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Cotton, Grand Strategy, and the Civil War

November 21st, 2010

civil-war-strategy-book.jpgThis Civil War essay by William James is a review of Donald Stoker’s book The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War. Although it reads as though it may be unfinished near the end when the author begins discussion of the Union strategies, the report nevertheless provides a pretty good overview of the book’s content and focuses on the role that trade goods such as cotton might have played in the American Civil War.


Stoker, a professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College, notes that most books on the military history of the U.S. Civil War focus, unsurprisingly, on battles. Battles make good copy, but one loses the forest for those trees.

One can step back a bit, and think of the movements of armies on a somewhat larger scale, inclusive of but not limited to the battles. This could lead to an “operational” history of the war. It would see the trees in clusters, yet it still wouldn’t see the forest.

For that, one has to step back again, to the level of strategy, the planning and deployment of all the forces available to a nation for purposes of security or victory. That is what Stoker attempts here.

For the Confederacy, strategy involved cotton. Indeed, that was one of the flaws in the would-be new nation’s policies from its founding days. Confederate leaders had an excess of confidence that neither France nor the United Kingdom could live without their cotton. Before the war, even before Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration as president, Jefferson Davis – the new president of the Confederate States of America — had a conversation with a fellow railcar passenger, a man who knew the cotton trade. The man told Davis, “You must remember, there is over one million of bales surplus now in the Liverpool warehouses.” Davis insisted that, nonetheless, nine months at most without CSA cotton would force foreign recognition.

It appeared for a time that the Confederates would embargo the sale of their cotton to the European textile merchants in order to make this point. There they were deluding themselves. Though there was sympathy for the Confederate cause abroad, nothing would have caused it to wither more quickly than the effort to extort recognition through such a threat. As Stoker writes, no British Parliament could have stomached the humiliation of giving in to such a demand and fighting a war for a trading partner. Further, the UK economy was as dependent upon Union grains as upon Confederate cotton.

Cooler heads prevailed. The exportation of cotton, in defiance of the Union blockade, would continue throughout the war. Still, the notion that the Confederacy should impose such a blockade on itself was a snare for Confederate strategists, and an expensive one. As Stoker says, an “impromptu” embargo developed due to the passion of local vigilance committees. As a result, much valuable cotton “went up in smoke.”

Better strategic thinking would have led the South to export as much cotton as quickly as possible, in return for hard cash or weapons. It might have conducted crucial transactions before there was any blockade in place. The size of the opportunity cost cannot be estimated at this distance.

That is but one example of a broader point, and one of the themes of this book. The South had no gifted strategic thinkers, and throughout the war delusions reigned. Stoker writes, “Sometimes night shone as day to the political leaders of the Confederacy.”

The Union began the war with similar – though perhaps not as dire – a set of confusions over strategy. Yet the top political leadership in the North, especially Lincoln, learned quickly, sorting out these confusions as they pressed the war forward. Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan” included the key points as Stoker sees them. As the war began, General Scott envisioned the movement of an army of 60,000 down the Mississippi River Valley supported by gunboats, and a blockade of the ports on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. This, Scott told the President, would “envelop the insurgent States and bring them to terms with less bloodshed than by any other plan.”



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