The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War (review)
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The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War. By Donald Stoker. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. viii, 498. $27.95 cloth)

In the wake of Lincoln's election to the presidency in November 1860, eleven southern states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. Civil war ensued. In an unabashedly "top-down" study, Donald Stoker, professor of strategy and policy for the U.S. Naval War College in Monterrey, California, explains how each side attempted to formulate a military strategy to achieve their avowed political goals.

Stoker establishes a hierarchy for understanding the conduct of the war. In descending levels of importance, that hierarchy consists of: 1) policy; 2) "grand strategy" and strategy; 3) operations (campaigns); and 4) tactics (battles). Military strategy, by the author's definition, is the plan by which a stated civilian-formulated policy is to be achieved and which should remain subservient to that policy. For Lincoln, the policy of the Union was simple: the preservation of the Union at any cost (including emancipation). President Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy ostensibly enjoyed a similarly straightforward policy: achieving independence. The problem for the belligerents was one of settling upon a strategy that would best serve their respective [End Page 411] political goals. It was not a simple task, for few political or military leaders initially thought in overarching, strategic terms. Fewer still comprehended the true nature of the conflict and the devastation that would be required to bring the war to a successful close.

In the realm of strategy, the Union's greatest advantage resided in the person of Abraham Lincoln. The president was not, as Stoker points out, a military genius, but then neither were most of his generals. Early on, however, he grasped some basic truths: the Union enjoyed a superiority in manpower and the destruction of Confederate armies mattered more than the capture of territory and capitals. His problem was finding a general capable of both thinking and acting strategically. Stoker believes that the war ought to have ended in 1862 with a Union victory. McClellan's plan of engaging the enemy on multiple fronts, east and west, was essentially a sound one. Unfortunately for the Union, McClellan and his successors lacked the gumption to carry it to fruition. Not until Grant and Sherman took command would military strategy finally align with political goals. After 1864, the Union war effort would concentrate against the Confederacy's twin "centers of gravity": the armies and civilian morale.

Similar problems plagued the Confederate effort to formulate strategy. While Union forces blundered along under Buell and Rosecrans, the southern war effort fell victim to the likes of Bragg and Joseph E. Johnston, the latter a temperamental and myopic officer whose interests did not often extend beyond his own reputation. Even Lee, who sometimes evinced an understanding of the connection between strategy and the policy of independence, too often failed to consider the import of operations outside of Virginia. Military shortsightedness was but a symptom. When it came to strategy, the difficulties of the Confederacy were structural. Though independence was the avowed political goal, there was no agreement on precisely what that meant. The result was a shifting strategy, sometimes offensive, sometimes defensive, but rarely aligning with either the reality of Confederate capabilities or political goals. It was a failure largely attributable to Davis himself. Jealously guarding his military prerogative as commander in chief, he refused to delegate authority, ham-handedly micromanaged [End Page 412] his officers, and lost the forest for the trees.

This is certainly not the first work to address Civil War strategy, and specialists will find much of the story familiar. At times, too, the reader is overwhelmed by operational details at the expense of strategy. Nevertheless, Stoker is to be commended for drawing together in a single volume what has often been left to implication or lost among the myriad studies of individual campaigns and battles. He effectively demonstrates the larger relationship between policy, strategy, and operations, the difficulties encountered in making them align, and why, ultimately, the Union succeeded where the Confederacy failed. There is much grist for discussion...