Sunday, October 10, 2010

Stoker: "THE GRAND DESIGN: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War"

[ The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War by Donald Stoker (Oxford University Press, 2010). Hardcover, 17 maps, notes, index. Pages main/total:431/511. ISBN:978-0-19-537305-9 $27.95 ]

Before discussing the merits of competing Union and Confederate national military strategies during the Civil War, the very thing that goes to the heart of Donald Stoker's new book The Grand Design, one must determine if either side even had a recognizable plan or series of plans on that scale. Certainly, neither the U.S. government nor the Confederate states possessed the equivalent of a modern general staff system for the efficient planning and dissemination of strategic plans. One could make the argument that the Confederacy never had a coherent strategy to win the war at any point, but Union strategic vision germinated with Winfield Scott's 1861 coordination [badly in some instances] of superior forces along multiple axes during the invasion(s) of Virginia. As Stoker notes, such an approach was later expanded upon and formalized by George B. McClellan (with some independent contributions by President Lincoln himself). General McClellan's concept of coordinated land advances by multiple military departments, supplemented by amphibious operations targeting vital lines of communication, became national strategy, although the plan was only sporadically adhered to between 1862 and 1864.

Stoker is clearly an admirer of Abraham Lincoln's strategic horse sense as well as the president's appraisal of his own limitations (e.g. he knew when to seek advice from professionals). The author even goes so far as to assert that "It is very likely that if he [Lincoln] had indeed taken the field, as he himself admitted he was considering on at least two different occasions, he could have produced results that would rank him among the great military geniuses" (Pg. 410). Jefferson Davis, on the other hand, wanted to do it all himself, seeking no advice and refusing to even consider the creation of a general-in-chief position, as he felt the post unduly infringed on his constitutional role of commander-in-chief. Shortsightedly confining himself to meddling in operational and even tactical decision making, Davis never formulated a larger strategy to defeat the North. Among Confederate military leaders, Stoker rates Robert E. Lee's skills as a strategist highest, far above Joseph E. Johnston and fantasy prone P.G.T. Beauregard.

However, Stoker is not blind to Lincoln's faults. He criticizes the president for relieving McClellan of general-in-chief duties just as the latter's strategy was bearing fruit, viewing the Lincoln-run period between that point and the appointment of Henry Halleck as one of the worst managed of war, essentially throwing away the western gains of spring 1862. The author astutely recognizes two great strategic blown opportunities for the U.S., in April 1862 and August 1863, where, in the aftermath of crushing victories at Donelson/Shiloh and Vicksburg/Port Hudson, Union forces engaged in peripheral operations instead of going for the kill against vulnerable strategic centers of gravity. The author is also critical of Lincoln's retention of Halleck as general-in-chief, even when it became clear early on that "Old Brains" would not issue direct orders, although one wishes Stoker did not wait until his concluding chapter to suggest it.

In Stoker's view, the failure of Union forces in the west to capture Chattanooga in spring 1862, when the town was almost defenseless, was perhaps the greatest Union strategic blunder of the war. It would be difficult to argue against this, but he also sees the Mississippi Valley as a front of only secondary importance to the Nashville-Chattanooga-Atlanta corridor, a vigorously debatable point that one wishes the author had developed more.

Stoker concurs with the majority opinion among scholars and amateurs alike that opposing armies, not geographical points, were the correct operational objectives of Civil War armies, although he waffles a bit. Rather than a weakness, this occasional indecision is probably a hint at the greater truth that a combination of the two ideas (which really cannot be cleanly separated as much as one would like to believe anyway) is really the best way to consider the issue.

There is unfortunately no bibliography in The Grand Design, but the end notes indicate Stoker's research is largely based on the O.R., supplemented by standard secondary works and the published papers of the major personages from each side's high command structure. Details of battles are beyond the scope of the work, and rightly so, however the reliance on secondary works for background information leads the author to propagate some outdated interpretations, such as McClellan greatly outnumbering Lee during the Seven Days or failing to utilize "two full corps" in reserve at Antietam. Also, it is a bit surprising that Stoker, a strategy and policy professor for the U.S. Naval War College program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey only lightly addresses issues of naval strategy and foreign policy. Undoubtedly, the book's burgeoning length had at least something to do with it.

Both conventional and unconventional in its conclusions, The Grand Design is a thick tome that only infrequently exasperates and offers much in the way of substance for further thought and debate. It is unfortunate that books of this type are so rare, but with Stoker's work only able to scratch the surface of some issues, it will hopefully inspire other scholars to take their own crack at it. The Grand Design deserves to be widely read and is highly recommended.


  1. Thanks a bunch for this review! I've been looking forward to this one ever since I happened to see it on Amazon a while before it came out. Good to see that it was worth the wait.

  2. I'm reading this book now (about 2/3 of the way through it) and I have to say that I generally agree with your assessment so far. Excellent review!


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