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

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

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (July 15, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195373057
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195373059

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.


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