Rebel yell

The Longest Night: a military history of the civil war

David J Eicher <em>Pimlico, 990pp, £20</em>

The American civil war is the most dramatic episode in US history. More than 620,000 soldiers died in the four-year conflict out of a total population of 32 million. If the same percentage of casualties were sustained in a war today, the dead would total 5.5 million. On top of that, a huge but unknown number of civilians died from disease, malnutrition and other effects of the fratricidal bloodletting.

More Americans were killed in the civil war than in all other conflicts in which the USA has engaged since 1775. The losses on a single day in September 1862 at Sharpsburg, Maryland, were four times those suffered on Omaha and Utah beaches during the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944. More Americans were killed at the Battle of Antietam in a single day than fell in combat in all the other 19th-century wars in which the US engaged. The horrific statistics go on and on. The cynic will say that among them is the aggregate of books written about this American obsession - roughly 70,000, according to one estimate. Whereas in the 19th century the emphasis in such volumes was almost entirely military, modern historians tend to concentrate on the causes and effects of the war. Was slavery really the cardinal issue, rather than the "contradiction" between a primary-producing, free-trading south and an industrial, protectionist north? Could the war have been avoided? What were its consequences: the triumph of republican virtue or the birth of American imperialism and great-power status?

It might be said that by concentrating exclusively on the military conflict, David Eicher has written an old-fashioned book and returned to 19th-century conceptions. But, on its own exciting terms, this is an outstanding narrative, full of stirring martial set pieces, fascinating strategic and tactical detail, and sometimes unbearable stories of human heroism and misery. The civil war has always divided commentators. There are historical inevitabilists who stress the federal government's huge superiority in men, materiel, resources and even railway lines, and claim that the North was bound to win. Then there are those who express stupefaction at Abraham Lincoln's achievement, given that he faced a military task incomparably more difficult than the British had confronted in 1775 when the colonists rebelled. Eicher's position on this is eminently straightforward. He takes the common-sense (and surely correct) view that the war was a series of close-run encounters, where one different outcome could have altered the course of history. So, for instance, if Robert E Lee had won the Battle of Antietam in 1862, the British would have recognised the Confederacy and the South would have gained its independence. If General George McClellan had had any guts, he could have won the war for Lincoln in the same year. But, as George Marshall memorably said of Douglas MacArthur, "he was never any damn good . . . a four-flusher and no two ways about it". If, in 1863, Lee had won the crucial Battle of Gettysburg - and he had won at Chancellorsville against greater odds two months earlier - the Confederacy would probably have trium-phed. Even by as late as 1864, had William Sherman failed to take Atlanta, Lincoln would probably have lost the presidential election that year, and his successor might have made peace with the Confederacy.

Federal strategy, on which Eicher is particularly good, relied on carving the Confederacy into three and then defeating it piecemeal. If we identify the pro-slavery states of the Confederacy as comprising the West, the northern South and the Deep South, we can say that the first phase of the strategy was achieved in 1863 when Grant took Vicksburg and lopped the West away. Lincoln accomplished the second phase in 1864 by sending Sherman to cut a swathe through Georgia, in effect slicing the South in two. All of this is lucidly conveyed in Eicher's narrative and, at the military level, the author's performance is peerless. He convincingly contrasts Lee, the only really outstanding Confederate general and an old-style "Napoleonic" commander, with the ruthless Northern trio of Grant, Sherman and Sheridan, whose methods prefigured those of Patton and Zhukov. He neither overrates the fighting men of the South, as some romancers do, nor denigrates the federal troops, whose reputation has perhaps suffered from "Johnny-reb" propaganda. Only two things spoil this otherwise superb book for me. One is a certain cockiness or overconfidence evinced by the author when he strays from purely battlefield affairs. For instance, Lincoln's assassination is still controversial territory, even for experts, yet Eicher says it is reducible to certain "simple facts". What is also off-putting is the way he feels compelled to traduce the two undisputed classics of the civil war, both in three volumes, respectively by Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote. By identifying a few instances of pro-South hyperbole by Foote, Eicher insinuates that his great history is flawed. About Catton, who produced a prose masterpiece, Eicher says enigmatically, without giving any examples: "the writing style is dated". All of this is mean-spirited. Eicher's one-volume history is good enough to have no need for such unacceptable sniping at his great predecessors.

Frank McLynn's latest book is Wagons West: the epic story of America's overland trails (Jonathan Cape)