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

by Donald Stoker, Oxford University Press

Strategic analysis requires more than just looking at how armies are moved around in the field. It also involves a study of economics, culture and public opinion—in other words, the broader context within which generals as well as statesmen typically operate. In The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War, however, Donald Stoker instead focuses mostly on the individuals who conducted the nation’s divisive conflict, evaluating how they worked with their respective commands.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Stoker’s approach. Moreover, the decades since Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones brought out their landmark work How the North Won (originally published in 1982) have seen such an explosion of scholarship in this genre that revisiting military conduct on a grand scale could be a useful exercise. But such a work would have to pay more attention than Stoker does to topics such as the tension between the professional military and Republicans over strategy, how the war’s nature reflected the peculiarities of American political culture and also how economic considerations shaped its conduct (there was a reason, for example, that Robert E. Lee closely followed the price of gold in the North). It would also need to account for the importance of irregular warfare in strategic and operational thinking on both sides of the conflict.

What Stoker offers instead is a fairly familiar study, both in its approach and eminently (in the best sense) debatable arguments. The Grand Design is well written, solidly researched and very informative. New students of the Civil War should find it helpful because it shows how the nation’s military and political principals conducted themselves during the course of the fighting. But longtime students of the conflict may be less impressed by a work that, in the final analysis, lacks the originality, sophistication and attention to detail that distinguished Hattaway and Jones’ classic study.


Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here