Brief Commentary–A Savage War

A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil WarA Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War by Williamson Murray

An exceptional book, marked by the sophistication of its analysis, yet marred by its narrative style. The authors propose that we must understand the American conflict of 1861-65 in terms of a transitional war, where the eternal lessons of Thucydides meet with the sociological changes wrought by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, especially the new conceptions of nation and citizen. However, the authors make clear that even this sociological revolution still carried with it the old notion of a “decisive victory”–something Lee, especially, was constantly seeking, showing his blindness to the new strategic framework presented by other sets of changes caused by the Industrial Revolution. That Revolution, especially as it picked up steam and grew exponentially more complex and the changes it wrought became greater and greater throughout the first half of the 19th century, presented unprecedented logistical contexts. When these logistics were played out against the sheer continental size of the Confederacy, where most of the War took place, the strategic frameworks of the war and its battles became something largely new in modern history. Both armies learned on the fly–and through creating mountains of corpses–producing a conflict that, in 1861 looked like an 18th century war, and by 1864, eerily presaged what the Western Front would look like 50 years later.

The authors draw heavily on Grant and Sherman’s memoirs, and thus there is a heavy focus on both men as perhaps the two most significant military figures of the War, as well the “hard war” of its closing years. As it is presented here, Sherman’s March to the Sea, and even more so his Carolinas Campaign, was the precursor to the RAF’s Dehousing campaign and Hiroshima–ostensibly necessary brutality to achieve victory through destroying all will on the part of the civilian population to continue the fight. This, in their assessment, is simply how wars are fought, especially a war of this sort with the huge distances, new technologies, and strategic contexts; only a “savage war” could have won it.

But to be clear, in their presentation, a “savage war” could have won it for the South, too. Had Jeff Davis left Joe Johnston–whom they regard as one of the great generals of the War, and a defensive genius–in charge of the Western Theatre in 1864, they suggest his defensive tactics could very well have produced a Fabian strategy that would have resulted in Sherman’s inability to accomplish much of anything except for his own soilders’ loss of blood. The authors suggest that this, combined with the tactical genius that allowed Lee to survive in Virginia despite the odds against him at this time, could have destroyed political support for the cause in the North, thus costing Lincoln the election and bringing a President McClellan to the bargaining table with Richmond. Because of the new, and ever evolving, strategic and logistical contexts of this conflict, savage war–whether breaking the will of the Confederate populace through sheer domination or bleeding a Union army stuck in neutral to the point of Northern exasperation and acquiescence–was the only way this war would end.

The authors show Grant is perhaps the only general who understands this early on, and thus they emphasize the early years in the Western theatre. Lee and the Southerners’ brilliant victories in the early years in the East mattered little, as they could never achieve that “decisive” Napoleonic victory; meanwhile, in the West, Grant was systematically using the logistical and industrial might of the North to destroy Southern railroads, communication, river traffic, and food production, ensuring that the Army of Northern Virginia would (eventually) be crippled. Thus, even though the authors resist the classic narrative that the North would necessarily win just from sheer numbers–Shelby Foote’s notion that the North “fought with one hand tied behind its back”–their argument actually shows just that to be the case, with some important caveats. Grant, in their view, isn’t just throwing men into the grinder, knowing that the Confederates will run out of men before he does; rather, they connect the North’s population, industrial, financial, and logistical superiority to the proper strategic and political contexts and decisions, and suggest that Grant was engaging those frameworks through leveraging the numerical superiority of the North.

So yes, this is a Grant-heavy, and to a lesser extent a Sherman-heavy, book. But there is also great praise for Southern generals. Lee is shown to lack a necessary strategic imagination, but to be as tactically brilliant as his legend shows him to be (even if his pride and myopia led him to some tactical blunders, most notoriously Pickett’s Charge). Johnston and Longstreet also come in for praise, as does Jackson–shown as a ferocious, hard man much more than a gallant, pious Christian knight. There is also real praise for N.B. Forrest, whom the authors implicitly regard as having led what amounts to a nigh-invincible special forces/commando team that the Confederates could never quite figure out what to do with. Forrest comes off as a mad genius and perhaps the single-greatest, and certainly most sui generis, military mind of the conflict; the authors mention, though refuse to speculate in any length, what things would have been like had Forrest been given command of a corps, much less an army.

The book is also provides strong analysis of the politics of the war–everything from the incompetence of the various political-appointee generals who hampered the Northern war effort, to the noxious, petty command cultures of the Armies of the Potomac and Tennessee, to Jeff Davis’s petty favoritism and myopic micro-management of the Western Theatre that doomed the Confederacy well before the fall of Atlanta, to the aforementioned need for Lincoln’s reelection, and the way both his leadership in Washington and the battlefield performances of Sherman and Grant ensured that happened. Thus, the authors provide us with a sweeping and comprehensive analysis of the War from multiple perspectives. From an analytical standpoint, the book is dynamite.

However, the book suffers in its narrative passages and in certain verbal tics by the authors. For one, having two authors does in places reveal itself, as it sometimes moves from rather sober language to strange attempts at black humor and snark; this is jarring and makes for strange reading. And while the book does have an obvious rah-rah-Union quality (unsurprising for a host of reasons, not least of which being the authors’ employment at the Naval Academy, and thus an almost-certain interest in defending a particular vision of America one can trace forward from Lincoln to the Global War on Terror), one of the narrative voices often slips into something close to vitriol directed at the South, a sort of implied “the bastards got what was coming to them, and should have had it worse, and it would have been fine and dandy.” This may fit your politics (or not), but it tends to take away from the sober, scholarly detachment the book cultivates throughout. A scholarly assessment briefly becoming a political screed, only to see a quick return to a scholarly assessment, is just fundamentally odd and distracting.

Finally, and most egregiously, the book’s one-volume treatment of the entirety of the War leads to narrations of battles and campaigns that often feel quite leaden. In attempting to fit so much information into so (relatively) few pages, the narrative and descriptive passages become very often inelegant, confusing, and hard-to-read, like the small, compressed comments under maps one would find in a history textbook. As so much of the book is narrative, this becomes a real liability for its overall success.

Nevertheless, despite the problems with narrative and the linguistic oddities, this book is a masterpiece of historical analysis that situates the War into the overall history of the evolution of human conflict in ways I had not encountered before. Its insistence on the significance of the Western theatre, especially early on, and the ways in which industrialism, new modes of nationalism and patriotism post-1789, and the emergence of new transportation and communication technologies made for novel logistical challenges combine to make clear there was only one winning strategy: that of savage war. For perhaps the first time in modern military history, tactical brilliance and decisive victories wouldn’t cut it. Rather, what would win this war would be something akin to what we saw centuries before, and had come to forget: something like the rapacious destruction of the Huns, the grinding exhaustion of the Fabian strategy of the Second Punic War, or the totalizing violence of the Pelopennesian War. We might thus see this as the last of the Ancient wars rather than the first “modern” war; Lincoln came to understand this, Jeff Davis never did, and their respective managements of their armies followed suit. And in so many words, that, in the authors’ analysis, is why the North won.

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