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Confederate Military Strategy in the U.S. Civil War Revisited

From: The Journal of Military History
Volume 73, Number 4, October 2009
pp. 1273-1287 | 10.1353/jmh.0.0436

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Editor’s Note: The April 2009 number of The Journal of Military History saw the introduction of what we hope will be a regular feature of our publication, Forum, an arena for formal exchanges of views between scholars on issues of importance to military history. The first Forum had professors Donald Stoker of the U.S. Naval Naval War College’s Monterey Program and Joseph G. Dawson III of Texas A&M University squaring off on the question of Confederate strategy in the U.S. Civil War. Forum II narrows the focus of discussion on that topic to the doctrinal basis for not only Confederate strategy in the 1861–65 conflict, but also that of the South’s opponents, since both sides in the war drew heavily on the classic treatise of Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini (1779–1869), The Art of War (1838), in devising strategy and tactics. Jomini, a former staff officer under Napoleon Bonaparte, has been described as “the military theorist-in-chief” of the Confederate and Union armies in the Civil War, but, asks Dr Stephen Badsey of Wolverhampton University, U.K., have we so distorted his precepts in trying to square them with modern doctrinal terminology that we can no longer understand what they meant to Lee or Grant—or Jefferson Davis? We hear first from Dr. Badsey, followed by Professors Stoker and Dawson.

Sir: In opening your Forum debate on Confederate military strategy in the U.S. Civil War with the argument that “There was no Offensive-Defensive Confederate Strategy,” Professor Donald Stoker of the U.S. Naval War College accepts that this claim will generate counter-arguments and asks that these be based on primary source documentation (p. 590).1 Much of Professor Stoker’s argument is based on the use of the terms “operations” and “grand tactics” at the time, leading him to conclude that what were actually references to tactics in individual campaigns have been misunderstood as a general Confederate strategy, or even a national grand strategy. Professor Stoker rightly bases much of his argument on the writings and influence of Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini, as the most widely accepted and imitated military authority of the age; he also cites other historians as sharing his dismay that writers during the 19th Century (and some historians today), have failed to differentiate between strategy, operations and tactics, and that this has led to the confusion which in his article he seeks to dispel. While not wishing to enter into any debate concerning the strategy of the rival sides in the U.S. Civil War, I can contribute something on the meanings of the terms operations and grand tactics as used by Jomini, and by those who were influenced directly or indirectly by his writings. This primary source evidence shows Professor Stoker’s interpretation to be, at the very least, a questionable one.

Professor Stoker makes his interpretation in the form of a diagram showing an inverted triangle, with grand tactics lying above tactics, and beneath and separate from operations, which in turn is beneath and separate from strategy. The basis of this diagram is the “Levels of War,” immensely familiar to all modern students of U.S. military theory. But the major categories that it employs only became U.S. military doctrine in the late 20th Century. Professor Stoker in this diagram equates 19th Century operations with what is now known as the operational level of war and with “Operational Art”–a translation of a term originating in the military theory of the former Soviet Union (with some German influence) which was introduced into U.S. military doctrine only in the 1980s. But neither the hierarchy set out in this diagram nor the term operational art was known to 19th Century Western military men, and conversely their term “grand tactics” is not in common doctrinal use today.

Professor Stoker justifies the place of grand tactics in his diagram by quoting Jomini’s The Art of War, writing that “there is also the arena of grand tactics meaning ‘The maneuvring of an army on the battle-field’ or mounting local attacks” (p. 573).2 This quotation appears at the start of the chapter in...



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