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The garbled scholarship of the American Civil War

By Donald Stoker


How can we frame a discussion? What terminologies give us a basis for common understanding? While many deplore arguing semantics, it is often essential to argue the meaning of words. Scholars aren’t immune to speaking to opposite ends when they don’t share common definitions. The American Civil War does not lack for books, but they aren’t all talking on the same terms. For example, what do we mean by “strategy”?

“Strategy” — located in the precise middle of this inverted pyramid — is only a piece of the puzzle that is warfare, the most confusing and complex of human endeavors, and cannot be studied apart from its critical accompanying factors. The most important of these is “policy,” meaning the political objective or objectives sought by the governments in arms (these are sometimes described as “war aims”). Policy should inform strategy, provide the framework for its pursuit, but not dictate it. It is the goal or goals sought by the antagonists. The term “policy” is often used when what is really being discussed is “strategy” or “operations.” Civil War leaders often spoke of “military policy,” when today we would translate their words as “military strategy” or “operational warfare,” depending upon the context. “Strategy” defines how military force is used in pursuit of the political goal.

Military strategy is the larger use of military force in pursuit of a political objective. Some examples include implementing blockades, attrition (wearing down your enemy’s forces), exhaustion (depleting his will and/or ability to fight), a Fabian approach (protracting the war by avoiding a decisive battle and preserving one’s forces), and applying simultaneous pressure at many points. Military power is but one of many tools nations use to achieve their political objectives. To pursue their goals in wartime states tap their economic, political, and diplomatic resources. These non-military components are sometimes lumped under the rubric of “Soft Power.” All of these (including military strategy), are therefore elements of “Grand Strategy.”

Ideally, once strategy is determined, it is then executed, and we link to strategy’s indispensible second, the operational level of war. “Operations” are what military forces do in an effort to implement military strategy. The conduct of these operations is known as “operational art” or “operational warfare,” or, if one prefers, “operational strategy.” While no one from the Civil War era would have been familiar with this exact terminology, many of the better commanders thought and fought according to this hierarchy. Though most called their operations “campaigns,” they often understood the link between the operational and strategic levels of war.

“Tactics” govern the execution of battles fought in the course of operations. In a great deal of military literature “tactics” and “strategy” are used interchangeably, and indiscriminately, even though they differ starkly.

The framework I’ve sketched offers a canvas upon which to outline the policy, strategy, and operations — and their interconnection — of the Civil War, one derived from more than a dozen years of experience teaching various versions of the U.S. Naval War College’s Strategy and Policy course. But why does this matter? It is important because when one examines a subject one should understand the basis of the discussion. The terms above give us the basis.

Battles are imperative in any study of war, including the American Civil War, but mainly as the result of larger strategic and operational efforts for prosecuting the war. The smoke of rifles and the gleam of bayonets is one thing, but the thought process of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis in the prosecution of the war is another. How a battle was fought is the realm of tactics. Why a battle was fought is the purview of strategy.

Donald Stoker is Professor of Strategy and Policy for the U.S. Naval War College’s program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He is the author of The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War.

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Image credit: Military terminology pyramid created by Donald Stoker.

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