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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10 Best States for Lovers of American History

10. New Jersey – There are a number of decent Revolutionary War sites here, such as the Trenton, Princeton, Monmouth and Ft. Mercer battlefields, plus Morristown, which for two years was the winter encampment site for Washington’s army. In addition, there’s a Civil War prison site, Ft. Delaware, which sits on an island in the Delaware River. Prisoners who died there are buried at Ft. Mott, on the shore. At Weehawken, you can see the monument on site of Hamilton-Burr duel, and at West Orange you can visit Thomas Edison’s home, laboratories and office. In New Jersey are the birthplace sites of James Fenimore Cooper, Grover Cleveland and the home of Walt Whitman.

A reenactment at Monmouth

9. Missouri – The battlefields in Missouri don’t compare to the ones in the east, but there are a few, such as at Athens and Wilson Creek. In Independence you’ll find Harry Truman’s home not far from his presidential library. There’s plenty of Lewis & Clark history here (they left from St. Louis and traveled the Missouri River west), and a farm once owned by U.S. Grant, before he was important. Missouri has the homes of Mark Twain, George Washington Carver, John Pershing, Scott Joplin, Walt Disney and Thomas Hart Benton.

Harry Truman's home in Independence, Missouri

8. Texas – The Alamo (need I say more?), not to mention other Battlefields of the Texas Revolution, such as San Jacinto and Gonzales. Near Brownsville, you’ll find Mexican War battlefields. In San Antonio, in addition to the Alamo, you’ll find old 17th & 18th century Spanish missions to explore. The Texas State Cemetery in Austin is the final resting place for lots of important Texans, including Stephen F. Austin, General Albert Sidney Johnston and Governor John Connally (who was wounded in the car with Kennedy). There were dozens of Civil War skirmishes in Texas, including ones at Galveston, Corpus Christi and Sabine Pass.

Cannon at San Jacinto

7. California – California doesn’t have the traditional battlefield-type sites that I like, but there’s still plenty of history here. In the Golden State, you’ll find Alcatraz, Death Valley, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Sutter’s Mill (Gold strike). If you like open spaces there’s the California Historic Trail, where hundreds of thousands of pioneers traversed and the Pony Express Trail. For the military buff, there’s the Presidio, which has been an army post for the Spanish, Mexicans and Americans. If you’re more into entertainment history, Hollywood and Burbank are mecca.

Alcatraz - Now Open for Tours!

6. Tennessee – Tennessee is second only to Virginia for sheer number of Civil War battles, including Shiloh, Chickamauga and Chattanooga, not to mention Forts Henry and Donelson. Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage is here, as well as the homes of presidents James Knox Polk (thumbs up) and Andrew Johnson (not so much).  For those who like a walk in the woods, you have Natchez Trace, a famous Indian/settler trail that is also where Meriwether Lewis met his end. Like Greek history? In 1897, Nashville rebuilt an exact replica of the Parthenon, including the statue of Athena inside. There are plenty of antebellum plantations that survived the war, if you like that sort of thing, and the Jack Daniels distillery if you get bored. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in the heart of Tennessee Valley Authority plants, was key to the Manhattan Project. And every American must at least once make a pilgrimage to Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley.

Graceland - Elvis' crib

5. New York – Home of the Bennington battlefield and Fort Ticonderoga, and Washington’s headquarters during the New York Campaign.You’ll also find plenty of War of 1812 history close to the Lakes. Sadly, almost all of the places fought over in New York City in the Revolution are now buried in asphalt, but you can still go there, just not at night, or alone. In New York City, there’s so much history that it’s impossible to list it all, so I’ll just mention the site of the Twin Towers, Trinity Church (Hamilton is buried there, along with many others), Wall Street (where Washington was sworn in as the first President), Ellis Island (I’m calling it New York, don’t even start that with me), the Statue of Liberty, and the Dakota. Lots of important people’s houses are in New York, like John Brown, Martin Van Buren, John Rockefeller, Thomas Paine (with grave), Susan B. Anthony and Millard Fillmore. Add to that the Military Academy at West Point (where a certain Benedict Arnold tried to sell us out). Oh, and the Erie Canal.

Alexander Hamilton's grave at Trinty Church

4. Massachusetts – Boston. Where do I begin? Let’s see, there’s the Old North Church, the Boston Massacre site, Boston Tea Party site, Bunker Hill, Old South Meeting House, the Paul Revere House, the USS Constitution and the JFK Presidential Library, just to mention the big targets. Getting outside of town, we get Fort Warren (where political prisoners were held during the Civil War, including the mayor of Baltimore) Lexington and Concord, John Adams and John Quincy Adams’ homes, the Lizzie Borden death house,  Waltham (Lowell’s girls), and Transcendentalist sites, like Walden Pond. And then there are the Puritan colonies, such as Plymouth (Pilgrims) and Salem (Witches), not to mention all of the Quaker and Shaker sites. For a small, state, it’s jammed packed full of history-goodness.

Lizzie Borden took an axe...

3. Pennsylvania – America started here (or so the Tourist Board says). Philadelphia, our nation’s capital for ten years, has Independence Hall (think Declaration of Independence, Constitution), the Liberty Bell,  the Constitution Center, the First (and Second) Banks of the United States, where Ben Franklin used to stay (and where he stays now, next to his wife, Deborah), Christ Church and Congress Hall. (I don’t mention Betsy Ross because it’s largely a myth.) You should also see Fort Mifflin, a Civil War-era fort (it’s haunted, you know). Outside of town we get the Washington Crossing site, Valley Forge, the Brandywine and Germantown battlefields, and as we move west, there’s Nirvana Gettysburg. Gettysburg is the site of the greatest battle in the history of the Western Hemisphere – I’ll just leave it at that. If this state had only Gettysburg, it would still be in the top ten. Continuing west, we get into lots of French and Indian War sites, including the Braddock battlefield, Fort Necessity and Fort Duquesne (sadly, you have to go to Pittsburgh to see this). James Buchanan’s house is in Pennsylvania, but there’s no need to stop there.

G.K. Warren's statue at Little Round Top

2. Virginia – Virginia is called the “Mother of Presidents” because so many were born there. Here’s the list: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, W.H. Harrison, Zachary Taylor, John Tyler and Woodrow Wilson. Many of their homes are on the must see list: Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier and Berkeley Plantation. Arlington National Cemetery was the home of Robert E. Lee; Virginia was also the home of Stonewall Jackson, J.E. B. Stuart, A.P. Hill and a slew of other Civil War greats. There are more Civil War battlefields in Virginia than any other state, and many of them were major, bloody engagements. Richmond, the Confederate Capital, has a ton of restored buildings and preserved artifacts. Down the Peninsula, we run into Yorktown, where the American Revolution ended, and Jamestown, where Virginia began. (Williamsburg is nice, but overly commercial.) Harpers Ferry was in Virginia when John Brown attacked it, so for the sake of this discussion, I’ve re annexed it. Newport News and Norfolk are wonderful if you like naval history (this is where the “Duel of the Ironclads” occurred).

The bed upon which Stonewall Jackson died, in the house where he died.

1. Maryland – OK, maybe I’m biased, but we’ve got it all! Let’s start at the start: Maryland’s First Colonial capital, St. Mary’s City, has been excavated and rebuilt and a replica of the ship that brought over the first settlers is there. Annapolis is loaded with colonial history, including the preserved room in the State House where George Washington resigned his commission. It’s also the home of the Naval Academy. South of town there’s Londontown, a colonial-era settlement currently being excavated; even farther south is the Surratt Tavern and the Mudd House along the path of John Wilkes Booth’s escape route. In Baltimore, there’s only Fort McHenry, the well-kept birthplace of the Star Spangled banner, Edgar Allan Poe’s house and grave, the B&O Railroad (America’s first), President Street Station (where the Baltimore Riot started), Westminster Cemetery, Greenmount Cemetery, the Carroll Mansion, the USS Constellation, the USCGC Taney (a Pearl Harbor survivor), the Flag House (where the Star Spangled Banner was made) and lots of historic churches and really old homes. Going west, we arrive at the South Mountain and Monocacy Battlefields, and then Antietam, the very well-preserved site of the bloodiest day in American history. Farther west we find Forts Frederick and Cumberland from the French and Indian War. The clincher for Maryland? It’s not only got its own historical stuff, it sits between Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. with all of their historical stuff. Living in Maryland, you are closer to history than anywhere else in America.

Fort McHenry

D.C. Sniper John Allen Muhammad is Dead, and I Don’t Feel Any Better

Last night, the state of Virginia executed convicted D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad. Many commentators had said (as they always do), that this final act was really about “closure” for the victims’ families, and yet, none of those family members admitted to feelings of closure last night, and a few denied it outright. I suspect that the only true instance of closure last night belonged to Muhammed. Yes, I know that he deserved it, but it still made me feel uneasy, and more than a little bit conflicted.

Don’t think that I’m just someone who can’t stomach the death penalty (there are plenty of crimes I think are quite suited for it, especially where children are involved).  I believe that the reason I, like many Americans, feel sympathy for the condemned killers at the time of their execution is more logical. When the crimes are committed, and fresh in our memories, we surge with horror and outrage. We imagine what the last moments of the victims must have been like, and try to empathize with their families. At that moment, our sense of justice cries out for retribution against the perpetrator.

However, the wheels of due process grind very slowly. Gradually, over time, our outrage fades, new crimes replace the old, and we forget the faces of the innocent. At the time of trial, our attention may be regained briefly, but only with a fleeting, passing glance – certainly not with the same intensity as it had been at the time of the crimes. By the time the killer is sentenced to die, our emotional state is approaching something more akin to ambivalence than righteous fury. The process has begun.

The process of emotional dissociation accelerates throughout the ensuing years, as appeals are filed, motions are lost and requests for new trials are denied. Time passes. As the final appeal winds its way toward the Supreme Court, and the date of execution draws closer, the media once again becomes conscious of the story, but the perspective has changed. At this point the stories do not revolve around the horrific nature of the crimes, or the suffering of the victims and their families, but on the condemned’s struggle to survive.

In the final weeks leading up to the execution, we are peppered with professions of innocence, lawyer’s statements that detail the several and serious errors from the original trial and the testimony of credible-sounding people who claim that the convicted person could not possibly have done the thing of which he is accused. We listen, we read, and slowly, imperceptibly, we find our imaginations caught up in the plight of a killer to live just one more month, one more week, one more day.

During the final few days, we become increasingly uncomfortable as it becomes apparent that the condemned is, in fact, doomed to die. We might wonder how one faces the idea that no matter what he does, his life will suddenly end in a now easily quantifiable number of hours. Does he try to stay awake, squeezing out every conscious hour of life that he can? Does he stare at the clock, watching his life inexorably drain away? So much is made of the last meal; how can a man that will be killed in a few hours enjoy anything, much less food? Who could have an appetite at a time like that?

And then, the day arrives. We are busy living lives that have a tomorrow. Still, at moments throughout the day, we may see a clock and quickly do the math: Three hours until he dies. Again we wonder: what is he doing? What is he thinking? Is he keeping his composure? More to the point, could I keep my composure?

The hours pass and we are made aware of a man’s sudden death by a scrolling text at the bottom of a television screen. We consider this for a moment and then return to more immediate concerns, such as whether Daniel will finally get voted off of The Biggest Loser. For us, life goes on, albeit a little more gingerly than before, for a few days anyway, until this death too passes from our conscious memory.

Clearly, it is the buffer of many years’ time that allows our sympathies to be transferred from the victim to the killer. Not that long ago, justice was swift, catching up the convicted while the blood lust of the people was still fully aroused. When the condemned met his fate, there was a sense that balance had been restored; few tears were shed for a person who had done such terrible things, things that had not yet passed from common recall. A primal need for revenge had been satisfied.

I do not long for a return to the days when crime, conviction and consummation all took place within a period of weeks. Justice cannot be accomplished where doubt remains, and my unease is hardly worth mentioning when compared with the need to be absolutely certain of the guilt of the criminal and the guarantee of due process.

I do, however, find myself wondering: Is this what justice is supposed to feel like?

Honestly? I hope not.