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  • A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War by Williamson Murray and Wayne Weisiang Hsieh
  • John M. Belohlavek
A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War. By Williamson Murray and Wayne Weisiang Hsieh. ( Princeton and Oxford, Eng.: Princeton University Press, 2016. Pp. xiv, 602. Paper, $19.95, ISBN 978–0-691–18109-8; cloth, $35.00, ISBN 978–0-691–16940-8.)

For those wondering why we might need another lengthy military or political account of the Civil War, Williamson Murray and Wayne Weisiang Hsieh pull no punches in offering readers a candid appraisal of leadership, resources, strategy, and tactics. The authors summarily reject the primacy of technology in controlling events during the war and argue that it was one of many factors that determined historical changes in "military practice" during the conflict (p. 2).

Secession and a war that lasted an unanticipated four years were, certainly in part, the product of failed leaders, including several abysmal U.S. presidents. Millard Fillmore was "a New York political hack," Franklin Pierce was "insipid [and] weak," and James Buchanan, not unlike his predecessors, was intellectually dishonest and politically inept (pp. 21, 24). The generals were worse. A "nasty, arrogant" Henry W. Halleck was basically "an over promoted clerk who simply did not understand the war" (pp. 138, 403). A "pusillanimous" and arrogant George B. McClellan appeared "hesitant, cautious, [and] fearful" (p. 247). Braxton Bragg was a "racist, vicious incompetent" who somehow has a prominent federal military installation named after him (p. 547).

The authors contend, importantly, that the war's outcome was not a foregone conclusion. The Confederacy possessed a number of advantages that could have led to victory, especially in an abbreviated conflict where both sides were unprepared. Although the Union did possess the bulk of the tools for war, including manpower, transportation, and industry, Union leaders initially lacked the imagination and creativity to utilize those resources.

The development and implementation of logistical systems of support and supply over great distances were critical to Yankee success. The South's river system, extended coastline, swamps, forests, and primitive roads posed a unique set of problems for invading forces. The road to victory in 1861 was potholed by massive untrained armies, inexperienced officers, and corruption. The result, as the authors pointedly state, was "amateur hour" (p. 8).

By 1864, Abraham Lincoln's administration had the plans, resources, and proactive military leadership to launch a war-ending campaign. In 1862 and 1863, however, the casualties mounted on both sides as the conflict played out in the East, where the inspirational, risk-taking, and brilliant tactician and strategist Robert E. Lee repeatedly bested a series of reticent, outmatched opponents.

The war was won, however, in the West, where an energetic Ulysses S. Grant hammered away at lackluster Confederate commanders. Critically, the authors contend, Grant inculcated an aggressive mind-set and culture in his western forces that he found lacking and difficult to duplicate when he assumed [End Page 180] command of the eastern armies in 1864. The culture of the Army of the Potomac and its leaden officers had been by 1862 molded in McClellan's inert image. Grant, the interloper, found it impossible to quickly change that culture, which negatively affected his ability to challenge Lee in the Overland campaign. Grant discovered that fine soldiers who were led by substandard officers were not a formula for victory.

Political leadership was equally critical to success or failure. The authors' enthusiasm for Lincoln is given full measure. They portray him as "a hard man" who made mistakes but was always learning and could make tough decisions (p. 59). Lincoln finessed a fractious cabinet and Congress while trying to emancipate the slaves, endure political generals, find a winning commander, and unify a divided North. Jefferson Davis, in contrast, demonstrated none of his counterpart's positive personality traits. He was rigid and indecisive, his ego bruised easily, and his loyalty was too often misplaced. Critically, Davis failed to see the importance of the West to Confederate victory.

At its core, this work is a first-rate analysis of command, command structure, and the behavior of officers and men in combat. Those interested...


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