Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

A Savage War

williamson_savage_warA Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War by Williamson Murray, Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh

In summer 2012 I took a horse and buggy ride through Lexington, Virginia. As we moved around the town, the lady leading the tour pointed to the houses and buildings which Union soldiers had burned in 1864. And she was still pissed about it.

I’ve never quite understood her attitude, but now at least thanks to Murray and Hsieh I know why the damage occurred. It was a distraction operation under General David Hunter, to draw Confederate eyes away from Grant’s main thrust, while also helping to bring the war to the people of the rebellion.

While I’ve read several accounts of Lincoln and the war, my military knowledge of it is admittedly weak. Despite my profession, I tend not to read military history. Too often I find the genre focused on the actions of incredible, but insignificant individual soldiers. Which is fun in the same way an action movie is, but the real meat for me has always been the politics of conflict. Namely the interplay of strategy, leadership and logistics upon which wars —not just battles— are won or lost.

It was for this reason I ordered A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil Waron the strength of one of its co-authors, Williamson Murray. Murray is a hugely prolific scholar in the field of strategic studies, with a knack for clearing away the brush to focus on the most significant issues. He also has an excellent grasp of strategic theory and history which is usually —though not always—deployed to good effect here. Throughout the book there are references to relevant insights or events in Thucydides, Clausewitz and from the contemporary era such as the 9/11 report and the Iraq War.

A Savage War takes some chewing through at 548 pages, but the writing of Murray and Hsieh is juicy and tempting. They neatly cover the build up to the conflict to give a refresher, without delaying too much before the action begins. Woven through the main chronological account there are insightful analyses of the main players, strategies and controversies of the era and in an engaging final chapter, its place in history.

Importantly there is also a deft touch when it comes to recounting the actual military events. Most battles are covered in just a few pages, with plenty of useful maps alongside the text. Details of some of the less well known and inconclusive battles can occasionally drag, but the authors resist the temptation to sex it up with fictionalised narratives or overt focus on individual heroics.

Instead, much of the side text is a discussion primarily of leadership and the role of the key generals and commanders and the army cultures they instilled. You can often feel the frustration of the authors at the mistakes, missed opportunities and often rank amateurism of the Union. While McClellan’s tardiness is famous, there are dozens of occasions, small and large where a needless delay or refusal to move cost the Union an earlier victory. But as the authors regularly note, this would not surprise those who have studied strategy and war at all.

Interestingly, the authors have little sympathy or praise for the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. While understandable for his politics, there’s often a debate among civil war buff’s about whether Lee or Grant was the superior general. For me, the politics (and final results of the conflict) overwhelm almost everything else when deciding, but in a text like this, I’d have liked a little bit more assessment. Perhaps the answer lays in the authors’ focus on the strategic level. Here Grant (like Lincoln and Sherman) understood the purpose of the war. Lee did not. His tactical and operational brilliance could not make up for a strategic deficit of understanding that ultimately contributed to the Confederacy’s comprehensive defeat.

As the authors themselves acknowledge, the best single volume account of the war is still James McPhersons’ Battle Cry of Freedom. A gorgeous and riveting book. But Murray and Hsieh have provided a fitting companion to it. One that understands and explains the war part of the Civil War. For those seeking a wider reading, especially bringing in the insights from history’s social turn and focus on events from the bottom-up, I’d also recommend Allen C. Guelzo’s Fateful Lighting (Reviewed here)

The US Civil War fascinates to this day not just because of its location, but because it is an inherently modern conflict. It was the first true Industrial war. Yet even more importantly, and like the French Revolution of 72 years earlier, it was a people’s war. It could only be defeated when the people themselves recognised it. And as that lady in Lexington —and perhaps the next inhabitant of the White House— show, some of that recognition is still to come.

« Previous post
Next post »