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

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

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by Donald Stoker

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Finally, a Civil War study that reveals why strategy mattered to Union victory. Clearly and forcefully, The Grand Design shows how the Union learned to use its military force in pursuit of its political objectives."-William L. Barney, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, author of The Making of a Confederate

"A superbly written, well-researched, and detailed analysis of how the Union's strategy-simultaneous strikes at the Confederacy's critical points and at its center of gravity its army-destroyed the South's capacity to fight and helped lead to its defeat. Stoker's first-rate study revives the role of strategy in the conversation on why the Union won the Civil War." —Howard Jones, University of Alabama, author of Mutiny on the Amistad

"Donald Stoker breaks with a a generation's worth of cliches in this stimulating and persuasive demonstration that the Civil War's crucial contrast was not between ideas or resource bases. It involved strategy. The war was decided when Lincoln's generals were able to execute his policies while their Confederate counterparts failed to respond to Jefferson Davis's uncertain trumpet. As good a book on the Civil War as I've read for a decade."—Dennis Showalter, author of Patton and Rommel: Men of War in the 20th Century, and former president, American Society for Military History

"Stoker's grand overview of strategy is a welcome introduction to the big picture of the Civil War. Too often, the American Civil War is read as an ill-fitting string of tactical incidents, determined almost entirely by the personalities of successful generals. Looked at in Stoker's bird's-eye fashion, the large-scale strategic picture, as well as the large-scale strategic mistakes, finally begin to become clear."—Allen C. Guelzo, Director, Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College, author of Lincoln and Douglas

"Donald Stoker's book offers a new way of looking at both the military and political history of the Civil War, and does so from a strategic vantage point far above that to which we have been accustomed. The Grand Design represents and important advance in our understanding of this momentous event."—Steven E. Woodsworth, Texas Christian University, author of Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865 and co-author of The Oxford Atlas of the Civil War

"Stoker makes a signal contribution to understanding the dynamics of the war by carefully defining policy, military strategy, operational strategy, tactics, and other political and military terms and showing the interactions, for example, of politics and strategy, in explaining Abraham Lincoln's development as a successful commander in chief and Jefferson Davis's failure to capitalize on Confederate advantages. General readers will profit from Stoker's clear explanations and sensible arguments, while more seasoned scholars will find his delineation of strategic concepts useful."—Library Journal

"Mr. Stoker has written a fascinating study of why strategy mattered in the American Civil War. With excellent maps at important points in his narrative, he clearly leads the reader through the conflict. He also makes it evident that Lincoln masterfully managed the resources at his disposal; and his counterpart did not. Mr. Stoker's work should be on the shelf of anyone interested in the American Civil War. "—NY Journal of Books

"The Grand Design 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. This is not a book for the causal history reader. For those who wish to drill down, this is an excellent book and worth reading."—The Order of Civil War Obsessively Compulsed — Informed Amateurs Blog the American Civil War

"Stoker examines all aspects of the war, blending political and military details very successfully, to assert his belief that the war's outcome boiled down, primarily, to President Lincoln's superior strategic plan."—Confederate Book Review

"Despite some doubts over the book's fundamental perspective, one cannot praise too highly the depth and acuity of the analysis that Stoker deploys in a trenchant and refreshingly well-written book, mercifully free of dreary jargon. Stoker touches upon most of the debates among Civil War historians. He downplays the overall significance of technology, arguing that it mainly affected tactics, not strategy, though such an assertion underestimates the strategic significance of railroads. ... Yet there can be no denying that henceforth no historian of the subject can afford to ignore Stoker's views, and the legions of Civil War readers must be prepared to have their horizons stretched."—Brian Holden Reid, Civil War Book Review

"Military-minded Civil War aficionados will find much appeal in the treatment of strategy emphasized in this book."—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"... lucid discussion of Civil War geography and its strategic connections to the operations of opposing armies. The Grand Design provides readers with a handy guide to Civil War strategies and strategists. It makes a convincing case that the North won the war in large part because Lincoln and the best of his generals were better strategists than their counterparts in Dixie."—James M. McPherson, North and South Magazine

"It is increasingly difficult to say anything new about the Civil War, given its treatment at the hands of so many historians with so many different points of view. Yet Stoker's book on the changing strategies of the military and civilian leaders in the North and South during the conflict casts a fresh light on what remains the most decisive and harrowing war in U.S. history. Stoker presents us with a picture of what Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis and their respective generals thought they should be doing, and with the advantage of hindsight, he evaluates the strategic concepts on both sides of the divide. Students of the Confederacy will find it interesting that he criticizes both Davis and General Joseph Johnston. The study of grand strategy is undergoing a much-needed revival at American universities; this clear and incisive book is a useful addition to the syllabus."—Foreign Affairs

"Superb examination of Civil War strategy. Of the numerous books on the American Civil War, few have explored in depth the critical role of strategy in determining the outcome of this nation's bloodiest conflict. On the eve of the sequicentennial of that war, Donald Stoker fills that gap with a superb examination of the larger employment of military power beyond the battlefield."ARMY Magazine

"For the Civil War buff: As we head into the 150th anniversary of the War Between the States, armchair historians will want to keep up with the sesquicentennial. There is no shortage of excellent guides to the conflict. A recent one that I've enjoyed dipping into is The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War, by Donald Stoker. Rather than a blow-by-blow account of battles and operations, it describes the strategic objectives of North and South and how civilian and military leaders tried to realize them."—National Review Online

"The Grand Design is not for your basic Civil War buff, but it is an intense read on tactics, operations, and strategies that lead you to a deeper understanding of what we were really fighting for and how chance, vision, and perserverance actually led to the restoration of our country."—Sacramento Book Review

"This book will most likely generate controversy. The author has written a study that merits attention. He crafts the work with extensive use of correspondence between the governments and their generals as the civilians and military officers wrestled with the difficulties of implementing strategy. While not everyone will agree with the author's judgments and conclusions, Stoker's book is well worth reading."—Civil War News

"The Grand Design is an excellent look at Civil War strategy with lessons that can be applied today."—Military Review

"A fast-paced, engaging and lively book in which personality constitutes not the least of the contributory elements that together comprised the strategic approach adopted by each side in the Civil War, and as such it is a book as much geared toward the general reader as designed to inform those whose interest is primarily in military history." — Journal of American Studies

"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 Civil War Monitor

Product Details

Oxford University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.70(d)

Meet the Author

Donald Stoker is Professor of Strategy and Policy for the U.S. Naval War College's program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

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Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
James_Durney More than 1 year ago
Nations often stumble into war. Miscalculations, expectations and preconceptions work together to blind one or both parties to reality. The result is a war that neither side particularly wanted but was unable or unwilling to avoid. Once started war requires planning. Each sides needs to determine its' objectives and a course of action that will attain them. Ideally, each campaign helps obtain the objective. In the Civil War, the objective of each side is very straightforward: The South wanted to become an independent nation and the North wanted to preserve the Union. Since the two objectives are mutually exclusive, victory in an exhausting war is the result. Donald Stoker takes a long and detailed look at how each side worked to accomplish their objective. This is a detailed look at conducting one of the most important wars in America's history. This is a combination of history, theory, observation and "might have been". The mix results in an absorbing and thought provoking read. This is not a basic history! This is an advanced intermediate level book. A background in the issues, coupled with an understanding of "Battles and Leaders", the major and some minor political figures and the campaigns is required. Without these, this is going to be a long long long book! With them, it is a lively read that can pull together several ideas giving "the reason why" to any number of questions. I alternated between enlightenment, enjoyment, agreement and disagreement. His handling of Halleck is excellent. I feel he is to hard on Meade. At times, he is inconsistent on J. E. Johnston. Overall, the author's position is mainstream current history. Each reader will find something to disagree with but will agree on most items. The book opens with a discussion of strategy, as we understand it and as understood 150 years ago. In this section, the author defines terms and outlines his argument. The book proceeds from 1861 to 1865, covering the planning or lack of planning and direction of the war. Much of the history is of political control and political problems with generals. We watch Lincoln grow into his role as commander, even as we see Davis mired in details. Each campaign season, produces a new set of opportunities and dangers. Political considerations, for Lincoln East Tennessee, influence campaigns while producing problems with generals. The South constantly is trying to balance limited resources, reward success and retrieve lost areas. The author maintains a firm grip on the major areas of the war, outlining how they contribute or fail in each year. Neither President has an easy time with his generals nor have generals an easy time with their President. The development of the path to victory is a complex story that the author tells well. This is a book every student of the war will want to read. This is an understandable explanation of why the war came to be fought as it was. It is an intelligently written book full of good ideas that will challenge you, while increasing your understanding of the war.
glauver More than 1 year ago
Many Civil War historians have followed in the narrative tradition of Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote. Less common are writers like T. Harry Williams, Thomas Connelly, Steven Woodworth, Herman Hattaway, and Archer Jones, scholars who analyze the processes behind the decisions that shaped the conflict. Donald Stoker is one of the latter. If you buy this book looking for detailed battle accounts, you will be disappointed. This is a history of the strategies that won and lost the war. I found it to be very interesting and thought provoking. Stoker is unsparing but fair in his criticism, not even exempting Lincoln and Lee. He even credits McClellan with strategic and planning skills while pointing out his indecision and tactical lapses. Don’t make this your first Civil War history purchase; read some of the Catton and Foote type of history before attempting to read The Grand Design.
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