STOKER: The Grand Design (2010)

The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War by Donald Stoker. Oxford University Press, 2010. Cloth, ISBN: 0195373057. $27.95.

In The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War, Donald Stoker answers a question that few historians have asked: did the leaders on either side of the Civil War develop and implement an effective military strategy to achieve their respective political objectives? Rather than focusing on battles and campaigns, Stoker takes his readers on a fascinating tour of the big picture that offers lessons on military theory that are accessible to the layperson. Within this book are surprising, but well argued, assessments of the successes and mistakes of familiar Civil War figures. The much-maligned Generals George McClellan and Braxton Bragg, it turns out, offered sound strategic thinking. Vicksburg was of secondary, not primary, strategic importance. And Abraham Lincoln, despite his current reputation as a brilliant Commander-in-Chief, at times hindered the Union war effort.

Few leaders at the opening of the conflict thought about how to win. Lincoln did, and asked his military commanders to provide suggestions. Most of them were unable to think strategically and looked only at prospective battles or campaigns at the theater level. Gen. George McClellan submitted a document in August 1861 that Stoker comments was the first of its kind in American history. It contained a strategic plan based on multi-pronged offensives in support of a grand army that would thrust into the heart of the Confederacy. McClellan would win the war by defeating the Confederacy’s armed forces, taking its strong points, and demonstrating the futility of resistance. Stoker argues that this plan had an excellent chance of success if McClellan had been capable of implementing it. Strategic thinking floundered among the Union military commanders after this point, although the Union leadership did coalesce behind a strategy of exhaustion directed at southern resources and southern will that was pursued until the end of the war. Only with the ascension of Grant and Sherman did the Union again have commanding generals who thought strategically.

The development and implementation of a coherent military strategy for the Union was hindered by a broken command structure. Stoker makes a compelling case that historians have overstated Lincoln’s effectiveness in the military arena. While Lincoln did think strategically, Stoker provides plenty of evidence that Lincoln’s constant interference in the strategic and operational decisions of the army did not have any positive impact on the conduct of the war. Lincoln made suggestions rather than issuing orders and never succeeded in getting his generals to implement his vision. He removed McClellan as general-in-chief right at the moment a multi-pronged offensive was being launched; with no one at the top to coordinate the various Union prongs, the Union missed key opportunities in the spring and summer of 1862 that could have won the war then and there. Key among these was the chance in April to take Chattanooga, which should have been the primary objective in the western theater instead of the Mississippi River and Vicksburg. Gen. Henry Halleck’s strategic and command incompetence—his lack of vision, his inability to make decisions, and his refusal to issue orders—spurs Stoker to the use of sarcasm throughout the narrative. For most of the war there was simply no one at the top coordinating the moves of Union armies.

Despite the many flaws on the Union side, these paled in comparison to the nearly complete lack of strategic thinking in the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis never tried to figure out how to win the war and never provided a vision for how the South could achieve its objective of independence. Initially the Confederacy implemented a cordon defense and tried to protect everything, but this dispersal of forces left it weak everywhere. After the loss of Forts Henry and Donelson, it was Gen. Braxton Bragg who provided “the most cogent strategic plan offered by any Confederate leader during the course of the war” (120). He recommended that the Confederacy concede its peripheral areas and defend its vital core by massing Confederate military strength in the center and shifting to offensive warfare. The Confederacy did move to an offensive strategy in 1862, but most of its generals proved to be poor operational planners. The only other strategic thinker in the Confederacy was Lee, who understood that public opinion was a “center of gravity” in the North that should be targeted in a plan for victory. Strategic failure in the Confederacy was coupled with its own broken command structure. Davis lost sight of the big picture, meddled with tactical details, and never established a clear chain of command. Gen. Joseph Johnston, as commander of the western department, effectively refused to do his job, and his superiors did not make him do so.

In his discussion of Confederate strategy, Stoker corrects military historians who associate Lee with a strategy of annihilation or who argue for a Confederate “offensive-defensive” strategy. Some military historians fail to differentiate between tactical, operational, and strategic thinking when analyzing military documents, and one of the most useful aspects of Stoker’s work is his clear explanation of the different levels of military planning and his utilization of these levels in his own analysis.

This book offers much food for thought in its discussion of the Confederate war effort: Stoker claims the South went to war too early; that the Confederacy did not possess an advantage of interior lines; that Vicksburg did not matter and the South should have let it go and saved its armies; and that Longstreet’s and Beauregard’s operational plans were unattainable unless “one could bend the laws of physics” (412).

But the preceding paragraph loses sight of this reviewer’s big picture. The Grand Design answers the main question it asks and in so doing offers its own explanation for why the Civil War turned out as it did. Ultimately, Union leaders developed an effective military strategy and implemented it. The Confederate leadership never did. And that is why they lost the war.
Lorien Foote is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Central Arkansas and the author of The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Violence, Honor, and Manhood in the Union Army.

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