A Savage War

A Savage War

A Military History of the Civil War

Williamson Murray and Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh

Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2016, 616 pages

Book Review published on: October 6, 2017

Readers familiar with Williamson Murray and Allan Millett’s magisterial single-volume study of World War II, A War to be Won, will recognize the format and purpose of Murray and Wayne Hsieh’s A Savage War. Comprehensively covering the conflict, with a primary focus on the military aspects, Murray and Hsieh have replicated the format, utility and, no doubt, success of the earlier work. Readers will find the same biting criticisms of failed military leaders (Henry Halleck and John Bell Hood are the authors’ favorite targets) combined with an accessible, highly readable volume that would suffice as a course text as well as a recreational read. The authors admit that the current work will not fully explore the social, political, and cultural aspects of the war, though it is well-informed by recent work in that field, but focuses instead on military effectiveness and how wars are won and lost. Accordingly, it is highly recommended both for military officers conducting professional development and for inclusion on relevant reading lists.

While the authors cover virtually every aspect of the war, with the possible exception of the Trans-Mississippi theater, they focus on Ulysses Grant and William Sherman’s victories in the west, demonstrating how this became the decisive theater of the war. Despite the efforts of historians who “have spilled so much ink over the battles in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, the Union won the war in the West.” While not a new conclusion, it is encouraging to see the rebalancing being codified in new works. Army readers will also appreciate that the authors have used staff rides to inform themselves of the battles they describe and have obviously walked the ground to gain further insights.

As a traditional military history, the book is strongly linked to conflicts before and after, from ancient Greece to Murray’s specialty, World War II. The authors find great pleasure in finding parallels from Athens to Napoleon, linking the Civil War more to the history of warfare than the history of the United States, though the work acknowledges the war’s pivotal role in the nation’s history. For example, Sherman’s chevauchées through the South find ready comparisons to the Combined Bomber Offensive, arguing that “by 1864 Union troops were carrying out the equivalent of RAF Bomber Command’s ‘dehousing campaign,’ with the important exception that they were sparing Confederate civilians’ lives.” In 1982, James Picket Jones first described Wilson’s 1865 raid through Alabama and Georgia as a “Yankee blitzkrieg,” but Murray and Hsieh’s comparison to WWII-era strategic bombing is much more accurate.

One might ask why we need another military history of the Civil War, but the authors clearly see the need for a deep, history-based study of the tactics, operations, strategy, and logistics of past conflicts that are currently out of favor within the academy, but which remain in dire need by service professionals and political leaders in order to remedy deficiencies caused by the academy’s retreat. Just as President Abraham Lincoln requested copies of volumes of previous wars to inform his actions in the 1860s, current political leaders and military professionals would do well to consult A Savage War to help prepare themselves for whatever lies ahead.

Book Review written by: Christopher M. Rein, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas