Armies South, Armies North

Armies South, Armies North

Forces of the Civil War Compared and Contrasted

Alan Axelrod

Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut, 2017, 280 pages

Book Review published on: May 25, 2018

American Civil War historians often argue over which side of that conflict had the best soldiers, divisions and corps, and armies. Armies South, Armies North by Alan Axelrod masterfully compares the two military forces by analyzing the equipment, leadership, and strategies of those adversaries, and the men who fought in each army. This book is an exploration of the armies with which America went to war against itself in 1861-1865 and an attempt to assess their comparative merits. The author does not claim to settle the argument over whether the South or the North had better armies or fighting men. Instead, using a simple scale, Axelrod quantifies the evaluation of the armies in a manner that will start fresh arguments among historians. The author provides an innovative way to evaluate the armies using four criteria—wholly adequate, marginal, mission capable, and war winning—as quantifiable standards.

Part One, “Brothers in Arms,” focuses on the U.S. military as it existed before the Civil War with a specific attention to performance and outcomes rather than on intention and opinions. Part Two, “Brother against Brother,” evaluates the American military as it divided itself into a Confederate army and a Union army. Axelrod discusses the social, cultural, economic conditions under which the two forces went to war; the manner in which they mobilized; and the overall organization, size, demographic makeup, and command structure of each army.

Beginning with chapter 3 and in each subsequent chapter, Axelrod rates the armies using a star system, and the criteria he outlined in Parts One and Two. In the end, the average rating for the three major Confederate armies is 2.8 stars. The average rating for the Union’s eight major armies is 2.6 stars. This puts both armies between marginal and mission-capable. What the reader discovers in Axelrod’s work is that the difference between victory and defeat in the Civil War was very narrow.

I found Armies South, Armies North to be an interesting way of looking at the capabilities and limitations of the armies. The value of reading this book is that the reader can draw his or her own conclusions based on Axelrod’s research. It is a must read for historians and those who simply love reading about the differences and similarities between the forces from the North and South during this critical time in our nation’s history.

Book Review written by: Col. James L. Davis, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas