A Blistering Review

9780307263438Like many of you I’ve read John Keegan’s Face of Battle (1976) and can appreciate the contribution it made to the historiography of military history and its influence on countless Civil War historians who have written about the experience of the common soldier.  Other than that, however, I haven’t read much of Keegan’s scholarship. I’m just not that well read in military history outside of the Civil War.  I have to admit that I was just a bit excited about Keegan’s new military synthesis of the Civil War until I came across James McPherson’s review.  This is a pretty tough review as McPherson reviews go.  The mistakes cited by McPherson are that much more damaging given that Keegan is seen by many as an expert on geostrategic analysis.  Even the characterizations of Grant, Sherman, Lee, and Jackson seem to be quite weak.  Why do I have a feeling that we will see this book remaindered within a year.

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16 thoughts on “A Blistering Review

  1. margaretdblough

    Wow! I wish I'd read the review before I bought the book. I would have saved my money.

    I admire McPherson greatly, but I've long felt that if he goes too far in any direction, he sometimes is a bit too generous in providing blurbs etc. for fellow historians, particularly those just entering the field. I haven't seen him do this kind of surgically precise evisceration of a book since he deftly dissected Bennett's “Forced into Glory”-focusing particularly on instances where Bennett distorted or even changed Lincoln's positions by taking quotes out of context. I think we're seeing what it must have been like for any student of his who had the gall to submit sloppy work.

    The geographic errors are not minor. The Mississippi's influence on US history is immense. What became the Louisiana Purchase started out as an effort to control New Orleans & access to the Mississippi. Earlier, the location and makeup of the area, at the meeting point of three navigable waterways, that is now better know as the Point in Pittsburgh PA made control of it a central goal of both France and the UK in the French and Indian War which is why the disastrous Braddock and the successful Forbes Expeditions had it as their goal.I know it's not Keegan's home turf, but that is very basic information.

    However, the error McPherson cites that gives Disraeli as the P.M during the Civil War instead of Palmerston leaves me, to use the English phrase, gobsmacked. It isn't just that the wrong man is named. Palmerston and Disraeli, by that point, belonged to two rival political parties. Disraeli's Conservatives appear to be the one party that was not represented in Palmerston's second cabinet (1859-1865) which was a coalition cabinet that included, Gladstone as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Lord John Russell as Foreign Secretary as part of the price for their followers' support of the government. Between them Russell & Gladstone gave the Union as much angst and the rebels much hope for recognition by UK of the Confederacy. I don't know what would have happened if Disraeli had been PM during the Civil War, but I am positive it would have been VERY different because there was no one else like Disraeli.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin

      I agree that McPherson has endorsed way too many books, to the point where one has to ask whether he has actually read them. His New York Review of Books essays are usually very well done. What makes the mix-up over British prime ministers is the fact that this is Keegan's own history.

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      1. margaretdblough

        I agree, especially about the significance of the British PM mistake which is beyond understanding. It's not a minor error. It's a fundamental error. There are many obscure British prime ministers, some deservedly so, but these weren't among them. Who controlled Her Majesty's government and how it was controlled during the American Civil War were critical to its response to the problems in its former problem child.

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  2. toby

    I admire both MacPherson and Keegan, so this is disappointing. IMHO, Keegan's essay on Grant in his book The Mask of Command was quite insightful.

    However, I have had an uneasy feeling about Keegan for a while that he is a historian in decline. His early works like The Face of Battle and Five Armies in Normandy are excellent, but his more recent works leave a feeling of traversing well-worn paths, a feeling of someone on autopilot – like his history of the First World War.

    He did have a nice book a few years ago Warpaths: Travels of a Military Historian in North America, where I thought he had some interesting observations of the military geography of the Civil War, Revolutionary Wars, French & Indian Wars etc. It seems he has somehow declined from that.

    At least if his book is remaindered, it can be picked up cheaply!

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  3. toby

    I read the review & found it a bit less “blistering” than expected.

    MacPherson does seem to find some good aspects to the book … nothing wrong with the characterizations of the generals that I could see. Keegan may still be worth reading for his good points.

    About the egregious errors, they just seem to be symptoms of what I had seen creeping into Keegan's books e.g. a certain sloppiness.

    I look forward to finding it on the remaindered shelf!

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  4. Leonard Lanier

    In McPherson's defense, he does not write nearly as many blurbs as Joseph Ellis. I honestly believe that Ellis tried to resurrect his tarnished career by composing as many positive book reviews as possible. On one occasion, I walked into the local Barnes & Nobles, picked up a book on Revolutionary-Era cookery, and to my utter astonishment saw an endorsement by Ellis. His one-man PR routine must work. Recently saw that Mount Holyoke gave Ellis his endowed chair back.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin

      Well, that's not much of a defense if you have to draw a comparison with Ellis. I agree that McPherson is not the only historian guilty of this practice. The frequency of certain names only works to limit the value of the book jacket's endorsements.

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    2. Kevin Levin Post author

      Well, I don’t know how much of a defense that is if you have to draw a comparison with McPherson. I agree that McPherson is not the only one who has probably gone too far in endorsing the work of others. The frequency of certain names only works to minimize the value of the endorsement. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Reply
  5. Andy

    Keegan's one foray (that I'm aware of) into naval history, The Price of Admiralty, was pretty bad. For those with even some background in the topic, there was nothing really new, no insightful analysis, and his repeated mix-ups of maritime terminology were completely distracting.

    Six Armies in Normandy is worthwhile, if only for Keegan's autobiographical introduction on what it was like to be a child in Britain during the war.

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  6. Eric Roy

    Here's a brand-new Slate.com review of Keegan's book that seems to echo the NYT review in some ways, while also being more forgiving. It sounds like Keegan may have some valuable insights to offer as to how the geographic scope of the war determined how it was won/lost, but that it's hard to trust those insights in the face of some pretty stunning errors of fact. That's frustrating & a shame.

    http://www.slate.com/id/2233725/pagenum/all/#p2

    Reply
  7. Eric Roy

    Here's a brand-new Slate.com review of Keegan's book that seems to echo the NYT review in some ways, while also being more forgiving. It sounds like Keegan may have some valuable insights to offer as to how the geographic scope of the war determined how it was won/lost, but that it's hard to trust those insights in the face of some pretty stunning errors of fact. That's frustrating & a shame.

    http://www.slate.com/id/2233725/pagenum/all/#p2

    Reply

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