U.S. Civil War Battle by Battle by Ian MacGregor

Ian MacGregor’s U.S. Civil War Battle by Battle is not a comprehensive analysis of the American Civil War, but rather a slim introductory volume that discusses a representative sample of thirty battles. The book focuses on the more well-known fights, such as Shiloh and Gettysburg but does include some interesting, less publicized battles such as Glorieta Pass and Okolona. Logically, the book begins by laying out a basic, two-page chronology of the war from 1861 to 1865 to orient readers to the progress of the conflict.  The narrative then begins with a description of the Firing on Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, SC. The summary of Fort Sumter establishes the pattern followed throughout the book. The battle is covered in a 3-page description that deals with the basic details of the event, accompanied by two or three relevant illustrations. While concise, the text provides a certain amount of context for each battle, pertinent details and analysis that provide readers with a basic understanding of the fighting and its impact on the larger progress of the war. The result is a handbook that readers can refer to for general information rather than a detailed combat chronicle.

MacGregor does an excellent job giving roughly equal coverage to the Eastern and Western theaters of the war, as well as including major battles in the Trans-Mississippi region. Seventeen of the actions discussed occurred in the East, with the ten taking place in the West and the remaining three in the Trans-Mississippi. This distribution of coverage does readers a great service by presenting them with a balanced view of the war. While each battle narrative stands alone, the overall ebb and flow of the conflict and the impact that events in one area had in the overall war is easily understood. The attributes that make this volume highly readable are also responsible for its drawbacks. As a result of the book’s examination of only certain highlights of the war, the impact of events such as the Seven Days Battles during the Peninsula Campaign is not made clear. MacGregor only discusses Gaines Mill in his look at the Peninsula, which does not provide the level of insight necessary for those to study of the American Civil War to understand that the Army of the Potomac retained a great deal of combat power after that defeat. McClellan’s loss of strategic confidence is the catalyst for the Union evacuation rather than the Confederate tactical victory in that battle.

The highlight of the book is its illustrations. Drawings of ordnance, uniformed soldiers, fortifications, ironclads, and battle scenes are spread throughout the book, keeping it visually interesting. However, the book suffers from a lack of maps. No maps are included, making it very difficult to picture the movement of formations and the ebb and flow of the fighting in each description. Additionally, it may be difficult for readers unfamiliar with the American Civil War to comprehend Confederate and Union strategy without at least one overall map of each theater. The book could also benefit from a list of recommended further reading for those whose interest is piqued by this introduction to the war.

Ian MacGregor brings a wealth of knowledge to this project. He has worked with Osprey Publishing for decades and has edited several volumes on Civil War battles in both the Eastern and Western Theaters. His ability to explain complex events in a condensed manner, while preserving the flavor of the story, is on full display in U.S. Civil War Battle by Battle. Additionally, his selection of illustrations ensures that this small but eye-catching volume won’t be overlooked by those looking to learn something about the war. Overall, I recommend this book to people who are new to learning about the American Civil War, particularly younger students who will not want to be lost in the sea of detail available in Civil War literature.

This book is available at Osprey Publishing.

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