Many in the country, outside of the military, thought the war would be brief; some believed that one major battle would convince the other side to negotiate for peace resulting either in a restored Union or a reduced United States and independent Confederacy. Others thought the country would come to its senses and resolve the crisis without bloodshed. The opinions of those with professional military training were mixed. Ulysses S. Grant thought the war would be of short duration. William Tecumseh Sherman took the opposite point of view and certain the war would last for many years and involve “the destruction of all able-bodied men of this generation and go pretty deep into the next.”
Young Alonzo Cushing, a cadet at West Point during the crisis leading to Ft. Sumter, agreed with Sherman as he watched his Southern classmates resign from the academy to join the army of the new Southern Confederacy. He wrote his mother on April 17, “I want to fight my ‘Southern Bretheren.’ They would like very well to whip us and kill us, and it is just and right that we return the compliment.” When he graduated in June he advised his mother, “We will soon see some large battlefields and a war beside which our little Mexican affair and our wars with England dwindle into positive insignificance. Our present war will at least approximate if not equal or surpass in magnitude of its operations the great conflicts which desolated Europe at the beginning of the present century.”
Cushing’s prediction proved prophetic. But why did men like he and Sherman [and Grant and others like him would quickly change their thinking] think it would be a long and bloody war? For one, they knew the determination of their former countrymen to forge a new and independent slave holding republic. As soldiers they looked at the vast size of the Confederacy with its population of nearly 5.4 million white citizens and understood that conquering such a nation would require a massive effort on a scale few in the country understood when the guns opened upon Ft. Sumter.
The First Battle of Manassas, fought on July 21, 1861 erased the hopes of a brief war. While the 4,878 casualties sustained by both sides in that battle sent shock waves north and south, Confederate victory in the battle served to strengthen the belief that independence could be won on the battlefield, while the North was served notice that it would take more than one battle to restore the Union.