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Is John Keegan Sloppy?

John Keegan's Fields of BattleJohn Keegan's Fields of Battle:The Wars for North America is engagingly written but is replete with a shocking number of seemingly inexplicable errors, coming, as it does, from such an eminent historian. These are not garden variety typos and minutiae but major errors of fact which would embarrass an undergraduate. For example:

(all page references are to the 1997 Vintage Books edition):

Attributing actions to dead men

  • p. 262 "Bent's Fort, later Fort William, built in 1833 on the Arkansas River near modern La Junta, Colorado... was visited by President Thomas Jefferson himself." Unlike many schoolboys, Keegan is apparently unaware of the extraordinary coincidence of both Jefferson and John Adams dying on July 4, 1826. But even had Jefferson been alive, the improbability of a 90+ year old man venturing west is self-evident.

  • p. 211 Concerning the Battle of Shiloh: "On the evening of 7 April, Johnston decided to withdraw." Nope. The dead not only tell no tales, they order no retreats. Albert Sidney Johnston was, of course, killed the previous day. Most Civil War historians regard Johnston's death as the key factor in enabling Grant to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. How, then, could Keegan think he was still alive and in command?
  • U.S. geography

  • p. 261 "A common place for the mountain men to meet the fur buyers was Green River, a tributary of the Platte in Wyoming...." Uh, uh. The Green River was not a tributary of the Platte. The Platte is, of course, one of the major tributaries of the Missouri River. It flows out of Wyoming through Nebraska to meet the Missouri, while the Green is on the other side of the Continental Divide and is the principal tributary of the Colorado River.

  • p. 260 Lewis and Clark, Keegan writes, reached "the mouth of the Columbia River in November after a terrible passage negotiating the high land above the headwaters of the Columbia...." But Lolo Pass, where they crossed the Divide, is on the Idaho-Montana border, hundreds of miles south of the Columbia's headwaters in the Canadian Rockies.

  • p. 211 "The only check to the Union's steamroller advance into what had formed so much of the Old Northwest had been imposed in early April at a tiny place called Shiloh, far down the Tennessee River...." But the Old Northwest was, of course, north of the Ohio River, and did not, therefore, encompass Kentucky and Tennessee.

  • p. 91 Concerning the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains, Keegan says that "from them comparatively short rivers drain east and west through the littorals to the oceans; an exception is the Rio Grande system...." Other glaring exceptions Keegan seems unaware of are the aforementioned Colorado and Columbia rivers. Neither could be called "comparatively short" by any reasonable definition since both are well over 1,000 miles long. And, in the East, the Ohio/Mississippi would hardly seem to merit being called "comparatively short."


  • p.245 Keegan discusses "Stonewall Jackson's death in April 1863" and expresses appreciation of a General Hal Nelson for "elucidating with brilliant clarity each step of the campaign [including] the unbuilt railroad track along which Jackson drove his battle-winning flank march on the day before he died." But the battle was fought not in April, but in May, and Jackson did not die the day after being wounded. Rather, as generations of Southerners well-recalled, he lingered for a week and a half, long enough for Lee to write him the famous note in which he said that Jackson had lost his left arm but that he, Lee, had lost his right.

  • pp. 154-'55 "During the winter of 1775 and the spring of 1776, the militia companies of the towns around Boston had been stockpiling powder and ball and withdrawing supplies from the King's magazines to those of their own." Keegan means, of course, 1774 and '75, but lest one think this is just carelessness or a typo, note the following:

  • p. 138 Twice on this page he has the American Revolution lasting from 1776-'81. When I wrote to him about the various errors elucidated herein, he was kind enugh to respond briefly, and on this specific point he reasserted "militarily the American Revolution was confined to 1776-'81." So he either does not consider Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill and the invasion of Canada by Arnold and Montgomery - all of which occurred in 1775 - as of any military significance, or he is not aware they were fought in 1775.

    The West

  • p. 252 "In July 1804 the Lewis and Clark expedition.. camped on an island nearby and a Frenchman in the party - could it have been the legendary Charbonneau, husband of Sacajewa, the Shoshone girl they were to liberate from the Minetarees the following year...." Whew! Charbonneau AND Sacajewa didn't join the expediton until November 4th of that year. Lewis and Clark did not liberate her from the Minetarees; she was already Charbonneau's wife.

  • p. 255 "The 7th Cavalry had wintered at Ft. Leavenworth throughout the 1870s...." But Custer's 7th wintered at Ft. Abraham Lincoln, across the river from Bismark, North Dakota in 1875-'76 prior to the Little Big Horn campaign.

  • p. 266 Concerning Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, Keegan mentions a colonel who "showed me where, eight miles west of the fort, the California and Oregon trails divided...." But the trails divided roughly 1,000 miles farther west, near Ft. Hall in Idaho. One could have no conception of the opening to settlement of the West who has the two great emigrant trials dividing in eastern Kansas.

    What makes the errors I've delineated unsettling is the likelihood that there are countless others, on less well-known matters, that go unrecognized by all but the most expert readers.