I have been reading a lot of books about the Civil War in order to be the best possible worker at the Visitors Centers. One that recently caught my eye had an intriguing title: “How to Lose the Civil War: Military Mistakes of the War Between the States.” This book is a collection of essays on blunders during the Civil War edited by Bill Fawcett.
Bill Fawcett is a prolific author whose specialty is finding the failures in history and bringing them to our attention so that we might avoid them in the future (as if!). One of his books is even titled, “Doomed to Repeat: The Lessons of History We’ve Failed to Learn.” These books are all part of the “Mistakes in History Series.”
“How to Lose the Civil War” presents, in a humorous way, the blunders and bungles of the Civil War. There are so many ways we can look back on Civil War and say, “if this had happened, or that had happened, the war would have been . . .” Tom and I play this game from time to time, taking different sides. If Secretary of War Ripley had authorized purchasing Spencer Repeating Rifles for the entire Union Army, the war would have been over in a year (Chapter 5). If the Confederate States had succeeded in secession, they would have never lasted as a country because the secession was based on states rights (Chapter 3). If Lincoln started out with a general that would fight aggressively, the war would have been much shorter (Chapter 16).
Most of the major battles of the war are represented with chapters in the book. Gettysburg has eight chapters, the most of any battle, proving that there was plenty that went wrong in this significant Union victory. But most battles are like this. Chickamauga could have gone either way, but ended up a Confederate victory because the Confederates made fewer crucial mistakes.
Of course, it is easy to criticize in hindsight. Civil War battles were not neat or tidy things. They were bloody and horrible messes, wasting the lives of thousands of young men. The generals made the mistakes and the privates paid for them. So even while I was shaking my head at the boneheaded moves in the book, I was also remembering the terrible price of these mistakes. Because of this, “How to Lose the Civil War” can never be truly humorous. Despite its irreverent style, its subject is a momentous war that changed the social and political landscape of our country.
“How to Lose the Civil War” is a good introduction to the many mistakes made during the war. It is an easy read and kept my interest. I just wish we could learn from our mistakes and keep from repeating them in the future.