Ulysees S. Grant did some pretty strange things throughout his life, but in his memoir he mentioned just one decision that he made as a critical error: the final attack at Cold Harbor. Cold Harbor was an impossible battle for Union troops when they launched their attack. Confederate troops were dug in behind gigantic earthworks like these:
Now, the American Civil War remains the bloodiest war in American history, but you’d have to be a little crazy to attack an entrenched enemy position like that. As I analyzed Grant as a person and as a commander I couldn’t find any logical reason to launch that last attack. The criticism against him as a General at the time had been that he was reckless with the lives of some of his soldiers, but his soldiers revered him. The average Civil War soldier did not disobey a direct command unless there were extreme circumstances involved. However, at Cold Harbor one officer remarked that: “I will not make another charge if Jesus Christ himself orders it.”
After Pickett’s Charge, Southern soldiers pled with their Army’s Commanding General Robert E. Lee to let them charge across the field again and give it another try. At Fredericksburg, one of the South’s most lopsided victories of the war, Federal troops attacked similar entrenchments along a line known as Marye’s Heights. If you ever visit Fredericksburg it is nearly impossible to miss Marye’s Heights because not only is it the highest position in the area, but you can see from miles away that it is the highest position around. Yet Federal troops crossed barges over a frozen river in the middle of winter in an attempt to take the Confederate high ground. The Federal Commander, Major General Ambrose Burnside (whose major gift to history would be the term “sideburns,” of which he had one of the greatest in the annals of military history.) We also get the term “sideburns” from the last name Burnside, sideburn being an anagram of Burnside.
Needless to say there was no shortage of valor on both sides of the American Civil War. Therefore it should not be stunning to learn that after sustaining nearly 8,000 casualties in under an hour Federal troops were asked to make another charge. What was amazing then – and to a large degree still is – was that Grant ordered another attack. The final attack against Confederate positions cost between 2-4,000 men. Even Southern soldiers did not want Federal troops to make another attack, not because they were in fear for their lives, but because they didn’t want to kill any more men. This amazing piece of history has prompted books such as: “Not War, But Murder,” the title of which came from a Union diary entry from the day of the attack.
It is the mistakes like those made at Cold Harbor that make historians wonder: “what were they thinking?” This is a question that should not merely seem interesting to me but to the public at large because so many of us think in terms of what I call the “just one more” mentality. My theory – which I called “the Alcoholic Thesis” was that once we commit ourselves to something it is incredibly difficult to stop ourselves from committing endless resources towards it despite how ridiculous it may seem to do so by any outside observer.
I observed such a scenario firsthand not long ago. A man was putting a pool table together and numerous problems came his way as they always seem to do when you’re putting something together. First, the legs didn’t seem to fit, then the pockets seemed off, then it seemed like there was a downward angle that led the cue ball into the pocket after hitting the ball despite applying backspin to the ball (I may have been pushing that last one because my score had been adversely affected by this previously) but the problems seemed unending. Nonetheless, he worked sun-up to sun-down to build the table until it was usable and as is so often the case once the table was put together and correctly functioning we were exhausted and no one wanted to play.
The man who was putting this pool table together was no idiot nor did he have any predisposition towards any addictive behavior, so I wondered for awhile exactly why he had to have the pool table done then and there at that time. You couldn’t stop this man once he got started. He traveled miles around for supplies and even put off eating until he had completed his task. I had wondered early on in my research if the fact that Ulysees S. Grant was an Alcoholic had anything to do with his decision to commit more troops to the fight when the day had so clearly gone against them at Cold Harbor. However, realizing as I now do that people are predisposed to try harder once they’ve made a commitment, I’m not sure that my analysis or my original title of “the Alcoholic Thesis” are correct. I think it’s the “Just One More” Syndrome that overtakes us psychologically when we’ve invested in something.
Think about all of the relationships in your life that you’ve put way too much effort into only to have them fail. In most cases, you probably didn’t do this because you had any one reason to believe that this particular relationship should last longer than it did and looking back on it you probably realize that the relationship should have ended sooner. This kind of things happens all the time with couples who may not have anything in common other than the fact that they’ve both invested a significant amount of time in the relationship.
The “Just One More” thesis can explain why a woeful attack was made in 1864, it can explain why a pool table took so long to be built, it can even explain why we decide to do something “right now” when it would probably make more sense to wait until a better time. Now, some people are disproportionately affected by this syndrome. There are whimsical people who do things because they’re bored or do them “just because.” Think about it: in the history of man has anything good ever happened: just because?
There is certainly more than enough evidence to suggest that the “Just One More” thesis can be a personality type. Indeed, as I was growing up I found that I always wanted to push everything to the limit. When I was young I used to drive my teachers nuts and even now I have something that I need to do “just one more” time: writing. I don’t write one post and go on with my day. I spend my day writing and if I get material out of it great, if not it’s just another day at the office.
The problem for people like me is that there is no vacation. “Fun” is not something that I can define in terms of personal experiences. I didn’t realize this until I was sitting in the library on the last day of school with a couple of friends listening to their summer plans only to realize that I had so much work ahead of me. I ask teachers right after the semester ends what books we’ll be reading next semester so that I can read it through once by myself over break or over summer.
Everything turns into “just one more thing.” Going to the store to pick up one thing, say a prescription, turns into me coming home with ten other things. You can say: “well, that’s our consumer-based economy” to which I would say:
“I’m the only person I know of that can’t go anywhere and just get one thing.” Think of it like ADD. I can’t go to the bookstore and just buy one book (even though I can only read one book at a time.) I can’t sit down and watch just one episode of a TV show. I can’t drink just one glass of water. Look in my house and you’ll see that I’ve got at least two different glasses and probably a couple of water bottles sitting around. This is because I have the “Just One More” syndrome added on to all of my other problems and the crazy part of all of this is that I still think that all of this is normal behavior – indeed everything that I do – is all perfectly normal despite the fact that my mind knows that it’s nowhere close to normal. In fact, I’m not sure that this is all that’s wrong with me, I’m certain that there is just one more thing wrong with me that I haven’t yet discovered.