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Posted August 18, 2000
'A Great Civil War' is a good, not great, work of scholarship
To anyone familiar with the distinguished career and military scholarship of Professor Russell F. Weigley, his long-awaited study of the Americna Civil War must come as a great disappointment. The book lacks the in-depth analysis of strategy, tactics and personality that made the author's, 'Eisenhower's Lieutenants' so impressive, and his, 'The American Way of War,' so important. Here, Weigley has one main thesis: that Civil War generals lacked adequate strategic and operational concepts to effectively organize and fight their armies. He then repeats this argument throughtout the text, using specific battles to illustrate his point. It is a good point, but it does not carry a six hundred page opus. To make matters worse, Weigley's discussion of the battles is sometimes sketchy at best -- for example, he discusses the Battle of Fredericksburg in less than a paragraph on page 194! Yet there is a lenghty discussion of the firing on Fort Sumpter from pages 16 to 23 that adds nothing to his overall thesis. In fact, the text tends to ramble at times, and one wonders if a more effective editor could not have improved it. (Note, also, the omission of an author's page at the beginning of the book to list all of Weigley's other works. This is a glaring and unforunate oversight by the publisher.) Weigley is surprisigly good, however, on the Union goals in the war, particularly on the place of abolition and emancipation in Union strategy. In fact, Weigley is most impressive away from the battlefield, in his discusison of the war aims of the combatants and the societal constraints on the Union and Confederate armies. Not surprisingly, of course, Weigley is excellent and illumminating in his discussion of the Civil War in the context of nineteenth century warfare. Also excellent are the endnotes, maps and annotated bibliography. In sum, 'A Great Civil War,' is a good study of the United States Civil War, but it is not the great book one might have expected it to be. It is original in part and derivitive in part, more an extended personal essay (in a moving aside, Weigley shares his family's personal roots in the Union Army) than a serious scholarly study. While it does not supplant or replace earlier studies such as 'Battle Cry of Freedom,' by James M. McPherson, or 'How the North Won,' by Hattaway and Jones, it does provide an informed and graceful companion to them.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 19, 2000
The best -- and best written -- exploration of Civil War fact and myth
A Great Civil War makes a strong case that the Civil War was a necessary tragedy. This gracefully written historical narrative effortlessly spans the range of Civil War scholarship. The focus shifts smoothly from vivid personal details to battlefield tactics, and from campaign strategies (or, all too often, the lack of them) to the intimate connection of warfare, policy, and politics. Amongst his always illuminating battle narratives, the author intersperses short essays on such subjects as the design of ever more lethal weapons, the era¿s formative military myths, and how the demands of full-scale war centralized the nation¿s banking system and greatly enhanced the power of the federal government. This book¿s greatest contribution may be the author¿s willingness to make clear judgments based on balanced discussions of conflicting views. For example, Weigley presents a compelling argument that the Confederacy failed in large part because it could never overcome a basic ambivalence in its purpose: the incompatible goals of continuing slavery and the Southern lifestyle within a Union most Southern leaders believed in and complete severance from that Union. This ambivalence helps explain both why fighting ended so quickly after formal military defeat and why many Civil War issues remain unresolved. A parallel theme Weigley develops is the Northern shift from fighting for Victorian ideals of duty and honor to fighting to advance the moral cause of liberation. With eye-opening clarity, he demonstrates that as popular support for the war and the Republican Party waned, Lincoln and others changed their rhetorical and moral focus from restoration of the Union to the elimination of slavery. Thus, slavery became a moral motive for the North to continue waging war in large part because of political expediency. On a subject he has explored elsewhere, the author notes that each war develops its own momentum that reshapes the political purposes that began it. Thus, the Civil War, for the North, began as an effort to restore the constitutional union of the American Revolution but ended as a revolutionary struggle to uproot slavery and, along with it, the foundations of Southern life. The author implies an ambivalence toward emancipation that in some ways mirrors the South¿s ambivalence toward its cause. He finds in the North¿s eventual dedication to the elimination of slavery little concern for the practical matter of how the liberated slaves and their descendants would participate in America¿s democratic experiment -- a singularly important Civil War legacy. The few flaws are minor: the book has too few maps, and none that sufficiently covers the classic Johnston-Sherman duel from Chattanooga to Atlanta; the maps and text occasionally differ in the spelling of place and road names; the important Richmond and Danville Railroad is unidentified on the second map although listed in the legend; the typo 'throught' escaped spell-checking software and proof-reading; and the index, though useful, omits occurrences of repeated names, locations, and topics. This superb -- and superbly readable -- work is at one level a model of the virtues of the narrative form backed by solid scholarship. At another, subtler level, it is a deeply principled call to re-examine our national myths and bring the lessons we learn to bear on this nation¿s many unresolved social and institutional struggles.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.