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Brit writer has plenty to teach about Civil War

| Thursday, April 1, 2010

The world's original Marxist was a Civil War buff, did you know that•

Looking on from Europe at the all-American slaughter, Karl Marx predicted a workers' revolution would follow here for sure. He saw it as a natural extension of the end of slavery under "that single-minded son of the working class," Abraham Lincoln.

But Marx had his man and his war wrong.

Lincoln was an on-the-record champion of private property. "A positive good in the world," he called it, an incentive for everybody to create their own wealth. And American workers, though they enthusiastically formed unions, made no move to bring down the owners with industrial armies.

British historian John Keegan is pretty sure why. Because they'd had their fill of "real armies" - and of 620,000 deaths by battle and disease. "American socialism," writes Keegan, "was stillborn on the battlefields of Shiloh and Gettysburg."

It's one of many striking economic perspectives in a wonderfully concise book by an objective foreigner: "The American Civil War, a Military History" (Knopf, $35, 396 pages.) Keegan, a prolific author, is defense editor of the London Daily Telegraph. Here are some of his nuggets:

It was demand for all kinds of goods in the 1861-1865 conflict that propelled the United States towards global industrial leadership. (We got there in 1880.) Steel orders for armor and rail tracks boomed as you'd expect. But how about clothing, farm products, labor-saving devices• Standard men's sizes (for uniforms) were introduced by manufacturers. Also machinery to sew boot soles on.

The U.S. Treasury pioneered war bond sales for small investors. Paper money in the Union (not the Confederacy) held most of its value, thanks to "rigorous war taxation" on luxuries and income. (War taxes were "rapidly discontinued" after 1865.)

He's no household name like Grant, Sherman and Lee but engineer Montgomery Meigs was quartermaster general, famously "incorruptible." He organized the tens of thousands of horses, mules and wagons that supplied Union armies and made the northern soldier "the best fed man in the history of warfare to that time." He also built the U.S. Capitol dome. And the Washington water supply.

The North's original strategy was to save life. Just squeeze the South was the idea, by an all-around blockade of exports and imports. Tragically it wasn't enough. And some of the Confederate ships that got through became "commerce raiders." They preyed on union shipping so alarmingly (although sinking only 5 percent) that the balance of world trade shifted "to Britain's advantage." How so• Because insurance costs skyrocketed. Non-U.S.-flagged ships got the cargoes. Keegan says our merchant fleet never fully recovered.

Shortages, hardships, and the need to console and support the menfolk dragging home from defeat helped to make the women of the South "a distinctive breed even today," says Keegan, "admired for their femininity and outward-going personality."

There are ideas like that straight through. Parents who worry whether their kids learn any history at all nowadays, should have them read this book. It's an education.

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