Is John Keegan Sloppy?





Mr. Pietsch received his MA in American history from Columbia University in 1960. From 1961 to 1999 he taught history at prepatory schools.

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."

    Chronology

  • 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.


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    Andrew Burt - 12/28/2010

    Yes, Im sure he has the same defects as any other human being, but for me now, its personal. I read a portion of Keegan's book , "The Iraq War" and noted immediately that Keegan stated Task Force 1-64 did not suffer "a single human casualty" during its raid on Baghdad on April 5th, 2003. Well guess what, I was there, as the driver of my platoon sergeants tank, in second platoon of Alpha company 1-64, which was the lead company in the raid. I am quite angered and apalled that Keegan does not consider Staff Sergeant Stevon A. Booker, who lost his life that day, to be human. Im sure Sergeant Booker's Mother would feel the same way.

    Sergeant Booker died while defending our column against relentless human wave attacks. He was fighting with a M4 carbine, as all of the machine guns on the company's tanks stopped up due to brass that was backed up in the catch cans. Sergeant Bookers action saved the lives of other men and he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.

    This revelation about Keegan has cast all historians in a different light , in my perspective. I wonder how many countless acts of heroism have been buried or forgotten due to some historian either not doing his homework, or not caring. I wonder how many facts have been twisted and distorted to the point of no longer ever resembling the truth?

    To read Keegan , one would think they had rolled out the red carpet for us on April 5th, 2003 when we came into Baghdad. My apologies that 1-64 was so good that we just made it look that way... SSG. Booker was not the only casualty. There was one Private from Charlie company who was shot in the face and lost his eye. Perhaps his fate is worse than Bookers because his face was permantly and terribly disfigured. He now has to go around hiding his face like John Merrick. Nice job, Keegan.


    Reg Danford-Cordingley - 4/14/2008

    This is a message for Mr McCroden,

    I was looking forward to your upcoming book "German Army Order of Battle for World War II, 1939-1945"
    that was listed on amazon.com.

    However, it seems to have disappeared from both Amazon and Savas Beatie.

    Do you know what the status of the book is?

    I was looking forward to buying your book when it came out.

    I was interested in your book because I too was trying to build a comprehensive list of unit assignments for the German Army in the Second World War and I too have both Tessin and Mehner from Biblio Verlag.

    Please let me know if or when the book is coming out and who will be publishing it.

    You can email me if you wish at rdanford@reify.ca .


    bernard r ryan - 12/30/2006

    I agree with the point on Jefferson. I can't imagine where the assertion comes from that he visited Fort Bent. Jefferson died in 1826. How'd he get to Bent which he claims was built in 1833? Posthumous teletransportation?


    Lawrence Auster - 9/6/2006

    Having looked again at the errors listed by Mr. Pietsch and the commenters, I have to say that Keegan's error regarding the beginning of the Abbasid Caliphate dwarfs them all by at least an order of magnitude. If his being one year off on the start of the American Revolution (saying that it started in 1776 instead of 1775) is appalling, which it is, how do we characterize his being off on a major event of history, the start of the Abbasid Caliphate, by TWO CENTURIES?


    Lawrence Auster - 9/6/2006

    This morning I was reading Keegan's 2004 book, The Iraq War. On page 9 he writes:

    "After the transfer of the seat of the Islamic Caliphate from Damascus to Baghdad in the tenth century, Iraq became the center of the most powerful state west of China and Baghdad a city of weath and splendour under its Abbasid rulers ..."

    Now, I'm not a scholar of Islam, but it's a pretty basic fact of history, which you will run into over and over in even the most rudimentary books on the history of Islam, that the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad replaced the Omayad Caliphate of Damascus in 750, the middle of the eighth century. For Keegan to place this event in the 10th century is as though he said that the British took Canada from France in the 20th century instead of the 18th. How could he make an error this gross? And how could it not have been caught by anyone in the editing process? It staggers the mind.

    I went to google to see if I could find an e-mail address where I could write to Keegan about this, and instead I found Mr. Pietsch's article. I'm both appalled at Keegan's errors that Mr. Pietsche catalogues (Jefferson visiting Colorado in 1833?) and glad to find that I'm not alone in having seen this.


    William Thomas McCroden - 8/3/2006

    sorry for the typo- that should be Robin Cross, not Tobin
    Wm. T. McCroden


    William Thomas McCroden - 8/3/2006

    I have been a student of military history since high school (1961). My personal library in this area is over 1500 books. I recently finished an 1800 page compilation of the complete German ground forces O/Bs of World War II which took me 20 years of research; augmented by unit history capsules by coauthor Prof. Steven H. Newton, it has been accepted for publication by Savas Beatie. Because my knowledge of German generals and major unit designations and locations is more detailed it is common for me to find errors in books by military historians. In the mid 1980s I found errors, primarily on ranks of officers, in John Keegan's "Who's Who in World War Two". I wrote him and he graciously acknowledged. Over the years I have also sent errata to Tim Benford ("World War II Quiz & Fact Book"), Col. David Glantz ("When Titans Clashed"- he is a Soviet Army expert so German Army detail isn't his area of specialty; he later tried to interest his British publisher in doing my manuscript and is kindly writing a Foreword to it), Harper Collins concerning the "Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography" by the deceased Col. Trevor Dupuy, Bradley F. Smith ("Sharing Secrets With Stalin", Christopher Chant ("Warfare and the Third Reich"), Colin D. Heaton ("German Anti-Guerrilla Warfare in Europe 1939-1945"), Howard J. Langer ("The World War II 100"), Tobin Cross ("Fallen Eagle"), and Brian Taylor (his two-volume "Barbarossa to Berlin") as well as a few more older ones to other author/historians for which I now can't find my copies of the letters. I have offered to serve as an unpaid proofreader for publishers of World War II books; due to my reference library I am absolute death on the correct ranks of generals and admirals, Allied and Axis, as well as German Army data. So far only one publisher has sounded like they might take me up on the offer though I know I could add a lot of needed accuracy to their books which would make the publisher more respected as well as the authors.

    So you see a specialist in detail can often best a professor and historian in such narrow exotica, but not necessarily have the expertise to craft the grand historical story.

    William T. McCroden
    Cleveland


    eric f coppolino - 10/27/2004

    As a writer I can tell you it's embarrassing when an intern or assistant gets a point of research wrong and I sign my name to it - and I don't notice, because then the mistake is mine alone. And I have come up with bad facts at least 10 times myself. But it seems that with the time pressures on people, particularly the production volume pressures on writers, we really have little choice but to use assistants or to work quickly. The only way to go about this is by adding a fact-checking layer. It works. Good periodicals do it. I generally ask someone who works for me to spot check spellings, dates and events randonly or thoroughly and there is no reason that publishers cannot do this. The thing is, they have to care, and they should: we are all building the record of the time in which we live, and rewriting history each time we mention it.

    Eric F. Coppolino
    Paris, France
    francis@planetwaves.net


    Clyde W. Howard - 1/13/2004

    A similar failing, but perhaps not quite as exacerbated, as Steven Ambrose exhibited, especially toward the end of his career.


    Clyde W. Howard - 1/13/2004

    I have always deemed Keegan to be a "Philosopher of War" more than a historian, and a writer who has the ability to provoke a great deal of thought on the subject.

    As a historian, I supose he has the same defects as any other human being - including the ability to make the occaisional factual error. I would note that Fields Of Battle (a book I have read with great pleasure) is much more an account of his first American journey than a true history of the fighting on this continent. But the factual errors are a bit jarring on occaision.


    robert hessen - 12/12/2003

    A friend wrote to me, praising Paul Johnson:

    >

    and I replied:
    A bit overstated, but not by much. He has immense narrative
    powers, which alone would make him a giant, but he is sometimes
    lazy about the accuracy of facts in his books, counting on
    reviewers to point out errors, rather than ferreting them out
    himself. There are articles documenting his erratic scholarship
    that I can easily send you. His chief problem is that he is
    TOO PROLIFIC, and thus
    cannot spare the time to be factually accurate.


    robert hessen - 12/12/2003

    A friend wrote to me, praising Paul Johnson:

    >

    and I replied:
    A bit overstated, but not by much. He has immense narrative
    powers, which alone would make him a giant, but he is sometimes
    lazy about the accuracy of facts in his books, counting on
    reviewers to point out errors, rather than ferreting them out
    himself. There are articles documenting his erratic scholarship
    that I can easily send you. His chief problem is that he is
    TOO PROLIFIC, and thus
    cannot spare the time to be factually accurate.


    Rich Rostrom - 12/8/2003

    Try Paul Johnson's _A History of the American People_. Johnson has
    Joe Johnston confused with A. S. Johnston, thinks Horace Greeley edited the _New York Herald_, asserts that all the delegates to the secession conventions were chosen by legislatures, has the Columbia River passing through Nevada, says the TVA charged _$2.50_ per kilowatt-hour, and refers to the future state of Tennessee as "the Pennsylvania back country".


    Edmund Unneland - 12/6/2003

    I have the feeling that many famous marquee authors are using "sweat shops" of history interns to fashion books that will then get bought up by general-interest readers who do not necessarily read critically. In the last few years, there have been many books I have read that have had errors of fact that have gotten by editors. (It is disconcerting that I can catch these errors on the train coming home after a long day at work, and that they are not noticed by the people who are paid to vet the manuscripts.)

    I blame the authors, but also the editors and publishers who seem to have become terribly uninterested in what comes out under their imprints.


    Edmund Unneland - 12/6/2003

    I have the feeling that many famous marquee authors are using "sweat shops" of history interns to fashion books that will then get bought up by general-interest readers who do not necessarily read critically. In the last few years, there have been many books I have read that have had errors of fact that have gotten by editors. (It is disconcerting that I can catch these errors on the train coming home after a long day at work, and that they are not noticed by the people who are paid to vet the manuscripts.)

    I blame the authors, but also the editors and publishers who seem to have become terribly uninterested in what comes out under their imprints.


    Grant Jones - 11/29/2003

    Try _The Face of Battle_ and _A History of Warfare_.


    Steven F. Sage - 11/27/2003

    Another error: In his one volume history of the Second World War, Keegan referred to the Ploesti oil fields (north of Bucharest in Romania) as being located in Hungary. But whatever the shifts of frontier involving Transylvania, Ploesti always remained Romanian territory.
    However serious such errors are, there's an even more fundamental historians' question regarding Keegan: What has he really done of merit in the way of original research? Where's the substance? Or is Keegan merely at basis a story reteller, beloved of publishers and the broadcast media aiming for a particular niche market?


    Clay W. Stuckey - 11/27/2003

    On page page 80 of his new book Intelligence in War, Keegan states "On a large-scale map--paradoxically, in mapmaking, the larger the scale, the less the detail shown;" On the contrary, it is just the opposite. As stated in the 13th edition of Dutton's Navigation & Piloting (1978 Naval Institute Press) on page 53, "The chart that shows any particular feature...at a larger size and in more detail is considered--comparatively at least--as a large-scale chart. In summary, remember that opposites go together, 'Small scale, large area; large scale, small area.'"


    J.W. Lynch - 11/27/2003

    ."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".

    Or, in a more charitable vein, perhaps Keegan adheres to an absurdly proper nationalistic viewpoint. That is (until they declared independence), the armed insurgency was little more than an exclusively British dust-up.


    Jonathan Hobratsch - 11/25/2003

    It makes me wonder whether or not he wrote the book himself. I've read Keegan before and he never made such glaring errors. Also, I don't think I've heard of such errors written on anything pertaining the civil war. It's almost comical.


    Dave Tabaska - 11/25/2003

    An article about history on HNN? Maybe I'm at the wrong web site!

    Seriously, having read some of John Keegan's other works (but not Fields of Battle), I have found him to be a most interesting author. It is really unfortunate to see that he written such obvious errors, since he really is capable of doing much better.

    Excellent work, Mr. Pietsch!

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