The Washington Post

John Marszalek: When the war started, it was going to be a short one. What happened?


When the war started, both sides thought it was not going to last long. One Rebel could easily defeat ten Yankees, that nation of shopkeepers, many southerners announced. All it would take, Federals believed conversely, was one strong push, and the Confederacy would be overwhelmed. It would all be over quickly.

It did not happen that way, of course. Both sides were products of the same American past, and they tended to think similarly despite their refusal to accept this fact. The leading officers on both sides were graduates of West Point, studied under the same professors, read the same books on strategy and tactics, and served in the same “Old Army” before the war. Both sides used the tactics which had their genesis in Napoleon and, even before him, Frederick the Great. The object of war was to capture places like national capitals, not to destroy opposing military forces. Both North and South were agricultural areas, so the vast majority of both armies consisted of unsophisticated farm boys. They fired mostly long range rifled muskets and dug in every chance they had. Thus defenses regularly overwhelmed offenses.

And both sides had little experience with war. James M. McPherson labeled one of the chapters in his Battle Cry of Freedom “Amateurs at War,” and he described well a phenomenon which prevented a quick finish.

In short, the implementation of the traditional idea of the climactic battlefield victory proved impossible to achieve. It was only when Grant and Sherman came to the fore and instituted a new form of warfare, one which was a harbinger of later wars,that this conflict was able to come to an end.

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