Keegan on McPherson; McPherson on Keegan

by Scott Manning on March 30, 2011

British military historian John Keegan and Civil War historian James McPherson are two very prolific writers who may not be tied at the hip, but certainly overlap in some arenas. Back in 1995, Keegan, like others, heaped praise upon McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom:

Not until 1988 did an American historian, James McPherson, succeed in publishing a one-volume history of the American Civil War that 130 years after the conflict’s conclusion, generally satisfied all shades of historical opinion over its causes, nature, and consequences.1

Subsequently, Keegan relied heavily on McPherson’s book during the construction of his own history of the conflict, The American Civil War: A Military History (2009). The Civil War community did not receive Keegan’s book well. There has been well-deserved criticism toward the Brit concerning his reliance on outdated, unreliable narratives. He only cites a few works published in the past decade and he even cites Shelby Foote’s narrative, which is enthralling, but far from reliable. Worse, there are erroneous statements–I should clarify that I found no evidence that these errors were a result of relying on McPherson’s book.

Among the many critics was ironically, McPherson, who wrote possibly the harshest critique in a New York Times book review. It was certainly the most authoritative. After reading it, one gets the sense that Keegan would have benefited from consulting McPherson, or someone of his ilk, before publishing the book. One also gets the impression after reading the aggressive, extensive lambasting by McPherson, that a simple “it sucks” would have sufficed.

Regardless, Keegan tarnished his legacy, one that survives with a simple “yeah, but he wrote The Face of Battle.” There are other works that I would add to the list like A History of Warfare (1994), The Second World War (1989), and The Mask of Command (1987). I have encountered the latter two as required reading in college courses in the past year. Although The American Civil War still has Keegan’s stylistic prose, I doubt a second edition with corrections could save it. The work is predominately an accumulation of articles he wrote throughout his career. As such, the narrative is sometimes choppy and other times repetitive, and as McPherson points out (over and over), sometimes just plain wrong.

The Civil War, with its numerous experts, protected battlefields, and enthusiasts, is a much tougher war to tackle than say the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), a much longer, more complex war. Encapsulating the entire American conflict in a single book that the majority of the readers approve is nearly impossible. The base of potential critics is massive, they all speak the same language, they are all motivated, and they are very near, many times on, the locations of events. As much as Keegan praised McPherson’s work, it still has detractors. Still, the book remains popular, or at least prevalent. A Civil War course I took last year issued it as required reading.

Yet, I wonder how long that will last. While I hear people mention the works of Bruce Catton (1899-1978) nostalgically, I doubt anyone uses them as introductions to the war and certainly not as course material or as a source (except for Keegan!). Conversely, I doubt anyone thinks of McPherson with the same nostalgia as Catton. As popular as McPherson’s book is today, how much lifespan is there in a single-volume on an entire war that sports such a massive army of historians? It is interesting to ponder 20 years from now whether McPherson’s work will still be one that “generally satisfied all shades of historical opinion,” to quote Keegan. McPherson did his best to ensure that Keegan did not come close to dethroning the work, although Keegan did most of the legwork by producing a sub-par book. Still, there will be other contenders.

Ironically, Keegan’s most-praised work, The Face of Battle (1976), was ranked with the likes of The Iliad, Thucydides, On War, and Battle Cry of Freedom. In a survey of 50 historians, Military History magazine published their “Top 10 War Books of All Time” back in 2008. The magazine recognized McPherson’s as the “best single-volume treatment of the war,” sounding much like Keegan. They identified The Face of Battle as “perhaps the most influential work of military history published in the last half century.”2

Now begs the question on how much Keegan tarnished his legacy with The American Civil War. The book does not diminish his previous efforts and unless he comes out with a blockbuster, I believe most will chop it up to a seasoned historian losing his touch. Yet, will that still be the case in another 20 years? Will The Face of Battle still be “perhaps the most influential”? Also interesting to ponder is what is the staying power of McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom? Will it still be the preeminent single-volume on the Civil War in a few decades? It is very possible that another McPherson will arrive in the next few decades to write a better one-volume treatment on the war. There is an abundance of Civil War historians out there and many with the capability. They just need to, like Keegan, stick their neck out (and watch out for McPherson’s sword!). Essentially, it is more likely that someone will write a better one-volume treatment of the Civil War than it is for someone to write a book as influential as The Face of Battle.

For now, even though we rarely mention their names in the same sentence, Keegan loved McPherson’s book and used it to write his own; McPherson hated Keegan’s book and told us all about it. Works by both of these historians remain popular today and only time will reveal how much longer that will last.

As a point of clarification, I have read both McPherson’s and Keegan’s works extensively. Here are my copies of Battle Cry of Freedom and A History of Warfare (1994).

Battle Cry of Freedom and A History of Warfare

Bibliography

Keegan, John. The American Civil War: A Military History. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

——. The Battle for History: Re-Fighting World War II. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

“The Top 10 War Books of All Time.” Military History 25, no. 5 (Nov/Dec 2008): 43-45.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0679767436/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=digitalsurvivors-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0679767436

Footnotes

  1. The book was originally published in 1995. John Keegan, The Battle for History: Re-Fighting World War II (New York: Vintage Books 1996), 30. []
  2. Unfortunately, the magazine never named the historians surveyed. “The Top 10 War Books of All Time,” Military History 25, no. 5 (Nov/Dec 2008): 43-45. []

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Phil March 31, 2011 at 1:21 AM

It sounds like, while you agree that The American Civil War: A Military History, was a poor work by Keegan; that McPherson was a bit harsh, and self serving in his criticism of it?

In general, it seems that a work on the Civil War is a dangerous undertaking unless you have your ducks in a row, and thick skin.

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2 Scott Manning March 31, 2011 at 9:48 AM

Phil, it is a tough crowd. The number of historians are vast and the last stat I heard was that there was something along the lines of 150,000 books on the war. Many of today’s historians specialize in individual themes, campaigns, battles, regiments, and figures, so while an author may be able to fool some of the people some of the time, he cannot fool . . . you get the point. That is part of the reason Keegan saw McPherson’s book as such an achievement.

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3 Andy Hall April 9, 2011 at 11:24 PM

To me, Keegan lost his luster with The Price of Admiralty, his first and, I think, only foray into naval history. I’d only recently discovered the (true) genius of The Face of Battle, and just about couldn’t stand it when I heard he was coming out with a volume on naval history.

I needn’t have bothered, frankly. There was nothing new in it to anyone familiar with the subject, and he made a complete mishmash of basic maritime terminology, which is critically important in decribing movements and positions. (As I recall, he repeatedly confused “heading,” the direction in which one is moving, with “bearing,” the direction one unit is when viewed from another.) It was a mess, and came across to me at the time as a book that had been written hurriedly, without any real understanding of the topic.

That said, Keegan’s extended introduction to Six Armies in Normandy, a memoir of his own childhood in wartime Britain, is by itself worth the cost of the book.

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4 Scott Manning April 9, 2011 at 11:42 PM

Andy, I only read one chapter from The Price of Admiralty. I did not finish it mainly because my understanding and interest in naval warfare is limited. I discovered from other reviewers like you how far off the mark he was with it. I also recall Keegan mentioning the book during a lecture. He did not use the word “failure,” but he was frank in that it was not his best work. While he accepted blame for not doing his homework, he felt that naval experts were overly critical. You could probably tell me how accurate that last statement was.

I have not read Six Armies in Normandy, but I have read Fields of Battle in which he provided an extended introduction of his experience with Americans and visiting the United States. It was riveting and I now I need to check out the book you mentioned.

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5 Andy Hall April 10, 2011 at 10:27 AM

I don’t recall the specific criticisms of established naval historians, but I would be surprised if they let him have it. Frankly, Keegan shouldn’t have been surprised, either.

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