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A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History, 1861-1865

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  • Anonymous

    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.

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