Top Ten Decisive Battles in Western Civilization

Today’s Friday History List examines the ten most decisive battles in the history of Western Civilization. These are battles that, by their outcomes, changed the course of events in a very dramatic way. They are listed chronologically:

202 B.C. – Zama. The Romans, commanded by Scipio, routed Hannibal and drove him from the field. Carthage was removed as a rival to Rome in the Western Mediterranean, and Rome became the dominate power in Europe. This in turn ensured that western Europe would become subject to heavy Latin and Greek influences.

312 A.D. – Milvian Bridge. Constantine, having seen a vision of victory (“in hoc signo vinces“), defeats Maxentius‘ armies to become the master of first the Western Roman Empire, and eventually all of it. Fulfilling a pre-battle vow, he converts to Christianity, taking all of the Empire with him.  At the Council of Nicea, Constantine assigns blame for Christ’s death to the Jews, and he makes Christianity the predominate religion of his empire. Much of Europe’s future has just been written.

451 – Châlons. Attila the Hun is defeated by a combined Roman/Visigoth force, preventing him from dominating Western Europe. Into the vacuum steps Germanic culture and the Catholic Church, expressed by papal power in Rome.

732 – Tours. Muslim invaders, intent on spreading the religion of Mohammed, enjoyed unchecked success as they expanded their influence from India to Spain. At Tours, Frankish leader Charles Martel defeated a Muslim force commanded by Abd er-Rahman, ending the Muslim threat to Western Europe, establishing the Franks as dominate in Gaul and preparing the scene for Charlemagne.

1588 – Spanish Armada. The Spanish, fueled by precious metals stripped from the Americas, achieved military and political hegemony in the 16th century. When England left the Catholic Church under Henry VIII, the Spanish became their sworn enemies; when English pirates began raiding Spanish galleons, threatening Spain’s financial windfall, the situation took on a new sense of urgency. In 1588, the Spanish, aided by the French, intended to invade England and forcibly reconvert the population. Stormy seas and a plucky English navy caused the destruction of almost half of the Spanish vessels and England not only survived, but rose to become the preeminent naval power in the world. With the Spanish badly weakened, the English decided to move rapidly into the colony business. England’s time had arrived.

1776 – Trenton. In the fall of 1776, it looked like the American Revolution had failed. George Washington’s dwindling army seemed on the verge of disintegration, and the British relaxed for the winter, intending on finishing off whatever remained of the rebellion in the spring. Rather than watch his army die, Washington led a surprise attack on his enemy’s forward position in Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas night, 1776. What resulted was a stunning victory over Hessian mercenaries that changed the direction of the war and set the stage for the eventual ejection of the English from their American colonies.

1813 – Leipzig. Napoleon, his army greatly weakened by losses the previous year during the Russian campaign, faced for the first time a combined allied army. At Leipzig Napoleon is defeated and forced to retreat to France; he will abdicate the next year, effectively ending his influence and dramatically shifting the balance of power in Europe.

1864 – Atlanta. The summer of 1864 was the North’s darkest hour, as the bright hopes of springtime campaigns had been ground away to dark disappointment. U.S. Grant’s battles against Robert E. Lee in Virginia had been enormously bloody (over 50,000 new Union casualties) with no end yet in sight. In the South, William Tecumseh Sherman’s army sat outside of Atlanta with little hope of breaking its own deadlock. To the public, and more particularly to prospective voters that year, it looked as if Mr. Lincoln’s war might never end. Confederate President Jefferson Davis did the Union a favor that summer as he replaced the defensive-minded Joseph Johnston with the reckless John Bell Hood. Within weeks Hood had taken massive casualties and was eventually compelled to give up Atlanta. The Union victory there gave the electorate in the North the optimism they needed to reelect Abraham Lincoln, which doomed any Southern hopes for victory. At Atlanta, both the Confederacy and American slavery died forever.

1914 – 1st Marne. One of the reasons Germany welcomed the start of the First World War was their absolute faith in the Von Schlieffen Plan, which they expected to result in the fall of France in no more than six weeks. (Don’t forget that the last time Germany and France fought, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the Germans had won a resounding victory.) In August of 1914, in spite of tough resistance from the Belgians and a combined British-French defense, all was on schedule. What the Von Schlieffen Plan didn’t take into account though, was the logistical nightmare of trying to keep rapidly moving troops adequately supplied in a day when most ammunition and provisions were still carried in horse-pulled wagons. Losing confidence, German Chief of Staff Moltke changed the plan in mid-stream and exposed his army to attack. This the French did at the 1st Battle of the Marne. By the first week of September, the German Army had been halted, and both armies began to dig trenches in a line that would eventually extend to the North Sea. A war of rapid movement had suddenly become a nightmare in the trenches.

1940 – Dunkirk. At the end of May 1940, it was clear that the Nazis would conquer France; all that was left to be decided was whether the 400,000 British and French survivors could be evacuated to England, where the fight might go on. If the Germans could have entrapped and destroyed those troops, the Second World War might have ended that spring, as Britain would have had little but the Home Guard with which to defend their island. The evacuation, called Operation Dynamo, was aided by German hesitation and the heroic efforts of those on the thousands of boats that helped in the rescue. In addition, the RAF inflicted serious losses on the Luftwaffe as it harassed the troops on the beach. By the time the effort was called off on June 4, 338,000 men had been taken out of France and the Germans had lost 240 aircraft. Hitler would eventually realize that he could never have England, instead, he turned his attention to the Soviet Union – with disastrous consequences.

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Five Greatest American Field Commanders

For today’s edition of History List Friday, I’m looking at what I consider to be the five best American field commanders of all-time. (Note that I didn’t say “United States,” because two of them displayed their genius while making war against the United States.)

Ready? OK, here we go:

5. Winfield Scott – Scott spent fifty years as a commander in the army, and participated in some of its most notable campaigns during the first half of the 19th century. In the War of 1812, Lt. Colonel Scott led the American assault on Queenstown Heights, Ontario. His troops were winning until New York militia refused to cross the river in support; Scott was forced to surrender. Exchanged in 1813, Scott commanded the First Brigade in the Niagara campaign of July 1814, decisively winning the battle of Chippewa before being wounded at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, ending his involvement in the war. In the Mexican War, Scott led a successful amphibious invasion of Mexico at Vera Cruz, and then through a series of flanking maneuvers, forced Santa Anna’s army to backpedal into Mexico City. (No less an authority than Wellington himself had predicted that Scott’s army would never be heard from again.) Santa Anna, believing that the walls of Mexico City could not be breached, fortified the town and secured the fortress-less castle of Chapultepec and dared Scott to attack. Scott did attack, his men carried Chapultepec, and Mexico City quickly fell. Wellington, learning of the feat, now called Scott the world’s “greatest living general.” At the outbreak of the Civil War, Scott was the commander of the Union forces, and as such, was the primary architect of the Anaconda Plan, which was a naval blockade of the South. While this plan took years to show concrete results, it was key in eventually choking the South off from resupply and severing in into easily managed segments.  During his lifetime, Scott published the Abstract of Infantry Tactics, Including Exercises and Manueuvres of Light-Infantry and Riflemen, for the Use of the Militia of the United States in 1830 and in 1840, he wrote Infantry Tactics, Or, Rules for the Exercise and Maneuvre of the United States Infantry.

4. U.S. Grant – Grant might not have been a brilliant military strategist, but he was at the least a very good one. It was Grant’s battlefield demeanor, however, that places him in the top five. Named a brigadier general in August of 1861, Grant quickly established himself as a bold, aggressive commander, seizing Paducah, Kentucky, a key port on the Ohio River.   (In the Western Theatre, control of the rivers would be the key to victory, and Grant understood this from the beginning.) A few months later, Grant seized Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. At Fort Donelson, Grant’s army suffered a surprise attack while he was away; Grant regrouped and counterattacked, and Donelson surrendered a few days later. In was here that Grant earned his nickname of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. When asked for terms by the Rebel commander, Grant coolly replied that he would accept no terms except “unconditional and immediate surrender.” Grant’s troops were taken unawares at Shiloh, but, once again, Grant calmly regained the offensive the next day and carried the field. Grant’s dogged persistence and gutsy, imaginative campaign at Vicksburg resulted in the capture of the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi. Coming east after having been given command of all Union Armies in March of 1864, Grant’s campaigns against the heretofore unconquered Robert E. Lee were brutally effective, though terribly costly. It is worth noting that Grant’s tactics changed when he changed theaters; in the West, he maneuvered to gain control of critical waterways. In the East, he used his massive manpower advantage to bleed Lee white. In both cases, he was ultimately successful.

3. George S. Patton – George Patton was the father of American armored tactics. During World War I he was the first officer assigned to the U.S. Tank Corps, and became a vocal advocate for expanded use of armor in battle during the interwar years. In 1942, following U.S. entry into World War II, Patton trained his tanks for battle in California before participating in the successful capture of Morocco from Vichy France.  Given command of II Corps after its disastrous losses against the Afrika Korps, Patton counter-attacked, and in combination with British General Bernard Law Montgomery, drove the Germans out of North Africa.  In Sicily, Patton commanded the U.S. 7th Army brilliantly, driving westward across the island and then north, again in conjunction with Montgomery, until the Germans and Italians were compelled to evacuate. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), while on Sicily, Patton’s slapping of a serviceman cost him the chance to follow the 7th Army into Italy, and he was instead rotated among several locations as a decoy to the Germans, who expected Patton to lead an invasion wherever he went. Eventually he was assigned to England, where again he was a decoy for the fictitious “First U.S. Army Group,” which the Nazis were convinced would be assaulting Calais. This misinterpretation resulted in the misplacement of several German Panzer divisions, making them unavailable at Normandy on D-Day. After D-Day, Patton was given command of the Third Army, which he relentlessly drove across France (until he outran his supplies and was forced to stop; the interval allowed the Germans to fortify Metz, which resulted in a protracted siege). When the Germans surprised allied troops with their 1944 Winter Offensive, Patton disengaged a corps-sized element of his army and turned it north toward the “bulge.” This complicated and dangerous move was executed to perfection, and within days Patton’s men were fighting at Bastogne, which the 101st Airborne were barely holding. The Germans, seeing the strength of the forces opposing them, retreated.  Patton’s army then continued moving east, cutting a swath across southern Germany, finally reaching Czechoslovakia in May as the war ended.

2. Stonewall Jackson – Thomas J. Jackson received his famous nickname at the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas), when his brigade’s unflinching stand in the face of coordinated Union assaults helped turn the tide of battle. In his historic 1862 Valley Campaign, Jackson’s 17,000 men marched 646 miles in 48 days, engaging three different Union armies (totaling about 60,000 men), and preventing them from reinforcing George McClellan’s drive against Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign. Union leaders were intimidated by Jackson, and refused to release any of the valley troops, fearing that Jackson would turn his attention to Washington, D.C. Called to Richmond’s defense just before the Seven Days Battles, Jackson removed his men by train unnoticed, and much to the chagrin of Union commanders, turned up in Richmond just as McClellan prepared to attack. Jackson joined Lee’s army for the battles around Richmond, but he did not distinguish himself there. It has been suggested that he was at his best when given independent command. Jackson’s men did much better at Second Bull Run, Antietam and Fredericksburg, but his fame was sealed at the Battle of Chancellorsville. There Jackson accomplished his famous flank march, which annihilated the right of Joseph Hooker’s Union Army and sent them flying north in panic. Sadly for Jackson, however,  as he was scouting for a night attack, he was accidentally shot by his own pickets. He died of pneumonia while recovering.

1. Robert E. Lee – No American commander has ever been as beloved as Robert Edward Lee. Taking command of the rebel army in June of 1862, with George McClellan’s vastly superior federal forces only nine miles outside of Richmond, Lee discounted the odds and audaciously attacked the Union troops repeatedly over a seven day period, driving them back down the Virginia Peninsula from which they had come. With the exception of the battle at Gaines Mill, each of Lee’s attacks had cost him more men than it had McClellan, but the federal commander was so disturbed by the carnage that he treated them as losses. Lee continued his aggressive tactics at Second Bull Run, where John Pope’s Union Army of Virginia was shattered. Largely because of bad luck (Lee’s campaign orders somehow fell into the hands of a Union soldier), his Maryland Campaign ended badly at Antietam, although the odds there were not in his favor. Lee routed the Union forces again at Fredericksburg in December and at Chancellorsville the next spring, before launching into the north again with a campaign that would end disastrously at Gettysburg. From this point forward, with Confederate supplies and men dwindling, Lee changed his tactics and took up a more defensive posture. In doing so, he was able to inflict devastating casualties on numerous Union armies. However, with the elevation of the determined Grant to command, and the reelection of Abraham Lincoln in November of 1864, Lee and the South were doomed. Ground down to a mere 25,000 men by the spring of 1865, Lee held out for as long as possible before accepting Grant’s offer to surrender. Rather than dispersing his army and continuing the struggle with guerrilla warfare, Lee asked his men to go home and become good citizens; his men did as they were told, and the nation’s reconciliation began. Even at the hour of his greatest defeat, Lee demonstrated that he was still a successful leader of troops.