The “One-Battle” Syndrome

As we approach the anniversary of the battle of First Manassas in July, 1861 I want to touch on what I term the “One Battle Syndrome.” The thinking on both sides in 1861, from generals to politicians to privates, was that there would be one major battle to decide the war. Ideas sometimes die hard, and that was exactly the case with the One Battle Syndrome.

Not only was this thinking obvious flawed, but it lingered and died a long slow death.  It is commonly assumed that after First Manassas both sides realized it would be a longer and wider conflict, and mentally geared up for what lay ahead.  Yet soldier’s letters, newspaper accounts, and other correspondence reveals that the One Battle Syndrome was still very much alive well into 1862.

Henry Hill, the epicenter of the battlefield of First Manassas.

Furthermore, the sentiment lived on in for different lengths in the two major theaters.  Shiloh was a tremendous two-day battle fought April 6-7, 1862 in Tennessee. The scale of the engagement and its massive casualties convinced many of the soldiers and commanders that it would be a long costly struggle, thus by the end of April, 1862, the short-war idea was fading among the troops of both sides in Tennessee. But the process was slower in the east, where there was no major battle on the scale of Shiloh until Second Manassas in August—more than a year after the first battle there.

In the east, it was a slower process for various reasons. The bulk of the Union and Confederate armies that would fight in the west (the Army of the Ohio, army of the Tennessee, and Army of Mississippi), got their first taste of combat along the banks of the Tennessee River at Shiloh. Most of the Army of the Ohio’s units later become the basis for the Army of the Cumberland. That fall the Army of Mississippi was renamed the Army of Tennessee.

The Bloody Pond at Shiloh.

Thus in one large, cataclysmic, confusion, bloody two-day struggle, most of the commanders and units who would fight in the west got their taste of combat at Shiloh (a few did fight earlier at Fort Donelson).

But in the east, only a few units fought at First Manassas. Many of the short term enlisted Union regiments were on the verge of mustering out. It was not until the Army of the Potomac moved up the Peninsula in the spring of 1862 that some units engaged in their first battle at Yorktown or Williamsburg. Even then, many units had still not seen combat.

Seven Pines, fought May 31-June 1, 1862 on the outskirts of Richmond, was the largest battle in the east up to that time, and would remain so until the larger, bloodier Seven Days’ Battles unfolded. Thus, some units saw their first combat at Yorktown or Williamsburg, some at Seven Pines, some at Gaines’ Mill, and some at Malvern Hill.  It would not be until July that most units in the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia had seen the elephant.  It was a gradual, fragmented process for the eastern army to get that first combat experience, unlike in the west where most units got it at Shiloh.

Seven Pines National Cemetery, on the site of the battlefield near Richmond.

Letters from soldiers during the Peninsula Campaign, as well as contemporary newspaper accounts, mention the next great battle that will decide the war. These soldiers, some of whom were at Manassas in 1861, clearly still believed that another major battle would decide the war. Journalists on the home front, detached from the realities of active campaigning, fueled the expectation among their readers.

John Burrill of the 2nd New Hampshire wrote to his parents on May 26, 1862 (before Seven Pines), “If we can destroy the Rebel army here . . . in my opinion the Rebellion is about done with. I don’t see how they can make a show of resistance any longer, and I trust that, if I live, I’ll be home before snow flies next winter.”

Captain Henry C. Newton of the 93rd New York wrote of the Confederates on May 11, 1862, “We do not think it will take long to clean them out of Virginia. Richmond will be the battleground. We think the eastern Rebel army is about as good as whipped as they are getting demoralized every day.”

Numerous other accounts in dairies and letters speak of one more battle to end the war, and the troops looked forward to it anxiously. Northern newspapers also wrote of the expected great battle that would decide the war that summer of 1862.

Confederates shared similar views.  After the Seven Days’ Campaign, James Thomas of the 4th Texas wrote to his mother on July 6, 1862, “I think the fight is almost over now . . . I think it probable that the war is nearly over.”  The Union army had been driven away from Richmond, it must have seemed that their work was done.

Gaines’ Mill battlefield, one of the larger of the Seven Days’ Battles.

Gradually, the realization sunk in that it would take many battles, and hard effort, as well as political and economic efforts, to end the war. John Faler of the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves  wrote to his parents on July 12 from Harrison’s Landing after the grueling Seven Days: “If anyone tells you that the rebels will not fight, just tell them to come down to this neck of the country and try them on.”

Fighting continued, in the east at Manassas again, then into Maryland.  In the west, action moved into Kentucky, then back to Middle Tennessee.  By the fall of 1862, well over a year after the war had begun, no one was talking anymore about the one big battle that would end it.

6 Responses to The “One-Battle” Syndrome

  1. Bert:

    Excellent post.

    The One-Battle Syndrome survives to this very day. Example: Civil War buffs who say, “If only Lee had won Gettysburg, he could have marched into Washington/ or Philadelphia/ or New York and won the war.”

  2. In 1861 Sherman was thought to be insane for saying it would take 200,000 men to end the rebellion.

  3. Astute observation, as regards belief in “one big battle will finish them,” prior to the contest of July 1861. However, strategic thinking, on both sides, rose to the fore after First Manassas, with the South attempting to solidify control of territory all the way north to the Ohio River and Missouri; and the Union organizing gunboats on the western rivers and formulating strategy based on the Anaconda Plan. Following successes (attributed to U.S. Grant) at Paducah and Fort Henry, the unexpected surrender of 12000 Rebels at Fort Donelson led to belief in the Union that “the NEXT battle will finish them.” And Henry Halleck, in cooperation with George McClellan, maneuvered forces to make that LAST Big Battle in the West occur in vicinity of Corinth Mississippi (under command of Major General Halleck) while Major General McClellan threatened Richmond Virginia with his Irresistible Force. So strongly did northern leaders believe that “Corinth will finish the Rebels in the West,” (this sentiment echoed by Northern papers of the day) that U.S. Grant let down his guard and suffered surprise at Pittsburg Landing (where no battle was supposed to happen, according to Union strategy.) But, in the same manner that Grant’s occupation of Paducah foiled Confederate strategy for Kentucky, Johnston and Beauregard’s unexpected attack on the Union staging ground at Camp Shiloh (exacerbated by Farragut’s failure to take possession of Vicksburg in May 1862) set back Union intentions for a quick finish to War in the West. So that when Halleck crawled into Corinth end of May, he took possession of a ghost town; and the Rebels (soon under command of Braxton Bragg) lived to fight another day… two additional YEARS of “another days.”

  4. With the benefit of hindsight, One-Battle Syndrome seems foolish. But was it unrealistic at the time? Were there good reasons, at the time, to suppose that it really could be wrapped up in one big army-crushing victory? Or is One-Battle Syndrome an example of collective wishful thinking?

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