Thursday, September 25, 2008

Reid: "America's Civil War: The Operational Battlefield, 1861-1863 "

[America's Civil War: The Operational Battlefield, 1861-1863 by Brian Holden Reid (Prometheus Books, 2008). Hardcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 435/504 ISBN: 978-1591026051 $34.95]

Within the vast range of Civil War literature, relatively few major works seriously address the operational art, such as it was. The middle volume of an unfinished trilogy, historian Brian Holden Reid's America's Civil War: The Operational Battlefield, 1861-1863 does just that. Operational warfare can be thought of as the bridge between strategic considerations above and the tactical fighting of battles below. In order to perform at this level, formations must be able to conduct military operations independently and at a scale significant enough to impact strategic directives. Of course, what constitutes the operational level changes throughout history. Certainly Civil War armies and corps are operational level formations, with some argument to be made for the inclusion of the large divisions common to the Civil War armies during the 1861-62 period.

Reid's research is entirely composed of published source materials, marking his analytical work as primarily one of synthesis. His critique of professional colleagues (as well as the generals placed under his microscope) can be abrupt, but fair. However, one might quibble with some of his choices of representative source materials. For instance, for Ball's Bluff, Reid consulted Holien rather than the superb, definitive work of James Morgan. In terms of notable omissions, the author made use of Ethan Rafuse's recent McClellan study, yet did not address countervailing arguments effectively raised by Russel Beatie's recent Army of the Potomac series. Also, in his discussion of the (in)vulnerability of armies to destruction, Reid does not critique Gerald Prokopowicz's influential thesis (and does not list All For the Regiment in the bibliography). Interpretation aside, some obvious errors (e.g. "Fritz" Sigel, "Daniel" E. Twiggs) found their way through the editing process.

Taking issue with much of the recent literature, Reid is frankly admiring of Lee's operational capacity and depth of strategic thought -- the 'anti-Nolan' so to speak. His equal praise of Grant's abilities is a refreshing change from many recent works, which seem incapable of finding room for both at the top. At the highest level of operational direction, I agree with much of what Reid says about Jefferson Davis's flawed military administration, but his fervent contention that Abraham Lincoln possessed an instinctual operational genius is weakly presented.

Reid completely rejects the commonly asserted notion that Civil War armies were invulnerable to destruction, placing great faith in the truth that just because certain events did not occur doesn't eliminate the possibility. According to the author, the most significant limiting factor was the inability of Confederate armies to organize, coordinate, and perpetuate offensive action on the battlefield, a fully accurate, if not original, point. Interestingly, the author did not offer his opinion of whether Union armies on the offensive shared the same weaknesses.

Reid correctly notes the ultimate futility of discussing the strategic plans from which operations were spawned, since neither government sustained a formalized one. Reid also finds no evidence of influence by European theorists on strategic/operational maneuver - rather it was instinctual, common sense approach, sprinkled with some Mexican War experience (e.g. importance of the indirect approach) applied. If read at all, such ideas were never incorporated into the American army in terms of manuals or formal doctrine.

America's Civil War does address the literature's long standing east vs. west debate. As the eastern theater contained the Confederacy's political and economic center of gravity, Reid argues for its primacy and criticizes those historians that promote a more vigorous western concentration. However, I think the author goes too far in implying those same historians do not at least acknowledge the significance of the east.

In terms of overall narrative presentation, Reid writes well and consistently resists the temptation to enter into detailed discussions on topics befitting the strategic and tactical spheres. A lesser writer might have been satisfied with providing trite campaign overviews disguised as meaningful interpretation (it's been done before), but Reid maintained his work's analytic focus throughout. Readers might fairly quibble with some of the campaign details, but one should keep in mind the difficulty in compressing so many campaigns into limited space. I tended to want to give Reid the benefit of the doubt in this regard.

The volume is generously supplied with maps borrowed from a variety of published works. This is good and bad. The best cartography provides a visual representation and reinforcement of the text, intimately connected to the author's particular points of emphasis. This is impossible to do with non-original maps.

The above is a rather selective accounting of the many themes examined in America's Civil War, and the quibbles mentioned in the review might better represent the variety of published opinions available rather than a negative judgment of parts of Reid's work. On controversial topics, the author has strong beliefs, defended in a manner that, even when not particularly persuasive, is articulate, direct, confident, and thought provoking. Recommended.

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