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Posted on Aug 9, 2013 in Books and Movies

Civil War Battlegrounds – Book Review

By Chris Heatherly

Civil War Battlegrounds – The Illustrated History of the War’s Pivotal Battles and Campaigns. Dr. Richard Sauers. Zenith Press. Soft cover, 160 pages. $26.99

The American Civil War is arguably the single most important event in our nation’s history. No other single event, including the Revolutionary War, left such an indelible impact on the United States, its culture and psyche. The Civil War continues to fascinate and inspire Americans today—as witnessed by innumerable movies, television shows, books, songs and battlefield living history reenactments. (Older Armchair General readers may even remember the Franklin Mint’s Civil War chess set … ) As of this writing, the US is in the midst of the 150th anniversary of the conflict, with commemorative events scheduled across the country. It should come as no surprise the Civil War’s sesquicentennial inspired several new works on the conflict, its legacy and the people who experienced it firsthand. Civil War scholar Dr. Richard Sauers’ latest release, Civil War Battlegrounds – The Illustrated History of the War’s Pivotal Battles and Campaigns, is one such work.

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Civil War Battlegrounds analyzes eighteen key battles from the war’s first shots at Fort Sumter to the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. Sauers opens the book with a summary of the Civil War and its casus belli. Each subsequent chapter of the book describes both the individual engagements and their relevance within the wars larger strategic context. Readers will walk the well-known battlefields of Manassas, Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Antietam, Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Sauers thoughtfully added the basic information for each battlefield park such as its official website, contact numbers, points of focus and visiting hours. Additionally, Civil War Battlegrounds includes the expected period photographs, maps and artifacts, which provide further detail to the reader. The book also features short vignettes bringing richness and color to the story behind each battle. Many of these brief narratives focus on lesser known personalities or events that otherwise might be lost in Sauers’ broad descriptions of the battles. The biographies in particular provide a much-needed human element easily forgotten amongst the sheer scope of the Civil War.

Unfortunately, the overall appeal of Civil War Battlegrounds suffers from a lack of focus and direction. I found Civil War Battlegrounds’ tone rather frenetic and the author’s intent appears unclear. Is the book an introduction to the Civil War? A travel guide to Civil War battlefields? Perhaps a simple coffee table book? To be clear, I do not question Dr. Sauers’ knowledge of the Civil War or abilities as an historian. Regardless, I remain uncertain as to what prospective buyers should gain from his book. I personally “test drove” the travelogue aspect of the book at the Battle of Petersburg located thirty miles south of Richmond, Virginia. Civil War Battlegrounds provided a general synopsis of the nine-month Federal siege of Petersburg and its importance to Union and Confederacy campaign plans. However, the book was of little value to understanding where critical events occurred on the actual battleground or making the most of my visit.

Civil War Battlegrounds works best as a starting point for those just discovering the War Between the States. Sauers writing is clear and easy to follow, especially for young readers or those unfamiliar with military jargon. While it lacks the depth of more detailed history books, it includes enough information to explain how the North and South fought each action. Serious Civil War historians are highly unlikely to find any new information in the book, while tour brochures and guides would better serve those actually visiting a given battlefield.

Major Christopher J. Heatherly enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1994 and earned his commission via Officer Candidate School in 1997. He has held a variety of assignments in special operations, Special Forces, armored, and cavalry units. His operational experience includes deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea, Kuwait, Mali, and Nigeria. He holds master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma and the School of Advanced Military Studies.

The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army.

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