Sir John Keegan

British historian John Keegan and I were almost contemporaries.  Although he was four years older than me, both of us were boys living in a Britain troubled by war in the early 1940s; he in England, I in Scotland.  Keegan told interviewer Brian Lamb a few years ago he chose military history  to study because he lived in the south of England as a boy in 1944 and saw the enormous Allied force that was preparing liberate Europe from the Germans.   Ironically, because of the lasting effects of a boyhood illness, he was disqualified for serving the military. When he went up to college, it was to Oxford.   After Oxford,  and a trip the United States, Keegan was appointed to a senior lectureship at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and later held visiting professorships at Princeton and Vassar. After twenty years at Sandhurst, Keegan retired and went to work for the Daily Telegraph as a reporter and Defence Editor.

Beginning in 1970, Keegan launched a writing career that spanned four decades, including a History of Warfare, histories of World War I, The Second World War, and the American Civil War; he also authored volumes on Intelligence in WarThe Mask of Command, and The Face of Battle.  Although Keegan deals with individual battles in a number of his books, Six Armies in Normandy  is the only one that focuses on one campaign.  With the exception of his general histories of wars and the Price of Admiralty, Keegan wrote exclusively about conflict on land rather water. In addition teaching and writing, Keegan lectured all across the United States and Canada.  For his contribution to military history Keegan was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in the Millennial Honours in 2000.  For the purpose of this blog, I want to focus  on one of his twenty books:

The American Civil War, published in 2009. Instead being battle oriented like so many other histories of the American Civil War, this book concentrates on topics and campaigns.   Keegan’s theme of the importance of geography to the fighting of war  in North America continues from  the The Fields of Battle, which described Keegan’s travels on the continent and the wars that have fought there from colonial times to Indians wars of the late 19th century .  The distance between Washington and Richmond and the Mississippi Valley explains why  the armies on both sides in the western theater seem not to have as much attention paid to them as those around the two capitals in the east.  Along with distance, Keegan points out that the Alleghany Mountains provided a formable barrier between  the two areas of the conflict.    Keegan also explains that the differences in the majors rivers in the eastern theatre, which tended to flow northwest to southeast, making barriers to approaching Richmond from from the north; and those in the west, which, with the exception of the Mississippi,  flowed from the Appalachians north to the Ohio River and hence to the Mississippi and to the Gulf of Mexico.   The major rivers in the west, the Mississippi, the Tennessee, and the Cumberland led right to the heart of the Confederacy instead being a barrier like they were in the east.  To make use of the major rivers in the west, Union forces developed a shallow water naval force that backed up infantry by using their  guns as artillery and providing transports for moving troops in the same way the Army of the Potomac  was transported in Virginia.  A little over eighteen months after Ulysses Grant’s first battle in November 1861, he had captured Vicksburg splitting the Confederacy in two.

In addition to the geography of the eastern United States, Keegan discusses the military leadership on both sides.  It seems he only thinks two generals are outstanding:  Grant and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. In the twentieth century, compares Rommel to the Confederate general.  He points out Lincoln had a problem finding leadership in the eastern theater until he brought Grant east in 1864.   Keegan sees Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan as a team winning the war for the Union, especially after Sherman’s march through Georgia and up to the Carolinas, while Grant was leading to charge in Virginia.   On the southern side, Keegan claims Lee was to much of a gentleman to be a good commander and President Davis could not get along with his generals.

What makes Keegan’s history of the American Civil War interesting besides its emphasis on geography  and leadership are its comparisons with twentieth century wars, especially  the Great War and World War II.   He relates the battlefield, the casualties, and type of fighting at Shiloh to World War I battles.   Keegan attributes the high rate of wounded and dead to the minié bullet,  fired from a rifle, that traveled at a higher velocity than the ammunition  from a musket.   The American Civil War yielded more than million casualties, according to Keegan, of that number, 200,000 died.   In percentage of population, he compared that to European losses in World War I and Soviet casualties in World War II.

Keegan died in 2012 after a battle with illness caused by a reoccurrence of his boyhood sickness.

John Keegan on Book-TV

One thought on “Sir John Keegan

  1. There Stephen goes again, making me learn things. I was a little startled to realize that I haven’t read Keegan, or at least haven’t in quite some time. More books to add to my list.


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