The Grand Design – Donald Stoker

Strategy and the U.S. Civil War

The author touts this book to be the first book to exclusively be about strategy and the Civil War.  It isn’t, I have a few others.  It also isn’t really a book about strategy.  In the end it is yet another single volume book on the war with the word ‘strategy’ tacked into the book here and there.  It is nowhere close to “How the North Won” or “Civil War Command and Strategy” to take two examples.

So, after tossing out the ‘bonus’ text recapitulating the course of the war, what strategic information do we obtain?  The first warning sign is the approving nod to George McClellan’s strategic insight.  No, not the Peninsular Campaign.  Instead he credits his January 1862 “Plan” where he was to get 273000 men to advance on Richmond, while the rest of the Union forces were to follow a half dozen or so lines scrawled on the map to hold his coat-tails.  This is more a fantasy than a serious plan.  Proper strategy needs to be grounded in some kind of reality.  This doodle is not.

Matters only grow worse when discussing Lee and his strategy. Basically, Stoker seems to feel that whatever Lee felt like doing was a good strategy.  First, of course, is the issue that Lee, a general, had no real right to decide and implement a war strategy in a vacuum.  This was the job of the Civil authorities of the CSA – Jefferson Davis.  There has been much discussion of late about to what extent Lee’s invasions were approved by Davis, or against his will.  I won’t go into that here, but Stoker just sails right past the issue without discussing it.  Lee wants to invade and win the war – sure, fine.

Even then, the discussion falls flat, because we aren’t allowed to examine the pros and cons of the strategy.  Essentially, if Lee says he had to do something, well, end of the matter.  This becomes increasingly tedious when Lee quotes saying the exact opposite are trotted out in subsequent chapters as additional axioms that we are not allowed to examine.

Lee’s invade the North strategy is questionable on several grounds. First, the geography of the region constricts the ground of maneuver increasingly strongly as you move north.  So an army above the Potomac is at the end of a long, unsecured supply line, with rail lines allowing deployment from all sides, and doesn’t have the room to avoid battle if it wanted to.  A strategy of decisive battles is questionable, but to try and win one in a poor strategic position is even more questionable.  But hey, Lee says there was no alternative, so that’s that!

Even using the facts presented in the book it is fairly clear that one of the major driving forces of the Gettysburg invasion was the desire to avoid having parts of his army detached to reinforce other theaters.  I suspect that this mulishness overrode good sense here, but there is room for a discussion.

So what was Lee’s Strategy, according to Stoker?  Oddly, he never really says.  Several times he states what it was not, but he doesn’t ever say what it was, nor measure what the results were.

After Gettysburg, like most books, the rest of the war is given short shrift.  Lee’s third offensive is passed off in a few lines.  The varying fantastic options discussed to send the southern forces in Tennessee and West Virginia north are given far too much credence — a proposal to mount 10000 men and send them through a range of mountains in winter is silly on its face. When you don’t have 10000 horses or mules to put them on, well, it is just that much sillier.  In the other direction, once Chattanooga was taken a drive north flanking to the West would be forced to abandon its own supply lines and open Georgia to invasion down the rail line – as Hood’s later 1864 operation demonstrated.

There are better books on strategy, and better books giving the history of the war. This mix is a confusion of both types, and in the end even fails to define what the Southern strategy was.  It may have a tough time making it to a place on a bookshelf in my house, which is pretty rare.




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