September 6, 2012

Review: "The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War" By Donald Stoker

As you can tell from my recent postings, I have immersed myself in reading and reviewing some really excellent books about the American Civil War.  Being a history buff, especially an American history buff, I have always had an abiding passion for the political and military events associated with this momentous period in our republic's history.  I often wonder if most people really realize just how close "the great American experiment" came to becoming a complete and abject failure?  Reading books about the Civil War continues to remind me just how precious and fragile our great democracy really is, and that it has always taken great sacrifice and dedication to carefully protect and nurture it, and that remains so even today.

I also have a very personal connection to the American Civil War as my great-great grandfather served as a member of the 21st Massachusetts Volunteer infantry regiment.  He started as a private and ultimately rose to the rank of 1st Lieutenant before being mustered out near the end of the war in 1865.  The regiment was formed in Woburn, Massachusetts, and fought in Burnside's North Carolina coastal campaign (1862) and then many of the campaigns of the Union Army of the Potomac, including the Battle of Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Grant's Overland Campaign of 1864.  My ancestor was actually badly wounded (shot through both legs) at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 at the fighting around Burnside's Bridge at the southern end of the battlefield.

With both my personal connection and my historical interest in the Civil War, I very much looked forward to reading Donald Stoker's relatively recent book, The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War in an effort to better understand how the rebellion was actually put down by the Union, and why the South wasn't able to reach its goal of independence.  It is worth mentioning that Stoker is well-qualified to write about this subject as he is a Professor of Strategy and Policy for the U.S. Naval War College's program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.  This well-written book guides the reader through the prosecution of the Civil War from secession through the surrender of the final Confederate armies in the field in May and June 1865.

I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable about most of the major political and military battles fought during the war, as well as with all of the various personalities on both the Confederate and Union sides, but I can't say that I was all that familiar with the national and regional realities that shaped the development and implementation of the over-arching strategies used to prosecute the war.  This book does a superb job of setting the stage and then walking the reader through the development of the national policies and decisions that led to the fashioning of national and regional operational strategies by the civilian political leaders and military high commands.  There was a steep learning curve for leaders--political and military--on both sides during the first year or so of the war.  Lincoln was perhaps more adept at drawing the bright line ensuring that military commanders didn't dabble in the political arena, but he was almost as guilty as Jefferson Davis when it came to meddling with day-to-day military matters.  Many of the army commanders and their subordinates, on both sides, were graduates of the U.S. Army Military Academy at West Point, and many had years of field experience serving in the U.S. Army, including during the Mexican War (1846-1848).  While many of the military commanders had solid resumes when it came to tactically leading troops into battle, most were not able to effectively develop and implement a larger-scale strategic vision.  It would take a couple of years of hard fighting to weed out the more incompetent commanders and begin to identify those with strategic vision and that also shared the same strategic goals and objectives as their respective civilian authorities.

I think that there were two critically important themes that ran through this book that made all of the sense in the world to me once I stopped and considered them, including: (1) In order to develop an effective national strategy for winning the war, and then developing effective operational or theater strategies, it first required the identification of specific "centers-of-gravity"; and (2) meaningfully addressing the logistical issues associated with the movement and sustaining of large armies in the field became vitally important.  The centers-of-gravity concept was an important one for me--as well as the generals and political leaders--to fully grasp and understand.  For example, some of the primary Union centers-of-gravity, in the context of militarily suppressing the rebellion included the following:

  • Implementing and maintaining an effective blockade along the Confederate coast line, which prevented the South from receiving supplies and exporting its cotton and other commodities;
  • Controlling and/or destroying the Confederate rail-road infrastructure, which limited the ability of the rebel armies to transport men and material, and allowed the Union to use the rail system for its own military purposes;
  • Control of the rivers (especially the Mississippi River) and water-ways in rebel-held territories, which allowed the Union to deny the rebels the use of the rivers while using them as transportation corridors itself;
  • Maintaining the focus on the capture and/or destruction of rebel armies (especially the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee); and 
  • Occupation and restoration of Union control within the State of Tennessee which was the 'heart' of the Confederate west and largely ensured that Kentucky didn't go south too.
Obviously, there are sub-sets associated with these primary centers-of-gravity at both the national and/or regional or operational theater levels.  Strategies would necessarily need to be adapted and modified based upon conditions in the field, personalities involved, and the political climate at the time.  Frankly, as the war wore on, the Union civilian and military leadership was much more effective at the identification of and then focusing on these centers-of-gravity than the Confederates ever were.  Of course, there were notable exceptions, like Robert E. Lee as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia.  He understood that perhaps the only realistic center-of-gravity that the Confederates had or could impact was associated with wearing down the North's will to continue the fight.  In other words, if the South could just buy some time by defeating Union armies in the field, and interfere with the logistical challenges of transporting and supplying Union armies, that there might be a realistic chance of achieving a political solution leading to Southern independence and recognition by foreign governments of the South's right to exist.  After the Battle of Antietam in the fall of 1862, and Lincoln's preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and then the shift in Union thinking that part of the war's aim was to abolish slavery, it became less and less likely that the South could ever achieve that goal.

Clearly, Federal manufacturing, transportation infrastructure, ability to raise and sustain armies and replace those killed or wounded far out-stripped that of the Confederacy.  If the Confederate States were going to achieve victory it really had to have occurred early in the war, and needed to occur decisively.  Once the Union implemented the naval blockade, exerted diplomatic pressure on other countries not to interfere, and then brought the full weight of the Federal war-making machine down upon the South it really just became a matter of time.  Stoker's book brought home the point that the war may well have gone on even longer had not Lincoln finally found and entrusted prosecution of the war to generals like Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, George H. Thomas, and Philip Sheridan, and like-minded others.  These military commanders understood that victory meant the absolute and utter destruction of not only the enemy's armies, but the will of the citizens to continue the fight.  This was the "Total War" developed and so effectively implemented by Grant at Vicksburg, and then greatly expanded upon by Sherman as he marched across Georgia to the coast and then northward through the Carolinas.  From mid-1864 to early-1865, Sherman and his armies literally ripped the guts out of the Confederacy whilst Grant pinned and pummeled Lee's Army of Northern Virginia outside of the gates of Richmond and during the siege of Petersburg.  Logistics was the determinative factor in bringing to bear and sustaining Union power in its strategic contest with the Confederate armies and civilian populations.

Professor Stoker's book does a great job of describing all of the key decision-making that led to the battlefield victories or defeats, and how the civilian and military leadership, on both sides, was able to adapt, or not, to changing circumstances as they developed national and/or operational strategies.  The political and military conduct of the war is largely arranged chronologically in the book, and at the end of each chapter he provides an interesting summation and analysis of what worked, or didn't, and why.  Additionally, at the end of the book, the last chapter essentially provides a "report card" and grades the political and military leadership of both the Union and Confederacy, and it makes for great reading and pondering.  There are several large-scale maps scattered throughout the book, and I think if I had one reasonable criticism it would be that I would have liked a few more maps at the regional or theater scale that might have helped to better support and understand some of the issues associated with the geographical or logistical issues for both sides.

Finally, I think this is actually an important book that will appeal not only to readers interested in American history and military history, but that it really should be required reading among senior non-commissioned officers and officers in the military, as well as our national civilian political leadership.  This would seem to be particularly pertinent as the United States enters its eleventh year of counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and other regions around the world.  Understanding the concept of centers-of-gravity and the development and design of appropriate strategies would seem to be a pretty important element in successfully prosecuting a war through to its conclusion.


The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War
By Donald Stoker
Hardcover, 512 pages
Oxford University Press, USA, 2010

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