I picked up A Savage War by Williamson Murray and Wayne Wei-iang Hsieh with the expectation that it would offer a counterpoint argument to D. H. Dilbeck’s interpretation of the Union’s Civil War conduct as relatively just and restrained. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was instead holding a hardcore military history of the war. As my friends know, I tend to avoid dense books set within the traditional bounds of Civil War history: the well-trod ground of battles, generals, and campaigns. To my surprise, I found that I enjoyed A Savage War and moved through it speedily thanks to the authors’ careful balance of narrative, analysis, and commentary.
The book could best be described as a history of strategy and grand strategy during the Civil War. Although Murray and Hsieh give consideration to key tactical moments, their emphasis remains on the general course of the war. They make the case that the developments of the war were driven by two major forces acting upon American society: the popular nationalism unleashed in the wake of the French Revolution and new forms of technological might born of the Industrial Revolution. In focusing on these themes, the authors take a definitive stance on the question of whether the Civil War could best be described as a Napoleonic or modern war. They make a convincing case that although the Civil War was a far cry from the great wars of the 20th century, the forces that shaped its dimensions were the same developments that would later play out on a global stage.
In keeping with their focus on the war’s strategic dimensions, the authors emphasize strategic endeavors, especially those of the Union Armies under Grant and Sherman. Particular attention is given to the coordination required to exert force across the huge landmass of the South, which by comparison makes Napoleon’s campaigns look like local affairs. Like Dilbeck, Murray and Hsieh emphasize that hard war was a key tenet of Union strategy, though they place greater emphasis on its military objective of destroying the South’s martial willpower and war-making capabilities rather than its cultural implications. Strategy, of course, is inevitably connected to wider concerns such as political and social realties, as the authors demonstrate by locating their analysis within the latest scholarship on the Union and Confederate governments, postwar mythologies like the Lost Cause, and the ever-present factor of slavery.
When reading dense history texts, I tend to lose track of the cast of characters, but I had no problem with the dramatis personae of this book. The authors either offer a pithy assessment of minor figures—“competent but unexceptional” is a common refrain—or deal with figures in detail throughout the book, building upon their previous appearances and foreshadowing their future involvement. By the time Braxton Bragg, Emory Upton, or Gouverneur Warren made their second or third appearance, even newcomers to the Civil War would know what to expect from them.
To their credit, the authors attempt to place the Civil War in the wider course of military history, but they are not always successful. They seem to blame the Second World War on a botched armistice in 1918 that allowed the civilians of Germany to go unpunished for their involvement. How they imagine the Allies might have convinced their citizens to reject an armistice and conduct a final campaign through the German countryside is a mystery to me. They also mention the Crimean War just once in the book, a decision that seems inappropriate given their inclination to make frequent connections to the Peloponnesian War and the War on Terror.
Historians whose blurbs appear on the dust jacket include McPherson, Gallagher, and none other than National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster. That may be a selling point or it might not, but it should at least give a clear sense of the type of heavy military history you’re about to crack open.