John Keegan, author of the excellent The Face of Battle (1976) and many other books, is possibly the most widely-respected military historian alive. James M. McPherson is an eminent historian of the American Civil War; his Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom (1988) is often called the best single-volume history of that conflict.
Keegan has now published his own history of the American Civil War, and McPherson has reviewed it in the New York Times. And by “reviewed,” I mean “discredited it for the ages,” if even only a portion of the factual errors McPherson cites are in fact present in Keegan’s book.
The analytical value of Keegan’s geostrategic framework is marred by numerous errors that will leave readers confused and misinformed. I note this with regret, for I have learned a great deal from Keegan’s writings. But he is not at top form in this book. Rivers are one of the most important geostrategic features he discusses. “The Ohio and its big tributaries, the Cumberland and the Tennessee,” he writes, “form a line of moats protecting the central Upper South, while the Mississippi, with which they connect, denies the Union any hope of penetration.” The reality was exactly the contrary. These navigable rivers were highways for Union naval and army task forces that pierced the Confederate heartland, capturing Nashville, New Orleans, Memphis and other important cities along with large parts of Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. Keegan acknowledges this reality later in the book when he notes that these rivers “offered points of penetration to the Union into Confederate territory.” Precisely.McPherson goes on. Keegan is confused about when North Carolina was first invaded by the Union; he’s off by two years about when the British government recognized the Confederacy as a belligerent under international law. He misrepresents Lincoln’s attitude toward visiting soldiers in the field and makes the jawdropping claim that the Gettysburg Address “refus[ed] to differentiate between the sacrifice of the North and the South.” He is comprehensively wrong about the condition of the United States Navy at the outbreak of hostilities. Most amazingly, and I confirmed this one by using Amazon’s “Look Inside This Book” feature, Keegan, an eminent British historian, appears to believe that Benjamin Disraeli was Prime Minister during the American Civil War. (It was Palmerston.)
But Keegan’s grasp of river geography and other terrain features is shaky. He confuses the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, seems to place the Confederate forts Henry and Donelson on the wrong rivers, has the Kanawha River join the Monongahela River at Pittsburgh to form the Ohio River (it is the Allegheny River that joins the Monongahela, while the Kanawha empties into the Ohio 150 miles southwest of Pittsburgh) and shifts the state of Tennessee northward, where he says it “gives on to” Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. The Confederates did not abandon their strong point on Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River; Union forces surrounded and captured it with its 5,000 defenders. Tunnel Hill at Chattanooga is not a feature of Lookout Mountain, and the battle of Cedar Mountain did not take place in the Blue Ridge.
All books contain errors; book publishers, even long-established book publishers with large nonfiction lists, don’t have staffs devoted to “fact-checking,” nor is it clear that the world would be better off if they did. Moreover, as a book editor myself (albeit primarily of fiction) I usually hesitate to point fingers; I’ve made enough mistakes of my own that my more usual reaction is a sympathetic wince. But it’s boggling that no reader at US publisher Alfred A. Knopf noticed that this distinguished historian, at the beginning of Chapter Nine, asserts that Tennessee shares borders with Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. It’s equally amazing that nobody at UK publisher Hutchinson remembered that Disraeli wasn’t actually Prime Minister yet in the years 1861-1865. As for the Gettysburg Address, it was entirely about the sacrifice of Union soldiers, the ones being buried in a Union cemetery, the dedication of which occasioned the speech. The address is ten sentences long. It’s not exactly little-known or hard to find. Against my better judgement and all sense of professional discretion, I find myself compelled to emit that cry of the outraged reader: Didn’t anyone at either publisher actually read this book?