Decisive Battles of the Civil War? None

By Greg Biggs
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: Greg Briggs has authored or co-authored several books and many articles on the Civil War. He has held executive positions with several Civil War Roundtables and preservation and historical societies and is a member of the Advisory Board of the Center For the Study of the Civil War in the West at Western Kentucky University. Mr. Biggs spoke to the CCWRT at its December, 2007 meeting; this article is a follow-up to that presentation.

In my program “Napoleonic Cavalryman: Nathan Bedford Forrest” at the December meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable, I stated early on that the Civil War had no decisive battles despite Civil War historians constantly writing that this or that battle was “decisive.” I also stated that most Civil War historians do not study warfare prior to the Civil War, most importantly the Napoleonic Wars, when decisive battles were fought. Lastly, I argued that the primary reason for the lack of decisive battles in the Civil War was the misuse of cavalry, particularly in the pursuit phase, which rarely existed after a typical Civil War engagement.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Let me reiterate what a “decisive battle” was in Napoleonic terms. This was a battle that brought about a political solution to the war with one side withdrawing or surrendering to the side that won the battle. Some Napoleonic examples include Austerlitz (1805), where Napoleon’s victory forced Austria out of the war. In 1806 there was Jena-Auerstadt and the 250 mile aggressive pursuit of the Prussians that ultimately knocked them out of the war. In 1807, Friedland defeated Czar Alexander and the Russians and, of course, in 1815, the Allied victory at Waterloo sealed Napoleon’s own fate. Under this definition, no Civil War battle comes close.

To be sure, there were a few battles where one army or the other was severely beaten and, in a couple cases, that army was very nearly destroyed. Richmond, Kentucky in 1862 where the Union forces were virtually annihilated is one, but the war still went on. In 1863, the Confederate Army of Tennessee barely got off Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga and even lost most of its artillery, and yet by May, 1864 that army had been rebuilt to its largest and most effective state of the war. Confederate cavalry mattered in the first example and Union cavalry did not factor at all with the second.

We get a bit closer with the Battle of Nashville, where that same Confederate army was smashed in two days of fighting with only a few thousand survivors getting back to Alabama. Third Winchester and Cedar Creek in the 1864 Valley Campaign also come close. The Confederates received the charge of five Union cavalry brigades at Winchester and, at the latter, Sheridan rallied his beaten troops and seized victory from the jaws of defeat while allowing his cavalry to envelope the Confederate left. Saylor’s Creek, where Lee lost a third of his army in 1865, was also a crushing blow. What ties these battles together is that the critical arm of service for these victories was the Union cavalry, massed, aggressive, and properly led. But still there was no Confederate surrender; no immediate political solution after any of these battles.

Some historians argue that Civil War armies were just impossible to destroy and thus made campaigns more important than single battles. Using that as a basis with the South being defeated in the Vicksburg Campaign and the Atlanta Campaign, arguably the two most devastating blows to the South, why did they still not surrender? The former cut them in two and the latter lead directly to Lincoln’s re-election, which certainly defeated the peace Democrats once and for all and made a negotiated settlement a moot point.

It is outside the scope of this article to discuss any deeper reason why Civil War armies were so hard to destroy (I argue that lack of proper cavalry usage is one critical reason), but this begs the question: were there ever any truly decisive battles in North America? Yes there were.

The Battle of Quebec

James Wolfe

Quebec – September, 1759 – the French & Indian War/Seven Years’ War. The political stakes: to see if Canada and the American colonies would be French or British. For five years the war had not being going in Britain’s favor. Bad generalship, bad luck, and other factors allowed the French to fight their traditional foes to a standstill and even gain the upper hand. In 1757, French General Montcalm’s advance up the Hudson River forced the British to surrender at Ft. William Henry (as depicted in the movie “The Last of the Mohicans”), thus threatening the British capitol at Albany. In 1758, the British three-pronged counteroffensive was only partially successful, but it brought notice of a new British general, James Wolfe.

The death of General James Wolfe on September 13, 1759, on the plateau above Quebec City.
The Marquis de Montcalm

In June, 1759, Wolfe sailed a British army of 9,000 up the St. Lawrence River to attack Quebec, held by Montcalm and his 14,000 troops. After a repulse and some feints, Wolfe was able to maneuver his troops onto the heights south of the city, forcing the French to come out and fight a set-piece battle. British discipline and massed fire shredded the French army and mortally wounded Montcalm. Though Wolfe was also mortally wounded, his victorious troops pursued the French, forcing the remnants back into the city. The new French commander withdrew from Quebec and the city surrendered a few days later. The war would largely conclude in 1760 with the capture of Montreal by the British, although smaller engagements would continue for three more years. The result: the British victory at Quebec defeated the largest French army on the North American continent as well as killed their best general. The British also lost arguably their finest general of the war, but it was all downhill from Quebec until 1763. Canada and the American colonies would be English from here on out and we speak English today because of this.

The Battle of New Orleans

New Orleans – January, 1815 – the War of 1812 (actually very much a part of the Napoleonic Wars, arguably the real Second World War, the Seven Years’ War being the first world conflict). The stakes: who would really control America – the British or the Americans. In December, 1776, Thomas Paine wrote the famous phrase, “these are the times that try men’s souls.” This same phrase could well have been written in 1814. By this time, the British had chased the brilliantly led US Navy from the seas, captured and burned Washington City, and defeated several American armies, which had few good commanders to lead them. The war was increasingly unpopular with New England even threatening secession. Despite the negotiations going on in Ghent to settle the differences, the British formulated a crushing campaign to end it all and truly command America. The objective was to seize New Orleans and from there control commerce on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. That the British refused to recognize the Louisiana Purchase also fueled its determination; the seizure of this massive territory was another objective.

Andrew Jackson

Hoping to stop them was General Andrew Jackson, one of the very few solid commanders and about the only American with a winning record to date. Taking command at New Orleans, he led a hodgepodge army of US regulars, Tennessee, Kentucky, and local militia (including two battalions of free blacks), Indians, and even Baratarian pirates. Facing them was a largely veteran British army under General Packenham, many of whose troops had faced Napoleon in Spain. On January 8, 1815, the British, after some days of raids and counter-punches by both sides, waged an all-out assault on Line Jackson. Here the cream of the British army was slaughtered, including Packenham, by Jackson’s well-sited artillery and massed musket fire. What remained withdrew and planned a campaign against Mobile until word arrived that the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, had been signed in late December, 1814.

Jackson leads American forces at the Battle of New Orleans.

The result: although it has been argued that the treaty made New Orleans a moot point, historian Robin Reilly argues, I think correctly, that, had Jackson been defeated, the British would have taken the city and prosecuted the war up the Mississippi River, completely cutting off all American commerce in the hinterlands of the fledgling nation. They then would have dictated new peace terms from the point of their sword, terms that would have undoubtedly been very unfavorable to America. The British defeat secured America completely and the Louisiana Purchase was finally recognized.

The Battle of San Jacinto

Antonio de Padua Maria Severino Lopez de Santa Anna y Perez

Battle of San Jacinto, Texas – April, 1836 – Texas War of Independence. The stakes: possible Texian independence from Mexico. Although an official declaration of independence from Mexico was not forthcoming until March 2, 1836, the war to separate Texas from Mexico was already in full swing. Mexican president General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna led a veteran army modeled very much along the lines of Napoleon’s Grande Armee, its commander the self-titled “Napoleon of the west.” Texian forces were slow to react and, with much political bickering hindering their cause, largely ineffective to date. This allowed Santa Anna to invade the Mexican state and attack small forces of Texian troops at will. While General Sam Houston struggled to form and drill a large army of liberation, it was these small forces that had to buy the time necessary, including three critical commands, one at Refugio, another at Goliad, and the last at the San Antonio de Bejar. The Refugio and Goliad forces did not obey orders to concentrate with Houston quickly enough and a portion of Santa Anna’s army gobbled them up. Most of the Mexican army then joined to reduce the fortifications at San Antonio de Bejar, known as the Alamo, and in a final assault on March 6, 1836 the defenders were overwhelmed.

The surrender of Santa Anna at San Jacinto.
Sam Houston

Houston, after getting this news, retreated and tried to train his army on the march. Santa Anna pursued in several columns across Texas scattering small Texas forces and panicking civilians. Finally, at San Jacinto, Houston chose his ground for battle. Santa Anna had outrun a large part of his divided army and camped in a poor position with his back to a large bayou. Houston, seizing the moment, attacked and literally drove the Mexican command into the river, capturing Santa Anna. With threats of being hung abounding, the Mexican president ceded Texas to the Texians and a new republic was born. Though border battles with Mexico in the early 1840s would keep things warm in the region, Texas would remain a sovereign nation until 1845 when it joined the United States. The result: the annexation of Texas would open the huge southwest to outside settlement and lead directly to another war, this time between Mexico and the United States. The Mexican defeat gave America the largest new territory since the Louisiana Purchase, with the Pacific Ocean becoming the western boundary. From this came the states of New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. It all began with the victory at San Jacinto.

I hope that the term “decisive battle” can now be fully understood as these three North American examples show. The decisive battle was a linchpin of the Western way of war since it had been invented by the ancient Greeks. With most Greeks being militia, the idea was to fight a battle that would decide the war and then get back to farming, trading, etc. Every Westernized culture since has sought decisive battle in war. It would more often than not elude some of the finest commanders of history.