22.11.16

LESSONS LEARNED.

I'll return to my efforts to post fifty book reports by year's end by returning to a familiar topic.  Book Review No. 20 is a recent academic history of the American Civil War, A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War, by Williamson Murray and Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh.

Yes, I've reviewed a lot of works about the American Civil War over the years, just keep scrolling, and yes, the authors have to make a case for writing yet another military history of that war.  But it's well written, and free of the logorrhea one might expect of an academic work.  I wish, though, the authors had retained a better cartographer.  The battle maps are sketchy, and roads, railroads, and geographic features often get left out.  True, the experienced Civil War student will know where Seminary Ridge or the Orange Plank Road or the Western and Atlantic Railroad are, but this work is likely to be the first introduction to the war for a new generation of students, who might want to see the connections between what Federal armies figured out winning the war and the way United States forces have conducted wars since.  Let me highlight four things.  First, Savage War asserts, then defends, the claim that the war was won in the west.  Yes, that's long been my view.  I like the book for additional reasons.  Second, the authors illustrate how well-handled Union logistics were: the distances between St. Louis and Savannah, for instance, are much greater than the distances between Aachen and Paris, and the Prussians had better roads and a more comprehensive railroad network, and yet they acquitted themselves poorly, both in 1871 and again in late 1914.  Third, the authors reflect on the way of winning war.  Genl Sherman's dehousing campaign focussed on people who resisted, and slaveholders, particularly those who kept bloodhounds.  That, they speculate, might have encouraged the "Lost Cause" story and Jim Crow, as youngsters didn't have to ask, "and what if Sherman's boys come back?"  Per corollary, they advance the thesis that because the first World War ended with an armistice and Germany relatively unscathed, a second World War, with the dehousing carried out by air forces and invasion, was required.  We have seen Genl Sheridan, accompanying the Prussians in 1871, suggesting that their efforts would be inadequate to tame the French for long: that might be a consideration for properly winning war against terrorists operating under stateless conditions.  On the other hand, the fourth point is their skepticism of guerrilla warfare, something the bitter-enders of the Confederacy considered, absent some sort of outside support, as the militias of the War of Independence received from France and the Viet Cong received from the Communist states.  But in an analysis of the Civil War, the outlines of a winning strategy against stateless jihadis might be secondary to telling the story.  Perhaps the tacticians and strategists in the service academies and war colleges are working that problem.

Something else the reader might consider is that in the run-up to secession, politics fractured in ways we have not yet seen in this century.  Oh, and if you place a value on credentials, James Buchanan had served as a Member of Congress as well as as a senator; as ambassador to the United Kingdom as well as as Secretary of State: plus, as president he contracted out the duties of First Lady to a relative.  What's on your work history is not necessarily guarantee of good performance going forward.  Just saying.

I close with some observations about the conventions of chronicling wars.  For some reason, Genl Pierre Gustave Toutaint Beauregard often gets referred to as "the Creole."  I'm not sure why.  (One could refer to him as "the Underachiever," but that could equally well refer to Braxton Bragg or George McClellan.)  Now Messrs Murray and Hsieh add another appellation, Genl Sheridan becomes "the Irishman."  That strikes me as a more common ethnicity among the officer corps.

Finally, I'd like to see chronicles of war come up with a better locution for describing small encounters.  Consider this description of James Wilson's spring 1865 offensive into Mississippi and Alabama, which tore up much of the ironmaking capacity around Birmingham and would have been the news story of the week but for Lee's surrender and Lincoln's murder.  "At a cost of only ninety-nine men killed, 598 wounded, and twenty-eight missing, they had destroyed 'seven iron works, seven foundries, two rolling mills, seven collieries, 13 large factories ...'."  It's true, 99 dead doesn't rise to the level of a "demonstration" at Gettysburg, let alone to a Cold Harbor or Fredericksburg.

And yet war is cruelty, as Genl Sherman would have it, and you do not refine it by putting "only" in front of a body count.

By all means, though, if you want to get a good exposure to the military side of the Civil War, with efforts to place the events leading to it and the evolution of U.S. military practice since, buy the book.

(Cross-posted to Fifty Book Challenge.)

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