#Reviewing A Savage War

A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War. Williamson Murray and Wayne Wei-Sieng Hsieh. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2016.


My introduction to the masters of strategy was a 40-lb crate of books at the Navy War College satellite in Monterey. As I slid the crate into my car, the smallest of the books fell from the crate. I grabbed it and flipped to a random page to find Sun-Tzu’s advice that if a commander had 1000 chariots, victory was assured. I sighed, certain that the next year was going to be a colossal waste of time if this was the archaic advice upon which we would build our study of strategy.

Twelve months later, and despite graduating with honors, I was glad to see that milk crate relegated to a dusty closet shelf. Over the last couple years and in various papers, I have frequently cited Clausewitz, Thucydides, and Sun-Tzu in my writing, but more as passwords into a military writing corps that constantly trots them out than as a true believer. A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War by Williamson Murray and Wayne Wei-Sieng Hsieh made me reconsider my opinion on these classics.

The authors, both veterans of the teaching corps at the military academies, draw on their extensive knowledge of Thucydides and Clausewitz to paint a picture of the military events of the Civil War, from Fort Sumter to Appomattox, as the natural outgrowth of changes from the Industrial and French Revolutions. In doing so they demonstrate for scholars of modern wars how technology and social factors force evolution in the way wars are fought. Perhaps more importantly  they demonstrate how the study of past conflicts can be used to illuminate subsequent conflicts.

The conflict between the South and North is initially framed in the context of the Peloponnesian War between the slave state of Sparta and the industrialized Athenians. The rising power and wealth of the North along with their distaste for the practice of slavery threatened the agrarian South’s way of life and drove the South to action. After a brief overview of the political underpinnings of the war, the authors launch into a chronology of the conflict that covers the major battles as well as some of the periphery conflicts. The authors discard the well-trodden aphorism that the war was a lost caus” for the South from the beginning and highlight points at which the tide could have easily turned and changed the world as we know it today.

Thucydides’ themes of uncertainty and ambiguity and Clausewitz’s assertions about the role of contingency and chance arise throughout the book, along with analysis on how these shaped the war and the warfighters. The authors draw comparisons with nearly every other conflict from the Peloponnesian War to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and in doing so highlight important considerations for those charged with waging war or determined to learn from it. These lessons are just as relevant to the current conflicts.

Throughout the war the belligerents demonstrated remarkable achievements at the operational and tactical levels. Technological advancements such as the railroad and telegraph transformed the way Civil War commanders could exercise command and control while generating, deploying, and sustaining forces. Tactical advancements like entrenchment instead of open-field standoffs, and rifled, repeating weapons would continue to challenge commanders for decades. While the North was the greater beneficiary of these advancements due to its industrial base and larger population, the true difference in the war came at the strategic and political levels. Lincoln’s growth and leadership during the conflict is painted in stark contrast to that of Davis. The importance of strategic direction aligned with political aims cannot be overstated; the authors cite a previous work that analyzed military operations from 1915-1945 and concluded that “no matter how effective the military institutions might be at the tactical and operational levels, if the strategy and political framework within which they were fighting was flawed, the result was defeat.” Political and military leaders today would do well to heed that warning.

The generals of the war receive harsh treatment in the book for their amateurism and continued failure to exploit successes, though Grant and Lee are largely exonerated in large part because of their ability to gather intelligence and act on it. The role of the press in leaking operational intelligence is offset by the author against the importance of the press in communicating strategic purpose and successes to a largely literate population in an early exercise of public diplomacy. The importance of public diplomacy is further illustrated by Sherman’s brutal campaigns with the still-relevant assertion that only a war waged against the very idea of a confederate nation could avert the potential for an extended insurgency at war’s end.

 "Peace in Union" by Thomas Nast. The surrender of General Lee to General Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, 9 April 1865. (Wikimedia)

Much of the authors’ assessment of the reasons the North succeeded is based in the ability of the Union leaders and military to learn and adapt to a military challenge that dwarfed all previous conflicts. The use of volunteers and the subsequent flood of innovation from those outsiders serves as an important lesson for today’s military, which must continue to embrace the cutting edge of possibility. Today’s warfighter needs to figure out how to leverage innovative technologies such as additive manufacturing which could transform logistics as revolutionarily as did the railroad.

While Multi-Domain Battle and Anti-Access/Area Denial are frequently discussed as the foundation of future fights, battles like Vicksburg and Fort Fisher, which combined land and naval forces to great effect, are key reminders that there is little new in warfare. Grant is praised for his efforts from the war’s outset to its conclusion to integrate naval and army operations. Strategic communications helped to inform and motivate the essential human elements of warfare. Lincoln’s efforts to create unity between the factious political parties through staff structuring show an understanding largely ignored today.

A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War is an excellent addition to the study of war in general and the Civil War in particular. The authors’ use of the classics of strategy to illuminate their analysis of the conflict has forced me to reconsider my previous disdain. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the lessons of past wars and what they can teach us about our current and future conflicts. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go dust off Thucydides.


Chris Townsend is a U.S. Army Middle East and North Africa Foreign Area Officer with 20 years of service, and he is a proud member of the Military Writer’s Guild. The views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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Header Image: "The Bloody Angle" (Mort Künstler)