The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War

The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War

The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War

The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War


Of the tens of thousands of books exploring virtually every aspect of the Civil War, surprisingly little has been said about what was in fact the determining factor in the outcome of the conflict: differences in Union and Southern strategy.

In The Grand Design, Donald Stoker provides a comprehensive and often surprising account of strategy as it evolved between Fort Sumter and Appomattox. Reminding us that strategy is different from tactics (battlefield deployments) and operations (campaigns conducted in pursuit of a strategy), Stoker examines how Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis identified their political goals and worked with their generals to craft the military means to achieve them--or how they often failed to do so. Stoker shows that Davis, despite a West Point education and experience as Secretary of War, failed as a strategist by losing control of the political side of the war. His invasion of Kentucky was a turning point that shifted the loyalties and vast resources of the border states to the Union. Lincoln, in contrast, evolved a clear strategic vision, but he failed for years to make his generals implement it. At the level of generalship, Stoker notes that Robert E. Lee correctly determined the Union's center of gravity, but proved mistaken in his assessment of how to destroy it. Stoker also presents evidence that the Union could have won the war in 1862, had it followed the grand plan of the much-derided general, George B. McClellan.

Arguing that the North's advantages in population and industry did not ensure certain victory, Stoker reasserts the centrality of the overarching military ideas--the strategy--on each side, showing how strategy determined the war's outcome.


Great men, my boy, are never so great but that they can profit
occasionally by a suggestion from the humblest of the species

—ROBERT NEWELL, Union humorist

THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR does not lack for stories, nor for books that tell them. A generation ago, James McPherson noted in his monumental Battle Cry of Freedom that fifty thousand different books on the Civil War had rolled off the presses. Historian Brian Holden Reid writes that by 2002 this had become more than sixty thousand, a figure not including six thousand volumes on Abraham Lincoln. This number will climb as we reach the conflict’s 150th anniversary. Some of these books stand out in a field amply blessed with superb writers and researchers. We have the masterly volumes of Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote, biographies such as David Herbert Donald’s beautifully rendered Lincoln, the theater command studies of Steven Woodworth, the naval studies of Raimondo Luraghi and Craig Symonds, and innumerable others.

One of the enduring themes of Civil War writing involves the quest to determine why the North won and the Confederacy did not. They range from serious considerations, such as edited volumes and books by David Donald, Gabor Boritt, Herman Hattaway, Archer Jones, and a great host of others, to more popular, counterfactual accounts, or “alternative history,” such as chapters from Robert Cowley’s What If series of books and Newt Gingrich’s novels about Gettysburg and the what-might-have-been of a Southern battlefield triumph. What these latter efforts tend to have in common is the idea that the battle—Gettysburg in particular—was the pivot, the turning point.

Indeed, battles dominate Civil War literature, in part because they make great narrative and provide the most dramatic possible setting, one overawed by individual acts of heroism and where momentous decisions—by the Grants, Lees, and Stonewall Jacksons—are played out with immediate consequence. They offer the war in miniature and give us tales of pathos, bravery, cowardice, and even the miraculous. Estimates are that there were roughly ten thousand “clashes” (an admittedly vague term) during the Civil War, a . . .

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