There is no doubt that Sir John Keegan is THE writer of historical factual books. I thought his book, The First World War, could not be bettered. I was wrong. This book is the finest I have read about this dreadful war which shaped the America, and thus the world, of today.

I was amazed to learn that the graddaughter of General Stonewall Jackson died less than 20 years ago! There are still many men alive who have talked to veterens of this awful period in America's history. Keegan's book tells it all; as it should be told. Buy this book, you will never regret it.
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on 23 December 2013
This book certainly has lots of them. Like most books about military campaigns, it is more favourable to the winners, but not overly so. It is not really a book for reading cover to cover in one go, though this is OK as the subject is divided up intelligently and treated as a unit, with only slight assumptions that earlier chapters/subjects have been read in full, and the topics chosen are interesting and their treatment sometimes thought provoking.
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on 28 June 2011
Keegan's book is well-researched, well-written and offers insight into a bloody conflict. He describes the chaos at the start of the war (e.g. no standard uniforms or equipment) but also how this chaos continued into the conflict. From the start the Confederacy was at a disadvantage & its failure to gamble all in an initial thrust vs. weak opposition doomed their cause, especially as when it became a war of attrition in the hands of Grant & Sherman.
The amazing ineptitude of commanders on both sides is amply illustrated and, what becomes clear, is that Jefferson Davies was vastly inferior to Abraham Lincoln in ability. The result was that Lincoln managed to pull his generals into line while Davies didn't. The colossal wastage of lives and resources is described & the misery of a country & families torn apart.
Obviously, the book is a MILITARY history so diplomacy & political manoeuvring is largely omitted. The 'gallant loser' gives the Confederacy a romantic image but what would a Confederate victory have meant. To answer such questions you'll have to go elsewhere.The more irregular operations & pressures (e.g. in California)are glossed over.
All in all, however, Keegan has done a fine job in covering a ghastly war which retains its echoes today.
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on 16 May 2011
I approached this volume excitedly having devoured Keegan's single volume account of the First World War and found it to be the best work of its type. I have to say I was disappointed by this work. I admire the ambition of trying to address such a complex and sprawling subject as the American Civil War in a single volume; you would expect it therefore to be more of a precis, with a shrewd economy of words applied. What I found was frequent repetition of the same analytical arguments, often on the same page. The North had numerical superiority; control of the rivers was key to controlling the war; the South was desperate for recogntion/intervention by the Great Powers of Europe who demanded its cotton. If I read these conclusions once I read them a thousand times!

In the pen picture and analysis of the key figures McClellan comes out of it better than one would expect considering he was a spineless ditherer. Lee is somehow regarded as a good tactician but not a good strategist; interesting considering he held off a vastly superior political, economic and especially military force for over four years. I could go on...and often do, but my biggest disappointment was that this consideration didn't capture the soul of the conflict. Maybe you need to be American to truly do the subject justice. If you're looking for a well written, meticulously researched and painstakingly accurate review of the American Civil War, go for the three volume masterpiece by Shelby Foote.
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on 7 December 2009
John Keegan's "The American Civil War" is a highly readable and insightful analysis by our foremost military historian. While there may be too little new scholarship to satisfy the devoted Civil War buff, most readers will savor Keegan's informed, at times refreshingly opinionated, and distinctly non-American perspective on the quintessentially American struggle.

Keegan examines the War Between the States from both strategic and tactical angles. He assesses each side's positions, war aims and evolving grand designs as it gradually dawned on them that the war would not end through settlement, blockade or even decisive Napoleonic engagement. He dissects each of the major battles in this most intensive of conflicts (seven battles per day on average, he tells us), supplementing his lucid narrative with clear maps and diagrams. He is self-confident enough and expert enough to issue ex-cathedra judgments on which strategies were sound and which were flawed and on the attributes that made various generals great or incompetent. This, plus his narrative power, and his undisguised sense of awe at the largely unmapped vastness of the American interior, add undoubted appeal to his book.

For Keegan, there was no question but that the Union would win. This is not so much a bias - though occasionally we feel he is rooting for the North - as it is the conviction that superiority in numbers and industrial output would eventually overcome an initial disadvantage in experienced leadership. Keegan's admiration for Ulysses S Grant also shines through, whereas his disdain for other less proficient generals is equally clear. He has little time, for example for McClellan whom he sums up with the McCaulian: "Fearing failure, he did not try to win." More surprisingly, he is lukewarm in attitude to the great Confederate leader, Robert E Lee, dismissing him -convincingly- as a brilliant if idiosyncratic battlefield commander but no strategist. Lincoln stands tall in the background as he evolves from lonely President with no military experience and few reliable counselors to assured and inspired wartime leader.

Keegan focuses principally on the military aspect of the war. He is especially interesting when he places it in the context of prior wars - the Napoleonic and the Great War, in particular - and shows how it was a bridge between them in terms of technology, military doctrine and pre-antisepsis, battlefield medicine. While he provides several chapters on discrete aspects of the war: Black Soldiers, Women during the war (this section will likely make female readers either chuckle or bristle) for example, it is telling that the best of these mini-essays relate to military rather than sociological topics: generalship, field medicine, the civil war battlefield etc. Readers who want greater political exposition on causes and consequences would do better with Macpherson's excellent "Battle Cry For Freedom." Nonetheless, Keegan's book is excellent in its domain and is well worth reading.
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on 19 August 2012
I have to add my voice to those who have commented that this book has been rushed out in an attempt to exploit the anticipated peak of interest in the civil war surrounding the 150th anniversary. Keegan's is unquestionably an authoritative voice, yet this book is plagued with so much repetition that it reads like a first draft. This infuriating habit operates at all levels of the text's organisation: for example, the story of the assault on Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts Regiment is recounted in full not once, but twice in the course of the narrative; we are told no fewer than three times that General McClelland was a curious mix of the personally self-assured and the militarily timorous; at other times whole sentences are repeated almost verbatim just paragraphs apart. I lost count of the number of times Keegan explained that the the Confederacy hoped to achieve international recognition by fomenting discord among the cotton-importers in the North of Europe.

Furthermore, the book is lamentably myopic in scope. Other reviewers have commented that it concerns itself with very little beyond the events of the battlefields of the war. I would add that even within this limited remit, it further reduces its scope by focusing almost exclusively on the generals, strategies, soldiers and condition of the Union army. We learn almost nothing of the plans and concerns of Jefferson Davis and other Southern politicians and strategists; a general reader would be forgiven for concluding that Jackson and Lee were the only men obtaining to the rank of General within the entire Confederate army, as influential figures such as Stuart, Longstreet, Hood and the two Johnstons are mentioned only in the briefest of asides. Time and again, the book leaves the impression that Lincoln's forces were fighting against a vacuum. Was Davis concerned by Union gains in the West? Did he have plans to counter-attack? Was he contemplating surrender in 1863-64? Was he impeded in his ability to make strategy by the issue of States' rights? On these subjects and many others Keegan is silent.

While this book undoubtedly contains much worthwhile research and credible reportage of the major battles of the civil war, it is too limited in scope and too poorly pieced-together to be anything like the definitive single-volume account that it claims to be. A great shame.
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on 10 July 2015
This as with other pieces of work by John Keegan leaves me envious of his research time
One leaves his books more knowledgeable and enthused about the period.
As a wargamer the work is extremely helpful
One small request would be for slightly bigger and clearer maps plus a overall map of 1865 America
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