Interview: Donald Stoker, “The Grand Design”

10 08 2010

Donald Stoker is the author of The Grand Design: Strategy an the U. S. Civil War.  Publisher Oxford University Press sent me a copy of the book, and Professor Stoker agreed to answer a few questions for Bull Runnings.

BR: Professor Stoker, please tell us a little about yourself.

DS: I’m Professor of Strategy and Policy with the U.S. Naval War College program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. I’ve taught for the Naval War College for 11 years. The Grand Design is my sixth book.

BR: What made you decide to write a book about strategy in the Civil War?

DS: We were teaching the Civil War as a case study in our Strategy and Policy: The American Experience course. But I wasn’t happy with the texts we were using. One was an exceptional book, but it didn’t deal with the subject in a manner that made it as useful for teaching as we would like, in other words, it didn’t really deal with strategy and operations. I began casting around for something else and the more I looked the more I realized that what we needed didn’t exist. There are a lot of Civil War books that deal partially with some elements of strategy, and a lot that say “strategy” in the title that are really about battles and/or operations, but none that examined the strategic sweep of the entire contest.

BR: Can you summarize The Grand Design in a nutshell?

DS: The Grand Design is the only comprehensive study of the evolution of strategy in the Civil War. It looks at both sides of the struggle, on the land and at sea, and charts (while analyzing), how each combatant used its military power in pursuit of their respective political objectives. It’s most important task is showing “Why” both sides waged the war as they did, as well as “How.” It does this by looking at the strategic and operational (campaign) plans of the presidents and military leaders. And takes as its foundation the pursuit of the political objectives sought and examines how the strategic and operational actions of each side contributed (or not) to the achievement of their political desires.

BR: How long was the book writing process in this case?

DS: This is a difficult question to answer. The full process was around seven years, but its not accurate to say that it took seven years to write the book because I published three other edited books in this time as well as a number of articles on various subjects. The last two years or so before publication were consumed in finishing The Grand Design.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing processes?

DS: I began by trying to write the book from secondary sources. I envisaged it taking a year or so and being about 60,000 words. But the more I read the secondary material, the more I found problems. So I decided to write it from primary sources, which are wonderfully abundant and easily acquired. I just spent an enormous amount of time reading, especially the primary documents. So many of the Civil War leaders were superb writers. Most, in fact. Lee, in particular. And reading Sherman’s letters is ceaselessly entertaining. I highly recommend the Simpson & Berlin version of these.

BR: What challenges did the project present?

DS: The enormity of the project and the volume of material. Covering the war in a single volume, in a coherent manner, while still getting the sweep of the war, is an interesting task. And it is literally impossible to read all of the books on the subject.

BR: Did you find out anything while researching The Grand Design that changed – or reinforced – any opinions you had before you started the process?  What will surprise readers?

DS: I found much to change my mind. The first “big” thing I found was that the offensive-defensive strategy supposedly authored by Jefferson Davis never existed. It’s all based upon a misreading of the primary sources by historians taking a tactical event and concept and trying to apply it to the broad sweep of the war. My opinions of Bragg and McClellan improved; there is more there strategically than is generally credited. I think this will surprise readers.

BR: How has the book been received?

DS: Generally very well. The History Book Club chose it as a Main Selection and most of the reviews have been very good. There are some who hate it, but that’s to be expected. I think some expect a “battle book,” so to speak, and then don’t get it. I’m not against “battle books”. I love them. And the Civil War field has some great ones. But I wanted to do something different.

BR: What’s next for you?

DS: A biography of Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian general and military theorist.

If any of you have read The Grand Design, I’d love to hear what you think.  Perhaps we can entice Prof. Stoker to participate in a discussion here.

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