Counting Down The 10 Most Important Battles In US Military History

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The story of America is one of the most fascinating in the history of nations. And as much as we would like that ascendency from colony to colossus to have been a peaceful one, the fact is that much of America’s narrative is one of waging war, and, at the right time and right moment, military engagements that built us, saved us, and propelled us forward. The US Armed Forces have been involved in countless fights over the past two-and-one-half centuries. But several of them rise to a level of such importance they stand apart and occupy a unique chapter in the story of us. What follows is, admittedly, a subjective list of what I consider to be the ten most important battles in American history. Every death on every American battlefield matters. But these are the engagements that I believe had the most lasting impact, often without the combatants even knowing it at the time….without which, our history, and thus that of the entire world for the past two centuries, would have been very different indeed.  

10) INCHON LANDING: September 15, 1950

It was barely five years since the end of the Second World War, and once again the US armed forces were involved in a shooting war. On June 25, 1950, the North Korean communist army with encouragement from Moscow and Beijing smashed across the 38th Parallel into South Korea. Much to the surprise of Stalin and Mao, President Harry Truman ordered American troops into the peninsula to stave off the complete overwhelming of the South and uniting of Korea under a brutal communist state. By September, the front had stabilized around the port city of Pusan on the southern tip of the peninsula. But what now? In a brilliant operation, Gen. MacArthur put the 1st Marine Division 110 miles behind the North Korean lines at Inchon, sending the communists reeling back across the 38th Parallel. Once the Chinese entered the war, the see-saw fighting solidified along a stagnant front line that bisected the peninsula and effectively mimicked the original pre-war border. An armistice between the warring parties was signed on July 27, 1953. It remains in force to this day.

Why is Inchon important? Besides being the last successful amphibious action under fire carried out by US armed forces, it was the first time in the post-war era that the United States asserted itself in the role of global policeman at the behest of the United Nations to come to the military aid of another sovereign nation. Truman even referred to the war as a “police action”…an inadequate euphemism given that in just three years Korea would cost the US over 140,000 casualties, of whom 36,500 were KIA, and over one million dead, military and civilian, overall. Although the massive Chinese intervention in November of that year tragically thwarted the UN’s drive to unify the peninsula under quasi-democratic rule, the war prevented what in time became a vital trading partner and crucial ally on the Asian continent from being swallowed up into the communist North’s prison state. A hell on earth wherein over 20 million Koreans suffer unimaginable privations and cruelty to this very day. The marginal success of the Korean intervention, which would not have been possible but for the Inchon landing, did also leave a more lasting residue when it came to foreign policy in the Cold War era. It gave American statesmen a false perception that communism could be stopped anywhere, anytime, with the application of military might. Twenty years later, this flawed perspective would bear tragic fruit when the US pulled out of Vietnam only to see the nation taken over by the communists in 1975…with nothing to show for our efforts but 55,000 dead and a scarred nation that remains culturally and politically divided.  

9) GETTYSBURG: July 1-3, 1863

“It is all my fault.” So admitted a dejected Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederacy’s most powerful army. His men, broken, bleeding, defeated, streamed past him to the rear after his final grand charge was decimated by a wall of Union artillery and infantry on the high ridge on the other side of a mile of open ground. His July 3 assault against the Union center just south of the little Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg would mark the end of Lee’s second, and final, invasion of the North. Gettysburg was a titanic struggle involving over 170,000 combatants that began by sheer accident. On the morning of July 1, two Confederate divisions marching towards Gettysburg ostensibly on a reconnaissance en force collided first with Union cavalry and then infantry pouring into the rapidly developing battle on the outskirts of town. The first day had been a rebel victory. They’d taken the town and drove the Union army under Maj. Gen. George Meade, just four days in command, onto the high ground south of town. On July 2, a brutal series of Confederate attacks aimed at the Union left and right were beaten back in the bloodiest day of the battle. On July 3, Lee, deep in enemy territory, running low on ammunition, and so far having been unable to dislodge Meade’s stubborn Yankees went all-in and sent 12,000 men spearheaded by George Pickett’s division of Virginians into the center of the Union line. The way would be paved by the largest artillery barrage ever seen in North America. It was a desperate plan. And Meade was ready with thousands of muskets and well-sited artillery waiting on the other side of the valley. The attack was a disaster, and with it Lee lost any hope of victory. Gettysburg was the largest and bloodiest battle of the Civil War, as Meade lost 23,000 of his 95,000 men. Lee’s foray into Pennsylvania would cost him some 27,000 out of 77,000. It was a defeat from which the far less populous South would never recover. On July 4, Lee began his melancholy retreat south. That same day, Confederate Gen. John C. Pemberton surrendered the besieged city of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant…a Union victory that effectively cut the South in two.

Gettysburg has often been called alternatively the “turning point” of the Civil War and the Confederate “High Water Mark.” The latter term is more accurate. Southern Pennsylvania was indeed as far north as a Confederate army would ever get. But by July 1863, the worst political and military crisis of the Union war effort had already passed, and the war had turned in the North’s favor…although it would take the capture of Atlanta for the Northern populace to really see it. In fact, a good argument can be made that of the two back-to-back victories, Gettysburg in Pennsylvania or Vicksburg in Mississippi, Grant’s victory was of more strategic import, turning the huge river into a Union highway. But Gettysburg was a major boost to the morale and confidence of the North’s most important army, the Army of the Potomac. Having suffered a series of defeats, the unequivocal victory at Gettysburg steeled them for the long bloody fight to come. And it would forever strip the vaunted Southerners of the myth of their martial invincibility. Southerners for years later tried to make excuses for the catastrophic loss at Gettysburg…but George Pickett himself had the best explanation: “I think the Union Army had something to do with it.”  

8) TET OFFENSIVE: January 31 – September 23, 1968

By the end of 1967, the two-year war in Vietnam seemed to be nearing a conclusion…or so it seemed to the media, the military, and the Johnson administration. Americans were being told that a “tipping point” had been reached, whereby their troops were killing more of the enemy than the enemy could replace. With the Vietnamese New Year, “Tet”, the South settled in for a truce and a period of celebration. But instead, the North Vietnamese Viet Minh army and its Viet Cong southern guerilla allies who’d been slowly infiltrating themselves into the South’s cities, unleashed the largest, and most coordinated attack of the war. Dozens of cities were suddenly the scenes of fierce fighting. In Saigon, the Viet Cong shot their way into the US Embassy grounds and a battle within a battle raged until the attackers were killed. Across the country fighting was prolonged and brutal, often pitting North and South Vietnamese against each other. In the ancient capital of Hue, US Marines were brought in to take back the heavily fortified walled Citadel in the fiercest pitched battle for the Corps since Korea. The Tet Offensive lasted throughout much of 1968, coming in three phases. By the time the operation had exhausted itself, the Americans and South Vietnamese had denied the enemy every objective and inflicted devastating losses.  

By any military measure, the Tet Offensive was an American and South Vietnamese victory. The casualties suffered by the Viet Minh and Viet Cong were catastrophic. But battles have impacts beyond the field of conflict. Tet came as a shock to the American public, who expected the war to be winding down. And, unlike past conflicts, the fighting was brought home in graphic detail every night through television into Americans’ living rooms. Trusted journalists like Walter Cronkite offered grim prognostications about just how long a war this would be and whether it was “winnable” in the traditional sense of the word. Tet, coming at the same time America was in the throes of social and political upheaval at home, sapped the populace’s support for what they saw as a foreign war that was killing young Americans and forcing them to kill Vietnamese in a faraway land for no real purpose. Tet would effectively end the Johnson Administration, and see Nixon elected on a platform of “peace with honor.” Which really was just a US defeat with a smile. The scars left by Vietnam are still with us, and battles like Hue, and Saigon and Khe Sanh are in the back of any president’s mind when talk turns to military action on behalf of a foreign power. For better or for worse.  

7) MIDWAY: June 4 – June 7, 1942

It had been six months almost to the day of Pearl Harbor, and the Imperial Japanese Navy’s powerful carrier strike force, the Kido Butai, was bearing down on the tiny Midway atoll, halfway between Hawaii and Japan. With four carriers and an awesome armada of surface ships, Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku was supremely confident that “Operation MI,” his plan to lure the remaining American carriers out to the strategic islands for a final showdown, would effectively crown Japan’s orgy of conquest that made them masters of the Western Pacific, and knock the Americans out of the war, compelling them to accept Japan’s terms for peace. It didn’t turn out that way. Having broken the Japanese code, the Americans under Admiral Chester Nimitz had set a trap of their own. When the Kido Butai arrived off Midway, they found themselves under relentless attack from swarms of US aircraft from both Midway’s reinforced airfield and, most shocking of all, three U.S. carriers believed to still be in Pearl Harbor. After a series of disastrous runs by Midway’s bombers and three carrier torpedo squadrons against the Kido Butai, the US dive-bombers from carriers Enterprise and Yorktown arrived overhead at the perfect time. They screamed down upon the unsuspecting Japanese fleet too focused on fighting off the doomed torpedo bombers at sea level to notice what was happening high above them. The howling dive-bombers let loose a downpour of ordinance on their twisting targets, which were crammed with fueled and armed aircraft below decks being readied to go topside to launch a strike of their own. In a span of just five minutes, carriers Kaga, Akagi, and Soryu were obliterated. After exchanging aerial blows throughout the rest of the day, each side lost another carrier to the carnage. But with all four carriers gone, the Kido Butai had no air cover to protect them deep in their victorious enemy’s waters. A grim Yamamoto ordered his shattered fleet to sail back to Japan. June 4, 1942 saw the most sudden and astounding turn of events in the annals of naval warfare.   

The Americans lost the fleet carrier Yorktown, one destroyer, and 300 dead. But the Japanese suffered far more grievous losses. In one day, Japan saw four of her prized fleet carriers (the fourth being Hiryu) slip beneath the waves, and the next day American bombers returned to sink a cruiser for good measure. Even worse than the loss of their capital ships, over 3,000 of the IJN’s most skilled and experienced crews, from airmen to maintenance men to seamen, were dead, as were several admirals and captains. Although at the time neither side truly grasped the magnitude of Japan’s defeat, and its subsequent impact on the war to follow, in hindsight Midway was the turning point in the Pacific. Just two months later, the Marines waded ashore on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands in the first US offensive of the war. The momentum had shifted to the Americans. And despite the hard battles to follow against a brutal and ever more fanatical enemy, they never surrendered it.  

6) THE SEIGE OF YORKTOWN & BATTLE OF THE CHESAPEAKE: September 28 – October 17, 1781   

It was a scene no one six long years before could ever envision when war broke out between Great Britain and her rebellious American colonies on Lexington Green. A British army of 7,000 battered, bloody, and demoralized redcoats, sullenly marching between two columns of victorious enemy troops standing at attention—Americans on one side and their French allies on the other—to stack their arms and surrender. So surreal was the event the British band played the tune “The World Turned Upside Down” as they marched out of the besieged Virginia port city of Yorktown on the York River and into captivity. The British commander, the once-feared Lord Cornwallis, claimed illness, and left the humiliating capitulation to his second-in-command, Gen. Charles O’Hara. O’Hara in turn tried to embarrass the Americans by first offering his sword to the French commander, Comte de Rochambeau; Rochambeau curtly directed him to Washington. Washington returned the insult by ordering O’Hara to present his sword to his own subordinate, Gen. Benjamin Lincoln.  The combined army of some 15,000 equally weighted Americans and Frenchmen had marched during late summer from the outskirts of New York, while feigning preparations to assault the city, to surprise and besiege Cornwallis with his back to the water. When the powerful French fleet under Comte De Grasse violently repulsed British Admiral Graves’ forlorn attempt to break their blockade at the head of the Chesapeake Bay—a naval action as vital to the success of Washington’s operations as was the fighting on land—Cornwallis was trapped and the fate of his army sealed. After a relentless bombardment of the town and surrounding defenses lasting some eight days and nights, the exhausted British asked for terms, and the last major battle of the American Revolution was over.  

By 1781, the conflict had dragged on for six long years. War-weariness, especially in the South, had reached a point where there was talk of reconciliation with Great Britain among some in Congress. After Cornwallis surrendered, it was clear that the war would end, and in our favor. When the news reached Great Britain’s Prime Minister Lord North in London, he is said to have reeled and waved his arms exclaiming wildly, “O God! It’s all over!” George III was so shaken he initially considered abdication. The rebellious colonies had somehow broken away from the Crown by defeating the most powerful military on earth, and taken with it Great Britain’s most valuable possession. In terms of percentage killed to the population, 25,000 out of 3 million (the equivalent of 2.7 million today) America’s second bloodiest war in her history was over. Two years later the Treaty of Paris was signed and the Crown formally recognized the sovereign nation of the United States of America. A country, one dedicated to the rule of law over the divine right of Kings, was born. A nation that would eventually rise to become the most powerful and influential in the world to date. 

5) D-DAY/NORMANDY LANDINGS: June 6, 1944

The mission of the Allied Expeditionary Force steaming for France to undertake the largest, most ambitious, and complex amphibious operation in history was as simple as per overall commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s laconic directive: “You will enter the continent of Europe and, in conjunction with the other United Nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces.” To the waiting German and Axis troops’ horror, over 150,000 Allied troops bore down on their fortifications. They came from across the English Channel aboard 7,000 warships and landing craft. Meanwhile, a cloud of 2,500 aircraft which — when not dropping 17,000 paratroopers and glider-born infantry in their rear to sow chaos and capture key crossroads and bridges — bombed and strafed any relief columns racing to reinforce the besieged defenders. The fighting was brutal, especially in the American sector on the killing ground of Omaha Beach, but by the end of the day the Allies had gained a toehold in France, and pierced Hitler’s vaunted “Atlantic Wall.” By May 1945, the Western Allies reached the Elbe River in Germany, where they met the Red Army coming from the opposite direction. And with that conjunction, the Nazis’ delusional and murderous “Third Reich” was obliterated.

One wonders how Europe, and the history of the US and the West in general over the past seventy-seven years, would have been different had the D-Day landings been a bloody failure. Certainly the war would have lasted far longer than eleven more months. With no threat to his Channel line for the foreseeable future, Hitler would have been free to redeploy the many Western divisions manning the now safe Atlantic Wall to the Eastern front, the Ostfront. Faced with such German reinforcements, the practical Stalin might have sought an armistice. This would have kept the Nazi Party alive and in control of Germany, Austria, and Central Europe for years to come.

Meanwhile, discouraged by the setback of a bloody repulse, America may have turned its attention to Japan. Conversely, had Stalin pressed on alone and prevailed in the East, without the ballast of the Western Allies deep in Germany, Soviet communism, and with it the Iron Curtain, might have reached far deeper into post-war Europe, with all the misery and future conflicts that would have implied. The world would be a grimmer, more violent, and backward place. But such a dismal alternate history never came to pass. Thanks to the Allies’ incredible bravery in many forms…from the top Western commanders willing to embark on what could have been a disaster, all the way down to the lowliest private who, when the time came, left the protection of a beach obstacle or shell crater to lurch forward under heavy fire and take the fight to his tormentors on the other side of the blood-soaked beaches. And in so doing, was taking the first step in a great crusade that would end Hitler’s reign of terror forever. 

4) ATLANTA & SHERMAN’S MARCH TO THE SEA: July 22 – December 24, 1864

1864 was an election year, and for Lincoln and the Republicans, the prospects were grim. The Civil War was now entering its fourth summer. The death toll was in the hundreds of thousands, and despite key victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg the previous July, the war effort had since ground to a halt. Grant’s eastern army had suffered some 50,000 losses just since the Virginia Overland Campaign against Lee begun in May and now his military operations were stalemated at Petersburg. The Confederacy was holding on, and Lincoln’s Democrat challenger, former General George McClellan, was proposing a peaceful settlement with the Confederacy — one which included maintaining slavery and “defeating negro equality” in exchange for their re-entering the Union. And McClellan was looking like he would win the Election of 1864. Lincoln’s campaign needed a jolt. He got it on September 3, 1864 in the form of a telegram from Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman: “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” After a vicious July battle against the one-legged rebel Gen. John Bell Hood on the outskirts of the Confederacy’s largest, and most vital city, the Union Army settled in for a siege. Unable to last, the Confederates abandoned Atlanta on September 2, but not before putting much of the city’s military installations and supplies to the torch. The previously-dispirited North rejoiced, and Lincoln’s re-election, and with it emancipation, was all but assured. Sherman’s army remained in the smoldering city for two months. He was preparing for a march to the sea. 

Sherman’s army moved out of Atlanta on November 15 and headed southeast; supply lines were cut and this 60,000-man invasion force was to live off the land. The Yankees would go on to cut a 50-mile-wide swath of destruction through the deep South, burning plantations, factories, and mills, driving or killing livestock, tearing up railroads, and effectively crushing not just the economy, but the very cultural, political and social infrastructure of the Antebellum South and self-described “Slave-Holding Confederacy.” Although considered criminal by some, Sherman’s march from Atlanta to Savannah and then north through the Carolinas was the most successful campaign of the Civil War, and having suffered just a fraction of the bloodlettings in Virginia, it was the least bloody for the results it achieved. A precursor to the strategic bombing of the Second World War, by denying the South the materiel to sustain its armies in the field, Sherman effectively broke the back of the rebellion. There is little doubt that his operations shortened the conflict by arguably as much as six months to a year, which saved thousands of additional young lives, Union and Confederate, from being sent to the meat grinder of our bloodiest war. 

3) SARATOGA: September 19 – October 7, 1777

British Gen. “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne was in good spirits when he embarked with his eclectic army of British regulars, German mercenaries, and Indian scouts on the northern pincer of his grand plan to sail down from Canada to the bottom of Lake Champlain. He would then disembark and march south along the east bank of the Hudson. The goal was to link up with a British force under Sir Henry Clinton supposedly heading north from New York. He was convinced his operation would split the rebellious colonies in two, isolate New England, and finally put an end to a pesky war he felt had gone on long enough. All seemed to be going well at first. On July 6, Fort Ticonderoga, which the Americans had hoped would hold out for much longer to slow the British advance, fell quickly. But then Burgoyne’s troubles began. A third pincer movement coming from Lake Ontario heading east along the Mohawk River was turned back at Fort Stanwix. Burgoyne opted to press south alone. His tiring men had to hack their way through dense, mosquito-infested forest. Adding to the difficulty, the column included a cumbersome wagon train and artillery pieces not meant for narrow foot paths in the dense wilderness. Burgoyne soon found his army under withering attack from a larger, resourceful, and unflinching American army. The Continentals who marched out to meet Burgoyne were ostensibly under the command of Gen. Horatio Gates, but they were spurred to action by the fiery and wily Gen. Benedict Arnold, who was one of Washington’s favorites. Two separate engagements followed in an area called Freeman’s Farm. In September, Burgoyne’s attacking army was halted and forced to dig in; and then in October, after an attempted breakout south to Albany failed, there was no escape for his battered and bloodied expeditionary force. Having learned that Clinton had decided to go after Philadelphia and Washington, Burgoyne found his army isolated and surrounded by 15,000 enemy troops. His army was spent, having suffered 1,000 casualties, and with no hope of escape it was all over. On October 17, 1777, near the little town of Saratoga, Burgoyne surrendered what remained of his 7,000 men to the Americans. 

Saratoga was far more than a military triumph. Its effect was earth-shattering. Across the Atlantic, America’s envoy, Benjamin Franklin, who’d been patiently biding his time in Versailles waiting for just such news, immediately used Gates and Arnold’s victory to convince Louis XVI to commit France to an alliance with America and enter the war against Great Britain. French troops, supplies, hard currency, and, crucially, ships of the line eventually appeared in North America. Britain not only lost an entire army to the unrelenting Americans, but now found herself entangled in an international conflict with a powerful enemy. Anti-war sentiment in Parliament grew. Without French support it is difficult to imagine the Americans alone could have gained independence. With the shocking turn of events at Saratoga, however, and the subsequent French alliance, a once-inconceivable American victory over the world’s premiere empire, though still presenting a hard struggle ahead, was not only possible, but probable.

2) ANTIETAM: September 17, 1862

In a cabinet meeting in June, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln stunned those assembled by producing a first draft of an Emancipation Proclamation whose meaning was nothing less than freeing over 3 million black Americans from a cruel bondage. But Secretary of State Seward reminded him that the Civil War was currently going badly for the Union. Such an announcement now, he argued, would sound like “the last shriek on the retreat.” So, Lincoln tabled it and waited for a victory to give his proclamation moral teeth. 

That victory, of sorts, came in the form of the bloodiest day in American history. In September, the legendary Southern Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, fresh off a string of brilliant victories around the Confederate capital Richmond and then at Manassas Junction just 25 miles from Washington D.C., marched his troops north into Maryland. Despite reservations about his commander, Lincoln sent the Union Army of the Potomac under the timid and egomaniacal Maj. Gen. George McClellan to intercept and destroy the invaders. McClellan chased the rebels across western Maryland. The rapid Yankee pursuit took Lee by surprise as the Army of Northern Virginia at that moment was widely scattered in pieces currently investing a Union garrison in his rear at Harper’s Ferry from three sides. It was also weakened by exhaustion and straggling due to the previous month of heavy combat, poor diet, and hard marches. Unwilling to give up his invasion without a fight, on September 15, Lee turned and threw down the gauntlet, taking up a strong defensive position with barely half of his army on the western bank of Antietam Creek near the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The Confederates’ backs were to the Potomac River and even though McClellan hesitated to attack for two days, which allowed Lee to re-unite his dispersed forces at the last minute, McClellan outnumbered him 87,000 to 38,000. But the Northern general hit the rebel positions with a series of uncoordinated attacks that moved methodically from Lee’s far left, then to the center, then his far right, from dawn to dusk, allowing the Gray Fox to shift his troops to meet each successive assault like a chess master and stave off catastrophe. In the end, the great Battle of Antietam, a twelve-hour buzz saw of unparalleled killing, in which some 23,000 Americans fell, was a tactical stalemate. But Lee had lost almost a third of his army; he withdrew back into Virginia two days later. Maryland had been delivered, and Lincoln had his victory, although McClellan could have ended the war had he chosen to attack with thousands of yet uncommitted troops on the 18th. That is one of history’s great “what-ifs”.

Even though Lee’s grievously wounded army was allowed to escape across the Potomac to continue the fight, on so many levels Antietam was the pivotal battle of the Civil War. The revered Civil War historian Bruce Catton called it the “turning point.” Before September 1862, the South was advancing victoriously in both the eastern and western theaters, Washington D.C. was threatened and being evacuated, the Union populace was dispirited, and, most ominously, Great Britain was debating whether to enter the war on the side of their cotton trading partners in the Confederacy, just as France had done with the Americans in the Revolution. The Union had never been so close to losing the war, and the country so in danger of dividing in two, than in the summer of 1862. But with the bloody victory at Antietam the crisis passed. The British would hold off on formal recognition of the Confederacy, and the materially inferior South, with barely a quarter of the North’s free population, was on its own. On September 22, 1862, Lincoln did announce his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that on January 1, 1863, America’s slaves in rebellious states would be “henceforth and forever free,” and those slaves in states that remained loyal to the Union would be freed by the amendment process, which was spurred on by Lincoln’s proclamation. After Antietam, the war would take on a new, more celestial meaning. The real issue behind the regional division and conflict, slavery, was now out in the open; it had become the Union’s stated casus belli. As such, our nation had its watershed moment. Our before and after. And we have never been the same.

1) TRENTON AND PRINCETON: December 26, 1776 – January 3, 1777

It was the fledgling United States’ darkest hour. Washington’s rag-tag army of scarecrow soldiers, barely 3,000 strong, was all that remained on the night of Christmas 1776 when he began his treacherous crossing of the Delaware River in the teeth of a howling blizzard back into New Jersey. It was a desperate, all-in gamble to save a Revolution that looked to be all but over. Washington himself privately admitted that, should his surprise attack on the despised Hessian hirelings garrisoned for the winter in Trenton fail, “the game is pretty well up.” Having once commanded over 10,000 men at the Battle of Brooklyn Heights in August, 1776, the Virginian had since been outflanked, outgunned, and outfought by Gen. William Howe and his 20,000 well-disciplined British troops and German mercenaries who chased the retreating Americans up Manhattan Island over the Hudson River and clear across New Jersey into Pennsylvania. Only the temporary safety of the Delaware River between them and the enemy had prevented the total destruction of the Continental Army. Washington knew it was now or never. The password he chose was “Victory Or Death.”

It would be victory. His dawn attack stunned the Hessians under Col. Johann Rall, who was killed in the battle, and bagged 900 of the 1,200-man garrison and its much-needed supplies and arms without losing a man in combat (two Americans froze to death on the march to the town). After recrossing the Delaware back into Pennsylvania, Washington decided to press his luck. On December 30, he crossed the river back into New Jersey, and on January 2, once again in Trenton, he beat back 7,000 British pursuers under Howe’s skilled subordinate Lord Cornwallis in a sharp engagement at Assunpink Creek, whose bridge became a killing ground for the American sharpshooters and artillery. As many as 150 British and Hessians were killed in the Second Battle of Trenton. Washington then slipped away from a precarious position in the middle of the night and moved inland where the next day his confident troops slammed into a column of redcoats outside the town of Princeton. Several British units fled to the shelter of the university’s imposing Nassau Hall only to be surrounded and taken as prisoners. Washington had scored yet another surprising victory. And Howe, once confident the war was over, was dismayed to find that, for the stubborn Americans now securely encamped for the winter at Morristown, New Jersey, it had only just begun. 

News of Washington’s daring crossings of the Delaware and subsequent string of victories spread like wildfire through the country. Morale soared, and the army that was once on the verge of disintegration was now inundated with new volunteers eager to fight, and an outpouring of support from once-hesitant colonists fearful of British wrath when the rebellion failed. The battles were small in scale, but their importance cannot be overstated. The American Revolution was not won in 1776, but due to the battles of Trenton and Princeton, miraculously, it had not been lost. “Though it was once the fashion of this army to treat [the rebels] in a contemptible light,” wrote a British officer, “they are now become a formidable enemy.” Washington had done the impossible. The new United States would not die an infant’s death, thanks to a small band of ragged, shivering, blue-lipped patriots and their determined commander who never gave up. Perhaps the English historian Sir George Trevalyan best summed up just what the American victory signified: “It may be doubted whether so small a number of men were ever employed in so short a period of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world.”

Brad Schaeffer is a commodities trader and writer whose articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, National Review, Celeb Magazine, Zerohedge, Frumforum, and other news outlets.  He is the author of the acclaimed World War II novel Of Another Time And Place.

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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