By Michael Lee Lanning
Lt. Col. (Ret.) U.S. Army
Battles win wars, topple thrones, and redraw borders. Every age of human history has experienced battles that have been instrumental in molding the future. Battles influence the spread of culture, civilization, and religious dogma. They introduce weapons, tactics, and leaders who dominate future conflicts. Some battles have even been influential not for their direct results, but for the impact of their propaganda on public opinion.
The following list is not a ranking of decisive engagements, but rather a ranking of battles according to their influence on history. Each narrative details location, participants, and leaders of the battle, and also provides commentary on who won, who lost, and why. Narratives also evaluate each battle’s influence on the outcome of its war and the impact on the victors and losers.
Battle # 10 Vienna
Austria-Ottoman Wars, 1529
The Ottoman Turks’ unsuccessful siege of Vienna in 1529 marked the beginning of the long decline of their empire. It also stopped the advance of Islam into central and western Europe, and ensured that the Christian rather than the Muslim religion and culture would dominate the region.
In 1520, Suleiman II had become the tenth sultan of the Ottoman Empire, which reached from the Persian frontier to West Africa and included much of the Balkans. Suleiman had inherited the largest, best-trained army in the world, containing superior elements of infantry, cavalry, engineering, and artillery. At the heart of his army were elite legions of Janissaries, mercenary slaves taken captive as children from Christians and raised as Muslim soldiers. From his capital of Constantinople, the Turkish sultan immediately began making plans to expand his empire even farther.
Suleiman had also inherited a strong navy, which he used with his army to besiege the island fortress of Rhodes, his first conquest. Granting safe passage to the defenders in exchange for their surrender, the Sultan took control of Rhodes and much of the Mediterranean in 1522. This victory demonstrated that Suleiman would honor peace agreements. In following battles where enemies did not surrender peacefully, however, he displayed his displeasure by razing cities, massacring the adult males, and selling the women and children into slavery.
By 1528, Suleiman had neutralized Hungary and placed his own puppet on their throne. All that now stood between the Turks and Western Europe was Austria and its Spanish and French allies. Taking advantage of discord between his enemies, Suleiman made a secret alliance with King Francis I of France. Pope Clement VII in Rome, while not allying directly with the Muslim Sultan, withdrew religious and political support from the Austrians.
As a result, by the spring of 1529, King Charles and his Austrians stood alone to repel the Ottoman invaders. On April 10, Suleiman and his army of more than 120,000, accompanied by as many as 200,000 support personnel and camp followers, departed Constantinople for the Austrian capital of Vienna. Along the way, the huge army captured towns and raided the countryside for supplies and slaves.
All the while, Vienna, under the able military leadership of Count Niklas von Salm-Reifferscheidt and Wilhelm von Rogendorf, prepared for the pending battle. Their task appeared impossible. The city’s walls, only five to six feet thick, were designed to repel medieval attackers rather than the advanced cast-cannon artillery of the Turks. The entire Austrian garrison numbered only about 20,000 soldiers supported by 72 cannons. The only reinforcements who arrived in the city were a detachment of 700 musket-armed infantrymen from Spain.
Despite its disadvantages, Vienna had several natural factors supporting its defense. The Danube blocked any approach from the north, and the smaller Wiener Back waterway ran along its eastern side, leaving only the south and west to be defended. The Vienna generals took full advantage of the weeks before the arrival of the Turks. They razed dwellings and other buildings outside the south and west walls to open fields of fire for their cannons and muskets. They dug trenches and placed other obstacles on avenues of approach. They brought in supplies for a long siege within the walls and evacuated many of the city’s women and children, not only to reduce the need for food and supplies but also to prevent the consequences if the Turks were victorious.
One other factor greatly aided Vienna: the summer of 1529 was one of the wettest in history. The constant rains delayed the Ottoman advance and made conditions difficult for the marching army. By the time they finally reached Vienna in September, winter was approaching, and the defenders were as prepared as possible.
Upon his arrival, Suleiman asked for the city’s surrender. When the Austrians refused, he began an artillery barrage against the walls with his 300 cannons and ordered his miners to dig under the walls and lay explosives to breach the defenses. The Austrians came out from behind their walls to attack the engineers and artillerymen and dig counter-trenches. Several times over the next three weeks, the invaders’ artillery and mines achieved small breaches in the wall, but the Viennese soldiers quickly filled the gaps and repelled any entry into the city.
By October 12, the cold winds of winter were sweeping the city. Suleiman ordered another attack with his Janissaries in the lead. Two underground mines near the city’s southern gate opened the way briefly for the mercenaries, but the staunch Viennese defenders filled the opening and killed more than 1200. Two days later, Suleiman ordered one last attack, but the Viennese held firm once again.
For the first time, Suleiman had failed. Scores of his never-before-defeated Janissaries lay dead outside the walls. The Turkish army had no choice but to burn their huge camp and withdraw back toward Constantinople, but before they departed they massacred the thousands of captives they had taken on the way to Vienna. Along their long route home, many more Turks died at the hands of raiding parties that struck their flanks.
The loss at Vienna did not greatly decrease the power of the Ottoman Empire. It did, however, stop the Muslim advance into Europe. Suleiman and his army experienced many successes after Vienna, but these victories were in the east against the Persians rather than in the west against the Europeans. The Ottoman Empire survived for centuries, but its high-water mark lay somewhere along the Vienna city wall.
Following the battle for Vienna, the countries of the west no longer viewed the Turks and the Janissaries as invincible. Now that the Austrians had kept the great menace from the east and assured the continuation of the region’s culture and Christianity, the European countries could return to fighting among themselves along Catholic and Protestant lines.
If Vienna had fallen to Suleiman, his army would have continued their offensive the following spring into the German provinces. There is a strong possibility that Suleiman’s Empire might have eventually reached all the way to the North Sea, the alliance with France notwithstanding. Instead, after Vienna, the Ottomans did not venture again into Europe; the Empire’s power and influence began its slow but steady decline.
Battle # 9 Waterloo
Napoleonic Wars, 1815
The Allied victory over Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 brought an end to French domination of Europe and began a period of peace on the continent that lasted for nearly half a century. Waterloo forced Napoleon into exile, ended France’s legacy of greatness, which it has never regained, etched its name on the list of history’s best known battles, and added a phrase to the vernacular: “Waterloo” has come to mean decisive and complete defeat.
When the French Revolution erupted in 1789, twenty-year-old Napoleon left his junior officer position in the King’s artillery to support the rebellion. He remained in the military after the revolution and rapidly advanced in rank to become a brigadier general six years later. Napoleon was instrumental in suppressing a Royalist uprising in 1795, for which his reward was command of the French army in Italy.
Over the next four years, Napoleon achieved victory after victory as his and France’s influence spread across Europe and into North Africa. In late 1799, he returned to Paris, where he joined an uprising against the ruling Directory. After a successful coup, Napoleon became the first consul and the country’s de facto leader on November 8. Napoleon backed up these aggrandizing moves with military might and political savvy. He established the Napoleonic Code, which assured individual rights of citizens and instituted a rigid conscription system to build an even larger army. In 1800, Napoleon’s army invaded Austria and negotiated a peace that expanded France’s border to the Rhine River. The agreement brought a brief period of peace, but Napoleon’s aggressive foreign policy and his army’s offensive posturing led to war between France and Britain in 1803.
Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France in 1804 and for the next eight years achieved a succession of victories, each of which created an enemy. Downplaying the loss of much of his navy at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Napoleon claimed that control of Europe lay on the land, not the sea. In 1812, he invaded Russia and defeated its army only to lose the campaign to the harsh winter. He lost more of his army in the extended campaign on the Spanish peninsula.
In the spring of 1813, Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Sweden allied against France while Napoleon rallied the survivors of his veteran army and added new recruits to meet the enemy coalition. Although he continued to lead his army brilliantly, the stronger coalition defeated him at Leipzig in October 1813, forcing Napoleon to withdraw to southern France. Finally, at the urging of his subordinates, Napoleon abdicated on April 1, 1814, and accepted banishment to the island of Elba near Corsica.
Napoleon did not remain in exile for long. Less than a year later, he escaped Elba and sailed to France, where for the next one hundred days he struck a trail of terror across Europe and threatened once again to dominate the continent. King Louis XVIII, whom the coalition had returned to his throne, dispatched the French army to arrest the former emperor, but they instead rallied to his side. Louis fled the country, and Napoleon again claimed the French crown on March 20. Veterans as well as new recruits swelled Napoleon’s army to more than 250,000.
News of Napoleon’s return reached the coalition leaders while they were meeting in Vienna. On March 17, Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia agreed to each provide 150,000 soldiers to assemble in Belgium for an invasion of France to begin on July 1. Other nations promised smaller support units.
Napoleon learned of the coalition plan and marched north to destroy their army before it could organize. He sent part of his army, commanded by Emmanuel de Grouchy, to attack the Prussians under Gebhard von Bluecher in order to prevent their joining the Anglo-Dutch force near Brussels. Napoleon led the rest of the army against the British and Dutch.
The French army won several minor battles as they advanced into Belgium. Although the coalition commander, the Duke of Wellington, had little time to prepare, he began assembling his army twelve miles south of Brussels, just outside the village of Waterloo. There he arrayed his defenses on high ground at Mount St. Jean to meet the northward-marching French.
By the morning of June 18, Napoleon had arrived at Mount St. Jean and deployed his army on high ground only 1300 yards from the enemy defenses. Napoleon’s army of 70,000, including 15,000 cavalrymen and 246 artillery pieces, faced Wellington’s allied force of about 65,000, including 12,000 cavalry and 156 guns, in a three-mile line. Both commanders sent word to their other armies to rejoin the main force.
A hard rain drenched the battlefield, causing Napoleon to delay his attack as late as possible on June 18 so that the boggy ground could dry and not impair his cavalry and artillery. After ordering a sustained artillery bombardment, Napoleon ordered a diversionary attack against the allied right flank in the west in hopes of getting Wellington to commit his reserve. The British defenders on the west flank, including the Scots and Coldstream Guards, remained on the reverse slope of the ridge during the artillery bombardment and then came forward when the French advanced.
The attack against the Allied right flank failed to force Wellington to commit his reserve, but Napoleon pressed on with his main assault against the enemy center. As the attack progressed, Napoleon spotted the rising dust of Bluecher’s approaching army, which had eluded Grouchy’s, closing on the battlefield. Napoleon, disdainful of British fighting ability, and overly confident of his own leadership and the abilities of his men, continued the attack in the belief that he could defeat Wellington before the Prussians joined the fight or that Grouchy would arrive in time to support the assault.
For three hours, the French and the British fought, often with bayonets. The French finally secured a commanding position at the center at La Haye Sainte, but the Allied lines held. Late in the afternoon, Bluecher arrived and seized the village of Plancenoit in Napoleon’s rear, which forced the French to fall back. After a brutal battle decided by bayonets, the French forced the Prussians to withdraw. Napoleon then turned back against Wellington.
Napoleon ordered his most experienced battalions forward from their reserve position for another assault against the Allied center. The attack almost breached the Allied defenses before Wellington committed his own reserves. When the survivors of Napoleon’s best battalions began to withdraw from the fight, other units joined the retreat. The Prussians, who had regrouped, attacked the French flank, sending the remainder running in disorder to the south. Napoleon’s last few reserve battalions led him to the rear where he attempted, without success, to regroup his scattered army. Although defeated, the French refused to give up. When the Allies asked a French Old Guard officer to surrender, he replied, “The Guard dies, it never surrenders.”
More than 26,000 French were killed or wounded and another 9,000 captured at Waterloo. Allied casualties totaled 22,000. At the end of the one-day fight, more than 45,000 men lay dead or wounded within the three-square-mile battlefield. Thousands more on both sides were killed or wounded in the campaign that led to Waterloo.
Napoleon agreed once again to abdicate on June 22, and two weeks later, the Allies returned Louis to power. Napoleon and his hundred days were over. This time, the British took no chances; they imprisoned Napoleon on remote St. Helena Island in the south Atlantic, where he died in 1821.
Even if Napoleon had somehow won the battle, he had too few friends and too many enemies to continue. He and his country were doomed before his return from Elba.
France never recovered its greatness after Waterloo. It returned territory and resumed its pre-Napoleon borders. With Napoleon banished, Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria maintained a balance of power that brought European peace for more than four decades–an unusually long period in a region where war was much more common than peace.
While a period of peace in itself is enough to distinguish Waterloo as an influential battle, it and Napoleon had a much more important effect on world events. While the Allies fought to replace the king of France on his throne, their leaders and individual soldiers saw and appreciated the accomplishments of a country that respected individual rights and liberties. After Waterloo, as the common people demanded a say in their way of life and government, constitutional monarchies took the place of absolute rule. Although there was post-war economic depression in some areas, the general plight of the common French citizen improved in the postwar years.
Through the passage of time, the name Waterloo has become synonymous with total defeat. Napoleon and France did indeed meet their Waterloo in southern Belgium in 1815, but while the battle brought an end to one age, it introduced another. Although the French lost, the spirit of their revolution. and individual rights spread across Europe. No kingdom or country would again be the same.
Battle # 8 Huai-Hai
Chinese Civil War, 1948
The Battle of Huai-Hai was the final major fight between the armies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Nationalist Party of Kuomintang (KMT) in their long struggle over control of the world’s most populous country. At the end of the battle, more than half a million KMT soldiers were dead, captured, or converted to the other side, placing China in the hands of the Communists who continue to govern today.
Struggles for the control of China and its provinces date back to the beginnings of recorded history. While some dynasties endured for many years and others for only short periods of time, the Chinese had fought among themselves and against foreign invaders throughout history only to find themselves divided once again at the start of the twentieth century. Political ideologies centered in Peking and Canton. Divisions in the country widened when the Japanese invaded in 1914. During World War I, the Chinese faced threats from within, from the Japanese, and from the newly formed Soviet Union.
When World War I finally ended, the Chinese continued their internal struggles with local dictators fighting to control small regions. In 1923, the country’s two major parties, the CCP under Mao Zedong and the KMT controlled by Chiang Kai-shek, joined in an alliance to govern the country. The two sides had little in common, and in less than five years, the shaky alliance had come apart when their leaders’ views on support from the Soviet Union clashed. Mao encouraged Soviet support while Chiang opposed it.
By 1927, the two parties were directly competing for control of China and its people. Mao focused on the rural areas while Chiang looked to the urban and industrial areas for his power. From 1927 to 1937, the two sides engaged in a civil war in which Chiang gained the upper hand through a series of successful offensives. Chiang almost destroyed the CCP army in 1934, but Mao and 100,000 men escaped before he could do so. For the next year, the Communists retreated from the Nationalists across 6,000 miles of China to Yenan, a retreat that became known as the Long March. Only 20,000 survived.
In 1937, Chiang and Mao once again put their differences aside to unite against another invasion by Japan. Mao and his army fought in the rural northern provinces, primarily employing guerrilla warfare. Mao also used this opportunity to solidify his support from the local peasants while stockpiling weapons provided by the Allies and captured from the Japanese. His army actually gained strength during the fighting. Meanwhile Chiang faced stronger Japanese opposition in the south, which weakened his army.
Despite efforts by the United States to mediate an agreement, the Communists and Nationalists resumed their armed conflict soon after the conclusion of World War II. In contrast to their weaker position prior to the war, the Communists now were stronger than the Nationalists. On October 10, 1947, Mao called for the overthrow of the Nationalist administration.
Mao, a student of Washington, Napoleon, and Sun Tzu, began to push his army south into the Nationalist zone. Whereas the Nationalists often looted the cities they occupied and punished their residents, the Communists took little retribution, especially against towns that did not resist. Now the Communists steadily achieved victories over the Nationalists. During the summer of 1948, the Communists experienced a series of victories that pushed the major portion of the Nationalist army into a cross-shaped area extending from Nanking north to Tsinan and from Kaifeng east through Soochow to the sea.
Mao decided that it was time to achieve a total victory. On October 11, 1948, he issued orders for a methodical campaign to surround, separate, and destroy the half-million-man Nationalist army between the Huai River and the Lung Hai Railway–the locations that gave the resulting battle its name. Mao divided his battle plan into three phases, all of which his army accomplished more smoothly and efficiently than anticipated.
The Communists divided the Nationalist-held territory into three areas. Then beginning in November, they attacked each in turn. Early in the campaign, many Nationalists, seeing no hope for their own survival, much less a Nationalist victory, defected to the Communists. Chiang, who also was encountering internal divisions within his party, attempted to reinforce each battle area, but poor leadership by the Nationalist generals, combined with Communist guerrilla activities, made his efforts ineffective. Chiang even had air superiority during the entire battle but was unable to coordinate ground and air actions to secure any advantage.
Over a period of two months, the Communists destroyed each of the three Nationalist forces. Support for Chiang from inside and outside China dwindled with each successive Communist victory. The United States, which had been a primary supporter, providing arms and supplies to the Nationalists, suspended all aid on December 20, 1948. U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall stated, “The present regime has lost the confidence of the people, reflected in the refusal of soldiers to fight and the refusal of the people to cooperate in economic reforms.”
Within weeks of the U.S. announcement, the Communists overran the last Nationalist position and ended the Battle of Huai-Hai. Of the six highest-ranking Nationalist generals in the battle, two were killed in the fighting and two captured. The remaining two were among the few who escaped. By January 10, 1949, the half-million members of the Nationalist army had disappeared.
Within weeks, Tientsin and Peking fell to the Communists. On January 20, Chiang resigned his leadership of the Nationalists. The remaining Nationalist army and government continued to retreat until they finally withdrew to the island of Formosa. On Formosa, renamed Taiwan, Chiang regained power and developed the island into an Asian economic power. Mainland China, however, remained under the control of Mao and his Communists, who are still in power today.
The Communist takeover of China achieved by the Battle of Huai-Hai greatly influenced not only that country but the entire world. Over the next two decades, Mao focused almost exclusively on wielding complete control over his country. He ruthlessly put down any opposition and either executed or starved to death more than 20 million of his countrymen in order to bring to China the “joys” and “advantages” of Communism. Fortunately for the rest of the world, Mao remained focused on his own country. He disagreed with the Soviets on political and philosophical aspects of Communism, and the two nations viewed each other as possible opponents rather than allies.
China’s internal struggles and its conflicts with its neighbors have restricted its active world influence. Even though it remains today the largest and strongest Communist nation and the only potential major Communist threat to the West, China remains a passive player, more interested in internal and neighboring disputes than in international matters.
Had the Nationalists been victorious at Huai-Hai, China would have played a different role in subsequent world events. There would have been no Communist China to support North Korea’s invasion of the South, or North Vietnam’s efforts to take over South Vietnam. Had Chiang, with his outward views and Western ties, been the victor, China might have taken a much more assertive role in world events. Instead, the Battle of Huai-Hai would keep China locked in its internal world rather than opening it to the external.
Battle # 7 Atomic Bombing of Japan
World War II, 1945
The United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 to hasten the end of World War II in the Pacific. Although it would be the first, and to date the only, actual use of such weapons of “mass destruction,” the mushroom clouds have hung over every military and political policy since.
Less than five months after the sneak attack by the Japanese against Pearl Harbor, the Americans launched a small carrier-based bomber raid against Tokyo. While the attack was good for the American morale, it accomplished little other than to demonstrate to the Japanese that their shores were not invulnerable. Later in the war, U.S. bombers were able to attack the Japanese home islands from bases in China, but it was not until late 1944 that the United States could mount a sustained bombing campaign.
Because of the distance to Japan, American bombers could not reach targets and safety return to friendly bases in the Pacific until the island-hopping campaign had captured the Northern Mariana Islands. From bases on the Mariana Islands, long-range B-29 Superfortresses conducted high altitude bombing runs on November 24, 1944. On March 9, 1945, an armada of 234 B-29s descended to less than 7,000 feet and dropped 1,667 tons of incendiaries on Tokyo. By the time the fire storm finally abated, a sixteen-square-mile corridor that had contained a quarter million homes was in ashes, and more than 80,000 Japanese, mostly civilians, lay dead. Only the Allied fire bombing of Dresden, Germany, the previous month, which killed 135,000, exceed the destruction of the Tokyo raid.
Both Tokyo and Dresden were primarily civilian rather than military targets. Prior to World War II, international law regarded the bombing of civilians as illegal and barbaric. After several years of warfare, however, neither the Allies nor the Axis distinguished between military and civilian air targets. Interestingly, while a pilot could drop tons of explosives and firebombs on civilian cities, an infantryman often faced a court-martial for even minor mistreatment of noncombatants.
Despite the air raids and their shrinking territory outside their home islands, the Japanese fought on. Their warrior code did not allow for surrender, and soldiers and civilians alike often chose suicide rather than giving up. By July 1945, the Americans were launching more than 1200 bombing sorties a week against Japan. The bombing had killed more than a quarter million and left more than nine million homeless. Still, the Japanese gave no indication of surrender as the Americans prepared to invade the home islands.
While the air attacks and plans for a land invasion continued in the Pacific, a top-secret project back in the United States was coming to fruition. On July 16, 1945, the Manhattan Engineer District successfully carried out history’s first atomic explosion. When President Harry Truman learned of the successful experiment, he remarked in his diary, “It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful.”
Truman realized that the “most terrible thing” could shorten the war and prevent as many as a million Allied casualties, as well as untold Japanese deaths, by preventing a ground invasion of Japan. On July 27, the United States issued an ultimatum: surrender or the U.S. would drop a “super weapon.” Japan refused.
In the early morning hours of August 6,1945, a B-29 named the Enola Gay piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Paul Tibbets lifted off from Tinian Island in the Marianas. Aboard was a single atomic bomb weighing 8,000 pounds and containing the destructive power of 12.5 kilotons of TNT. Tibbets headed his plane toward Hiroshima, selected as the primary target because of its military bases and industrial areas. It also had not yet been bombed to any extent, so it would provide an excellent evaluation of the bomb’s destructive power.
At 8:15 A.M., the Enola Gay dropped the device called “Little Boy.” A short time later, Tibbets noted, “A bright light filled the plane. We turned back to look at Hiroshima. The city was hidden by that awful cloud … boiling up, mushrooming.” The immediate impact of Little Boy killed at least 70,000 Hiroshima residents. Some estimates claim three times that number but exact figures are impossible to calculate because the blast destroyed all of the city’s records.
Truman again demanded that Japan surrender. After three days and no response, a B-29 took off from Tinian with an even larger atomic bomb aboard. When the crew found their primary target of Kokura obscured by clouds, they turned toward their secondary, Nagasaki. At 11:02 A.M. on August 9, 1945, they dropped the atomic device known as “Fat Man” that destroyed most of the city and killed more than 60,000 of its inhabitants.
Conventional bombing raids were also conducted against other Japanese cities on August 9, and five days later, 800 B-29s raided across the country. On August 15 (Tokyo time), the Japanese finally accepted unconditional surrender. World War II was over.
Much debate has occurred since the atomic bombings. While some evidence indicates that the Japanese were considering surrender, far more information indicates otherwise. Apparently the Japanese were planning to train civilians to use rifles and spears to join the military in resisting a land invasion. Protesters of the Atomic bombings ignore the conventional incendiaries dropped on Tokyo and Dresden that claimed more casualties. Some historians even note that the losses at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were far fewer than the anticipated Japanese casualties from an invasion and continued conventional bombing.
Whatever the debate, there can be no doubt that the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan shortened the war, The strikes against Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the only air battles that directly affected the outcome of a conflict. Air warfare, both before and since, has merely supplemented ground fighting. As confirmed by the recent Allied bombing of Iraq in Desert Storm and in Bosnia, air attacks can harass and make life miserable for civilian populations, but battles and wars continue to be decided by ground forces.
In addition to hastening the end of the war with Japan, the development and use of the atomic bomb provided the United States with unmatched military superiority–at least for a brief time, until the Soviet Union exploded their own atomic device. The two superpowers then began competitive advancements in nuclear weaponry that brought the world to the edge of destruction. Only tentative treaties and the threat of mutual total destruction kept nuclear arms harnessed, producing the Cold War period in which the U.S. And the USSR worked out their differences through conventional means.
Battle # 6 Cajamarca
Spanish Conquest of Peru, 1532
Francisco Pizarro conquered the largest amount of territory ever taken in a single battle when he defeated the Incan Empire at Cajamarca in 1532. Pizarro’s victory opened the way for Spain to claim most of South America and its tremendous riches, as well as imprint the continent with its language, culture, and religion.
Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the New World offered a preview of the vast wealth and resources to be found in the Americas, and Hernan Cortes’s victory over the Aztecs had proven that great riches were there for the taking. It is not surprising that other Spanish explorers flocked to the area–some to advance the cause of their country, most to gain their own personal fortunes.
Francisco Pizarro was one of the latter. The illegitimate son of a professional soldier, Pizarro joined the Spanish army as a teenager and then sailed for Hispaniola, from where he participated in Vasco de Balboa’s expedition that crossed Panama and “discovered” the Pacific Ocean in 1513. Along the way, he heard stories of the great wealth belonging to native tribes to the south.
After learning of Cortes’s success in Mexico, Pizarro received permission to lead expeditions down the Pacific Coast of what is now Colombia, first in 1524-25 and then again in 1526-28. The second expedition experienced such hardships that his men wanted to return home. According to legend, Pizarro drew a line in the sand with his sword and invited anyone who desired “wealth and glory” to step across and continue with him in his quest.
Thirteen men crossed the line and endured a difficult journey into what is now Peru, where they made contact with the Incas. After peaceful negotiations with the Incan leaders, the Spaniards returned to Panama and sailed to Spain with a small amount of gold and even a few llamas. Emperor Charles V was so impressed that he promoted Pizarro to captain general, appointed him the governor of all lands six hundred miles south of Panama, and financed an expedition to return to the land of the Incas.
Pizarro set sail for South America in January 1531 with 265 soldiers and 65 horses. Most of the soldiers carried spears or swords. At least three had primitive muskets called arquebuses, and twenty more carried crossbows. Among the members of the expedition were four of Pizarro’s brothers and all of the original thirteen adventurers who had crossed their commander’s sword line to pursue “wealth and glory.”
Between wealth and glory stood an army of 30,000 Incas representing a century-old empire that extended 2,700 miles from modern Ecuador to Santiago, Chile. The Incas had assembled their empire by expanding outward from their home territory in the Cuzco Valley. They had forced defeated tribes to assimilate Incan traditions, speak their language, and provide soldiers for their army. By the time the Spaniards arrived, the Incas had built more than 10,000 miles of roads, complete with suspension bridges, to develop trade throughout the empire. They also had become master, stonemasons with finely crafted temples and homes.
About the time Pizarro landed on the Pacific Coast, the Incan leader, considered a deity, died, leaving his sons to fight over leadership. One of these sons, Atahualpa, killed most of his siblings and assumed the throne shortly before he learned that the white men had returned to his Incan lands.
Pizarro and his “army” reached the southern edge of the Andes in present day Peru in June 1532. Undaunted by the report that the Incan army numbered 30,000, Pizarro pushed inland and crossed the mountains, no small feat itself. Upon arrival at the village of Cajamarca on a plateau on the eastern slope of the Andes, the Spanish officer invited the Incan king to a meeting. Atahualpa, believing himself a deity and unimpressed with the Spanish force, arrived with a defensive force of only three or four thousand.
Despite the odds, Pizarro decided to act rather than talk. With his arquebuses and cavalry in the lead, he attacked on November 16, 1532. Surprised by the assault and awed by the firearms and horses, the Incan army disintegrated, leaving Atahualpa a prisoner. The only Spanish casualty was Pizarro, who sustained a slight wound while personally capturing the Incan leader.
Pizarro demanded a ransom of gold from the Incas for their king, the amount of which legend says would fill a room to as high as a man could reach–more than 2,500 cubic feet. Another two rooms were to be filled with silver. Pizarro and his men had their wealth assured but not their safety, as they remained an extremely small group of men surrounded by a huge army. To enhance his odds, the Spanish leader pitted Inca against Inca until most of the viable leaders had killed each other. Pizarro then marched into the former Incan capital at Cuzco and placed his handpicked king on the throne. Atahualpa, no longer needed, was sentenced to be burned at the stake as a heathen, but was strangled instead after he professed to accept Spanish Christianity.
Pizarro returned to the coast and established the port city of Lima, where additional Spanish soldiers and civilian leaders arrived to govern and exploit the region’s riches. Some minor Incan uprisings occurred in 1536, but native warriors were no match for the Spaniards. Pizarro lived in splendor until he was assassinated in 1541 by a follower who believed he was not receiving his fair share of the booty.
In a single battle, with only himself wounded, Pizarro conquered more than half of South America and its population of more than six million people. The jungle reclaimed the Inca palaces and roads as their wealth departed in Spanish ships. The Incan culture and religion ceased to exist. For the next three centuries, Spain ruled most of the north and Pacific coast of South America. Its language, culture, and religion still dominate there today.
Battle # 5 Antietam
American Civil War, 1862
The Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history, stopped the first Confederate invasion of the North. It also ensured that European countries would not recognize the Confederacy or provide them with much-needed war supplies. While the later battles at Gettysburg and Vicksburg would seal the fate of the rebel states, the defeat of the rebellion began along Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862.
From the day the American colonies gained their independence at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, a conflict between the United States North and South seemed inevitable. Divided by geographical and political differences, and split over slavery and state’s rights issues, the North and South had experienced mounting tensions during the first half of the nineteenth century. Finally, the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860 provided the spark that formally divided the country. Although Lincoln had made no campaign promises to outlaw slavery, many in the South viewed him as an abolitionist who would end the institution on which much of the region’s agriculture and industry depended. In December 1860, South Carolina, acting on what they thought was a “state’s right” under the U.S. Constitution, seceded from the Union. Three months later, seven other southern states joined South Carolina to form the Confederate States of America.
Few believed that the action would lead to war. Southerners claimed it was their right to form their own country while Northerners thought that a blockade of the Confederacy, supported by diplomacy, would peacefully return the rebel states to the fold. However, chances for a peaceful settlement ended with the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12-14, 1861. Four more states joined the Confederacy a few days later.
Both sides quickly mobilized and aggressive Confederate commanders achieved success against the more reluctant and cautious Union leaders. While warfare on land favored the Confederates, they lacked a navy, which allowed the U.S. Navy to blockade its shores. This prevented the South from exporting their primary cash crop of cotton, as well as importing much-needed arms, ammunition, and other military supplies that the meager Southern industrial complex could not provide.
In May 1862, General Robert E. Lee took command of what he renamed as the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee soon became one the most beloved commanders in history. Yet, while his men adored him, his critics noted his inability to control his subordinate leaders.
Despite his shortcomings, Lee outmaneuvered and out-generaled his opponents in his initial battles. He turned back the Union march on Richmond and then moved north to win the Second Battle of Bull Run near Manassas, Virginia, on August 30, 1862. Both Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis realized, however, that the South could not win a prolonged war against the more populous and industrialized North. To endure and succeed, the South would need war supplies and naval support from Britain, France, and possibly even Russia. While these countries were sympathetic with the Southern cause, they were not going to risk bad relations or even war with the United States unless they were convinced the rebellion would succeed.
Following their victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Lee and Davis devised a plan that would meet their immediate needs for supplies as well as their long-range goal of European recognition. They would take the war into the North. On September 6, the Army of Northern Virginia crossed into Maryland with the intention of raiding and gathering supplies in southern Pennsylvania.
Union General George B. McClellan paralleled Lee, keeping his army between the invading rebels and Washington, D.C., where Lincoln feared they would attack. On September 9, 1862, Lee issued Order Number 191, calling for half of his force to move to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to control the region’s rail center, while the other half marched to Harpers Ferry to capture the town’s gun factory and to secure lines back to the South. Four days later, a Union soldier discovered a copy of the order in a field, wrapped around three cigars. He kept the cigars, but Lee’s order was shortly in McClellan’s hands.
Even though McClellan now possessed the complete Confederate battle plan and his forces outnumbered the rebels 76,000 to 40,000, he remained cautious because his own intelligence officers incorrectly warned that the Confederates’ force was far larger. On September 14, McClellan began to close on Lee’s army only to be slowed by small forces in passes in South Mountain. The brief delay allowed Lee to form his army along a low ridge near Antietam Creek just east of Sharpsburg, Maryland.
McClellan finally attacked on the morning of September 17, but his characteristic hesitation and poor communications caused the battle to be composed of three separate fights rather than one united effort. The battle began with a murderous artillery barrage, followed by an infantry assault on the Confederate left. Attacks and counterattacks marked the next two hours, with neither side able to maintain an advantage. Meanwhile, at midmorning, Union troops assaulted the rebel center that stood protected in a sunken road. By the time the rebels withdrew four hours later, the depleted, exhausted Union force was unable to pursue past what was now known as the “Bloody Lane.”
In the afternoon, still another Union force attacked the rebel right flank to secure a crossing of Antietam Creek. Even though the waterway was fordable along much of its banks, most of the fight was concentrated over a narrow bridge. After much bloodshed, the Union troops pushed the Confederates back and were about to cut off Lee’s route back south when rebel reinforcements arrived from Harpers Ferry. Even so, the third battlefront, like the other two, lapsed into a stalemate.
On the morning of September 18, Lee and his army withdrew back to Virginia. Since he was not forced to retreat, Lee claimed victory. McClellan, overly cautious as usual, chose not to pursue, although it is possible that if he had done so he could have defeated Lee and brought the war to a quick conclusion.
Between the two armies lay more than 23,000 dead or wounded Americans wearing either blue or gray. A single day of combat produced more casualties than any other in American history–more dead and wounded than the U.S. incurred in its Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War combined. Casualties at Antietam even outnumbered those of the Longest Day, the first day of the Normandy Invasion, by nine to one.
The influence of Antietam reached far beyond the death and wounds. For the first time, Lee and the rebel army failed to accomplish their objective, and this provided a much-needed morale boost for the Union. More importantly, when France and England learned of the battle’s outcome, they decided that recognition of the Confederate States would not be advantageous.
The battle also changed the objectives of the United States. Prior to Antietam, Lincoln and the North had fought primarily to preserve the Union. Lincoln had waited for the opportunity to bring slavery to the forefront. Five days after Antietam, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Although the Proclamation did not free slaves in Union states and, of course, had no power to do so in areas controlled by the rebels, it did advance the freeing of slaves as an objective of the war.
Prior to the battle and the Proclamation, European nations, although opposed to slavery, still had sympathies for the Southern cause. Now with slavery an open issue and the Confederate’s ability to win in question, the South would have to stand totally alone.
While it took two-and-a-half more years of fighting and the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg to finally end the war, the Confederate States were doomed from the time they withdrew southward from Antietam Creek. An improving Union army, combined with a solid refusal of outside support for the Confederacy, spelled the beginning of the end.
Antietam ranks as one of history’s most influential battles because if the South had been victorious outside Sharpsburg, it is very possible that France, England, and possibly even Russia would have recognized the new country. Their navies would have broken the Union blockade to reach the cotton needed for their mills and to deliver highly profitable war materials. France, who already had troops in Mexico, might have even provided ground forces to support the South. Lincoln most likely would not have issued his Emancipation Proclamation and might have been forced to make peace with the rebels, leaving the country divided. Although future events, such as the two World Wars, would likely have made the former enemies into allies, it is doubtful that, in their state of division, either the United States or Confederate States would have been able to attain the level of world influence or to develop into the political, trade, and military power that the unified United States would become.
Battle # 4 Leipzig
Napoleonic Wars, 1813
The allied victory over Napoleon at Leipzig in 1813 marked the first significant cooperation among European nations against a common foe. As the largest armed clash in history up to that time, Leipzig led to the fall of Paris and the abdication of Napoleon.
After the Russian army and winter had handed Napoleon a nasty defeat in 1812, Europeans felt confident that peace would prevail after more than a decade of warfare. They were wrong. As soon as Napoleon returned to France from icy Russia, he set about rebuilding his army, conscripting teens and young men. He strengthened these ranks of inexperienced youths with veterans brought back from the Spanish front.
While Napoleon had been weakened by Russia, he believed that the other European countries were too distrustful of each other to ally against him. In early 1813, he decided to advance into the German provinces to resume his offensive. Just as he had done before, he planned to defeat each army he encountered and assimilate the survivors into his own force.
European leaders were correct to fear that Napoleon could accomplish his objectives, but they remained reluctant to enter into alliances with neighbors who were former, and possibly future, enemies. Karl von Metternich, the foreign minister of Austria, saw that neither his nor any other European country could stand alone against the French. Even though he had previously negotiated an alliance with Napoleon, he now began to assemble a coalition of nations against the French emperor.
Metternich’s diplomacy, combined with the massing of the French army on the German border, finally convinced Prussia, Russia, Sweden, Great Britain, and several smaller countries to ally with Austria in March 1813. Napoleon disregarded the alliance and crossed into Germany with the intention of defeating each opposing army before the “allies” could actually unite against him.
Napoleon won several of the initial fights, even defeating the Prussians at Lutzen on May 2. He soon realized, however, that his new army was not the experienced one he had lost in Russia. More importantly, he had not been able to replace much of his cavalry lost in the Russian winter, limiting his reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering capabilities.
When Napoleon learned that armies were marching toward Dresden from the north, south, and east against him, he negotiated a truce that began on June 4. Metternich met with Napoleon in an attempt to reach a peace settlement but, despite generous terms that allowed France to retain its pre-war borders and for him to remain in power, Napoleon refused to accept the agreement.
During the negotiations, both sides continued to add reinforcements. On August 16, the truce ended and combat resumed. For two months, the Allies harassed the French but avoided a pitched battle while they solidified their plans for a major attack. Napoleon’s army, forced to live off the land and to rapidly march and countermarch against the multiple armies around them, steadily became more exhausted.
In September, the Allies began a general offensive in which the French won several small battles. Yet the Allies forced them back to Leipzig in October. Napoleon had 175,000 men to defend the town, but the Allies massed 350,000 soldiers and 1,500 artillery pieces outside his lines.
On the morning of October 16, 1813, Napoleon left part of his army in the north to resist an attack by the Prussians while he attempted to break through the Russian and Austrian lines in the south. The battle raged all day as the front swept back and forth, but by nightfall both sides occupied the same positions as when the battle began.
Little action took place on October 17 because both sides rested. The battle on October 18 closely resembled that of two days earlier. Nine hours of furious combat accomplished little except to convince Napoleon that he could not continue a battle of attrition against the larger Allied force. The odds against him increased when the Swedish army arrived to join the Allies and a unit of Saxons deserted the French to join the other side.
Napoleon attempted to establish another truce, but the Allies refused. During the night, the French began to withdraw westward by crossing the Elster River. A single stone bridge, which provided the only crossing, soon created a bottleneck. Napoleon deployed 30,000 soldiers to act as a rear guard to protect the crossing, but they were stranded when the bridge was destroyed. A few swam to safety, but most, including three senior officers, were killed or captured.
Once again, Napoleon limped back toward Paris. Behind him he left 60,000 dead, wounded, or captured French soldiers. The Allies had lost a similar number, but they could find replacements far more quickly and easily than Napoleon. Other countries, including the Netherlands and Bavaria–which Napoleon had added to his confederation by conquest–now abandoned him and joined the Allies. On December 21, the Allies invaded France and, following their victory at Paris on March 30, 1814, forced Napoleon into exile on Elba.
Napoleon soon returned, but after only one hundred days he suffered his final defeat by the Allies at Waterloo on June 18, 1815 . Metternich continued his unification efforts and signed most of the Allies to the Concert of Europe, which provided a balance of power and a peace that lasted until the Crimean War in 1854. Most of the alliance survived another three decades until the ambitions of Germany brought an end to European peace.
The Battle of Leipzig was important because it brought Napoleon a defeat from which he could not recover. More important, however, was the cooperation of armies against him. This alliance is so significant that Leipzig is frequently called the Battle of the Nations. For these reasons, Leipzig ranks as one of history’s most influential battles.
Leipzig also eclipses Waterloo in its influence. \While the latter was certainly more decisive, a victory by Napoleon at Leipzig would likely have broken the alliance and placed the French in a position to once again defeat each of the other nation’s armies. A French victory at Leipzig would have meant no defeat of Napoleon at Paris, no abdication to Elba, and no return to Waterloo.
Battle # 3 Stalingrad
World War II, 1942-43
Stalingrad was the last great offensive by the German Nazis on the Eastern Front. Their defeat in the city on the Volga River marked the beginning of a long series of battles that would lead the Russians to Berlin and Hitter’s Third Reich to defeat. The Battle of Stalingrad resulted in the death or capture of more than a quarter million German soldiers, and denied the rich Caucasus oil fields to the Nazis.
Despite the lack of success by the German army to capture the cities of Moscow and Leningrad in their blitzkrieg offensive in the fall and winter of 1941, Hitler remained determined to conquer Russia in order to destroy Communism and gain access to natural resources for the Third Reich. With his army stalled outside the cities to the north, Hitler directed an offensive against Stalingrad to capture the city’s industrial assets and to cut communications between the Volga and Don Rivers. Along with the attack against Stalingrad, German columns were to sweep into the Caucasus to capture the oil fields that would fuel future Nazi conquests.
In the spring of 1942, German Army Group A headed into the Caucasus while Group B marched toward Stalingrad. Initially both were successful, but the German army, depleted by the battles of the previous year, was too weak to sustain two simultaneous offensives. The Germans might have easily captured Stalingrad had Hitler not continued to redirect units to the Caucasus. By the time he concentrated the offensive against Stalingrad, the Soviets had reinforced the area. Stalin directed the defenders of the city that bore his name, “Not a step backward.” Hitler accepted the challenge and directed additional forces against the city.
On August 23, 1942, more than a thousand German airplanes began dropping incendiary and explosive bombs. More than 40,000 of the 600,000 Stalingrad civilians died in the fiery attack. The survivors picked up arms and joined the soldiers in defense of their city. The next day, the Sixth German Army, commanded by General Friedrich Paulus, pressed into the edge of the town and assumed victory when they found it mostly in ruins. They were wrong. Soldiers and civilians rose from the rubble to fight back with small arms and even hand-to-hand combat as they contested every foot of the destroyed town.
Elements of the Soviet Sixty-second Army joined the fight. Clashes over the city’s Mamaev Mound resulted in the hill changing hands eight times as the battle line advanced and retreated. Near the center of the city, the Stalingrad Central Railway station changed hands fifteen times in bitter, close infantry combat. German artillery and air power continued to pound the city, but the Russians maintained such close contact with their opponents that much of the ordinance exploded harmlessly to their rear.
By September 22, the Germans occupied the center of Stalingrad, but the beleaguered Russian soldiers and civilians refused to surrender. They provided Soviet General Georgi Zhukov time to reinforce the city’s flanks with additional soldiers, tanks, and artillery pieces. On November 19, the Russians launched a counter-offensive against the north and south flanks of the Germans.
The two attacks focused on lines held by Romanian, Italian, and Hungarian forces who were allied with the Germans, rather than the better trained and disciplined Nazi troops. On November 23, the two pincers linked up west of Stalingrad, trapping more than 300,000 German soldiers in a pocket thirty-five miles wide and twenty miles long.
General Paulus requested permission from Hitler to withdraw prior to the encirclement, but he was told to fight on. Reich Marshal Hermann Goering promised Hitler that he could supply the surrounded Paulus with 500 tons of food and ammunition per day. Goering and his Luftwaffe failed to deliver even 150 tons a day while the Russians destroyed more than 500 transport aircraft during the supply effort. A relief column led by General Erich von Manstein, one of Hitler’s finest officers, attempted to reach the surrounded army but failed.
The Russians continued to reduce the German perimeter. By Christmas, the Germans were low on ammunition, nearly out of food, and freezing in the winter cold. On January 8, 1943, the Russians captured the last airfield inside the German lines and demanded the surrender of the entire army. Hitler radioed Paulus, “Surrender is forbidden. Sixth Army will hold their position to the last man and last round….” He also promoted Paulus to field marshal and reminded him that no German of that rank had ever surrendered on the battlefield.
The Germans did not hold out to the last round or the last man. By January 31, their numbers had plummeted to 90,000, many of whom were wounded. All were hungry and cold. Units began to give up, and within two days all resistance ceased. Field Marshal Paulus surrendered himself, 23 generals, 90,000 men, 60,000 vehicles, 1,500 tanks, and 6,000 artillery pieces.
Of the 90,000 Germans captured at Stalingrad, only about 5,000 survived the harsh conditions of the Soviet prisoner-of-war camps. Those who were not worked to death died of starvation and disease. Paulus, however, was not harshly treated by his captors but remained under house arrest in Moscow for eleven years. He was allowed in 1953 to return to Dresden in East Germany, where he died in 1957.
The siege of Stalingrad provided sufficient time for the German Army Group A to withdraw from the Caucasus. The loss of Army Group B in the rubble of Stalingrad and the toll experienced by Army Group A before its withdrawal, however, weakened the German army on the Eastern Front to the point where it could never again mount a major offensive. More than two years would pass before the Red Army occupied Berlin, but Stalingrad opened the way to the future victories that led to Hitler’s Bunker and the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Victory at Stalingrad did not come easily or cheaply for the Russians. Nearly half a million soldiers and civilians died in defense of the city. Almost all of its homes, factories, and other buildings were destroyed. But the Russians had won, and that victory united the Russian people, giving them the confidence and strength that drove them on to Berlin.
Stalingrad proved to the Russians and their allies that they could both stop and defeat the great German army. The battle was the turning point of World War II. Victory at Stalingrad for the Germans would have led to victory in the Caucasus Mountains. With the oil and other resources from that area, the German army would have been able to turn more of their power to the Western Front. If the German armies in the east had survived to face the British, the Americans, and their Allies in the west, the war definitely would not have concluded as quickly. Perhaps even the eventual allied victory might have been in doubt.
While Stalingrad was the turning point of World War II, and the valor of its defenders will never be in doubt, the Soviet brand of Communism in whose name the battle was fought has not survived. Stalingrad did not even survive to see the demise of the Soviet Union. In the purge of all references to Stalin after his death, the city was renamed Volgograd. Yet, the brave defenders of Stalingrad, who fought for themselves and their city, deserve recognition as fighting one of history’s most decisive and influential battles.
Battle # 2 Hastings
Norman Conquest of England, 1066
The Norman victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 was the last successful invasion of England–and the first and only since the Roman conquest a thousand years earlier. Its aftermath established a new feudal order that ensured that England would adopt the political and social traditions of continental Europe, rather than those of Scandinavia. The single battle also gained the country’s crown for the Norman leader William.
Prior to the Battle of Hastings, the Vikings ruled Scandinavia, Northern Europe, and much of the British Isles. Areas they did not directly control were still vulnerable to their constant raids. Earlier Viking victories in France had led to intermarriage and the creation of a people who called themselves the Normans. Other Vikings conquered the British Isles and established their own kingdoms. Royal bloodlines ran through the leaders of all of the monarchies, but this did not prevent them from fighting each other.
Claims of crowns and territories reached a state of crisis with the death of Edward the Confessor, the King of England in 1066, who had left no heir. Three men claimed the throne: Harold Godwin, brother-in-law of Edward; William, the Duke of Normandy and a distant relative of Edward’s; and King Harald Hardrada of Norway, the brother of Harold Godwin.
Both Harald and William assembled armies to sail to England to secure their claims. Godwin decided that William presented more of a threat and moved his English army to the southern coast across from Normandy. Weather, however, delayed William, and King Harald’s ten thousand Vikings arrived first. On September 20, the Vikings soundly defeated the local forces around the city of York and seriously weakened the English army in the region.
Hearing of the battle, Godwin turned his army north and covered the two hundred miles to York in only six days. At Stamford Bridge, he surprised the Vikings and soundly defeated them. The retreating Viking survivors filled only twenty-four of the three hundred ships that had brought them to England.
Godwin had inflicted the most decisive defeat on the Vikings in more than two centuries, but there was no time to celebrate. A few days later, he learned that the Normans had landed at Pevensey Bay in Sussex and were marching inland. Godwin hurried back south with his army and on October 1 he arrived in London, where he recruited additional soldiers. On October 13, Godwin moved to Sussex to take defensive positions along the Norman line of march on Senlac Ridge, eight miles northwest of the village of Hastings. He did not have long to prepare because William approached the next day.
Godwin possessed both advantages and disadvantages. He had the advantage of the defense, and his army of 7,000 was about the same size as that of the Normans. Only about 2,000 of his men, however, were professionals. These housecarls, as they were known, wore conical helmets and chain-mail vests and carried five-foot axes in addition to metal shields. The remaining Saxons were poorly trained militiamen known as fyrds, who were basically draftees levied from the shires. Many of the fyrds, and most of the housecarls, were exhausted from their march as well as from the fierce battle with the Vikings.
William’s army contained about 2,000 cavalrymen and 5,000 infantrymen, equally armed with swords or bows or crossbows. Despite the lack of numerical superiority and an enemy defense that would only allow for a frontal assault, William attacked.
The Normans advanced behind a rain of arrows from their archers, but the Saxon shields turned aside most of the missiles. Several direct attacks by the infantry fared no better. William then personally led a cavalry charge but was turned back by marshy ground and the Saxon defenses. Defeat, or at best stalemate, appeared to be the outcome of the battle for the invaders. The Normans were further demoralized when a story swept the ranks that William had been killed.
When the Norman leader heard the rumor, he removed his visor and rode to the head of his army. His soldiers, seeing that he was alive, rallied and renewed the assault. William also ordered his archers to fire at a high angle rather than in a direct line in order to reach behind the Saxon shields. The battle remained in doubt until William’s cavalry turned and wildly fled from the battlefield. Whether the cavalry was retreating from fright or as a ruse, it had the same results. The Saxons left their defenses to pursue, only to be struck by the Norman infantry. At about the same time, an arrow hit Godwin in the eye, and he was killed by the advancing infantry. The leaderless Saxons began to flee.
William, soon to be known as the Conqueror, pursued the retreating Saxons and seized Dover. With little resistance, he entered London on December 25, 1066, and received the crown of England as King William I. Over the next five years, William brutally put down several rebellions and replaced the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy with his own Norman followers. Norman nobles built castles from which to rule and defend the countryside. Norman law, customs, traditions, and citizens intermingled with the Saxons to form the future of England as a nation.
Later the adage would declare, “There’ll always be an England.” The fact remains that the England that eventually came to exist began on the Hastings battlefield, and 1066 became a schoolbook standard marking the expansion of English culture, colonization, and influence around the world.
Battle # 1 Yorktown
American Revolution, 1781
The Battle of Yorktown was the climax of the American Revolution and directly led to the independence of the United States of America. While others may have been larger and more dramatic, no battle in history has been more influential. From the days following their victory at Yorktown, Americans have steadily gained power and influence up to their present role as the world’s most prosperous nation and the only military superpower.
The idea that a group of poorly armed, loosely organized colonists would have the audacity to challenge the massive, experienced army and navy of their rulers seemed impossible when the revolution’s first shots rang out at Lexington and Concord in 1775. The rebels’ chances of success seemed even more remote when the American colonies formally declared their independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776.
Despite the huge imbalance of power, the Americans understood that time was on their side. As long as George Washington and his army remained in the field, the newly declared republic survived. Washington did not have to defeat the British; he simply had to avoid having the British defeat him. The longer the war lasted, the greater the odds that the British would become involved in wars that threatened their own islands and that the British public would tire of the war and its costs.
During the first year of the war, Washington had lost a series of battles around New York but had withdrawn the bulk of his army to fight another day. Many British commanders had unintentionally aided the American effort with their military ineptness and their belief that the rebels would diplomatically end their revolt.
Participants on both sides, as well as observers around the world, had begun to take the possibility of American independence seriously only with their victory at Saratoga in October 1777. The poorly executed plan by the British to divide New England from the southern colonies by occupying New York’s Hudson River Valley had resulted not only in the surrender of nearly six thousand British soldiers but also in the recognition of the United States as an independent nation by France. The American victory at Saratoga and the entrance of the French into the war also drew Spain and the Netherlands into the fight against England.
By 1778, neither the British nor the Americans could gain the upper hand, as the war in the northern colonies had come to a stalemate. The British continued to occupy New York and Boston, but they were too weak to crush the rebel army. Washington similarly lacked the strength to attack the British fortresses.
In late 1778, British commander General Henry Clinton used his superior sea mobility to transfer much of his army under Lord Charles Cornwallis to the southern colonies, where they occupied Savannah and then Charleston the following year. Clinton’s plan was for Cornwallis to neutralize the southern colonies, which would cut off supplies to Washington and isolate his army.
Washington countered by dispatching Nathanael Greene, one of his ablest generals, to command the American troops in the South. From 1779 to 1781, Greene and other American commanders fought a guerrilla-like campaign of hit-and-run maneuvers that depleted and exhausted the British. In the spring of 1781, Cornwallis marched into North Carolina and then into Yorktown on the Virginia peninsula flanked by the York and James Rivers. Although his army outnumbered the Americans two to one, Cornwallis fortified the small town and waited for additional men and supplies to arrive by ship.
Meanwhile, more than seven thousand French infantrymen, commanded by Jean Baptiste de Rochambeau, joined Washington’s army outside New York, and a French fleet led by Admiral Paul de Grasse waited in the Caribbean, preparing to sail northward. Washington wanted de Grasse to blockade New York while the combined American-French armies attacked Clinton’s New York force.
Rochambeau and de Grasse proposed instead that they attack Cornwallis. On August 21, 1781, Washington left a few units around New York and joined Rochambeau to march the two hundred miles to Yorktown in only fifteen days. Clinton, convinced that New York was still the rebels’ primary target, did nothing.
While the infantry was on its march, the French navy drove away the British ships in the area at the Battle of Chesapeake Capes on September 5. De Grasse then blockaded the entrance to Chesapeake Bay and landed three thousand men to join the growing army around Yorktown.
By the end of September, Washington had united his army from the north with the rebel Southerners. He now had more than 8,000 Americans along with the 7,000 French soldiers to encircle the 6,000 British defenders. On October 9, 1781, the Americans and French began pounding the British with fifty-two cannons while they dug trenches toward the primary enemy defensive redoubts.
The American-Franco infantry captured the redoubts on October 14 and moved their artillery forward so they could fire directly into Yorktown. Two days later, a British counterattack failed. On October 17, Cornwallis asked for a cease-fire, and on the 19th he agreed to unconditional surrender. Only about one hundred and fifty of his soldiers had been killed and another three hundred wounded, but he knew that future action was futile. American and French losses numbered seventy-two killed and fewer than two hundred wounded.
Cornwallis, claiming illness, sent his deputy Charles O’Hara to surrender in his place. While the British band played “The World Turned Upside Down,” O’Hara approached the allies and attempted to surrender his sword to his European peer rather than the rebel colonist. Rochambeau recognized the gesture and deferred to Washington. The American commander turned to his own deputy, Benjamin Lincoln, who accepted O’Hara’s sword and the British surrender.
Several small skirmishes occurred after Yorktown, but for all practical purposes, the revolutionary war was over. The upheaval and embarrassment over the defeat at Yorktown brought down the British government, and the new officials authorized a treaty on September 3, 1783, that acknowledged the independence of the United States.
Yorktown directly influenced not only the United States but also France. The French support of the United States and their own war against Britain wrecked France’s economy. More importantly, the idea of liberty from a tyrant, demonstrated by the Americans, motivated the French to begin their own revolution in 1789 that eventually led to the age of Napoleon and far greater wars.
The fledgling United States had to fight the British again in 1812 to guarantee its independence, but the vast area and resources of North America soon enlarged and enriched the new nation. By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States had become a world power; by the end of the twentieth, it was the strongest and most influential nation in the world.
Before Yorktown, the United States was a collection of rebels struggling for independence. After Yorktown, it began a process of growth and evolution that would eventually lead to its present status as the longest-surviving democracy and most powerful country in history. The American Revolution, beginning at Lexington and Concord and drawing strength from Saratoga, culminated at Yorktown in the most influential battle in history.