Americans have never accepted defeat easily. Not in sports, not in politics, not in warfare. Defeats in battle have only been sustained, in the American psyche, when the enemy has resorted to treachery, or the soldiers defending a given position were overcome by overwhelming odds, despite heroic and inspiring resistance. The Pearl Harbor debacle is an example of the former; the fall of the Alamo of the latter. On a level field, with the odds even, Americans have always prevailed, or so it is widely believed.
Defeats in battle are forgotten, ignored by the history books, or explained in the manner described. MacArthur is forgiven the loss of the Philippines in early World War II, the worst defeat ever suffered by the United States Army. Pearl Harbor is blamed on Japanese perfidy, though there was ample warning that an attack was forthcoming and the harbor defenses and fleet were still unprepared. At both, as in most American military defeats, soldiers and sailors fought bravely, despite the miscalculations of their leaders. They did as well in these 10 all but forgotten military disasters of American history.
10. The invasion of Canada during the Revolutionary War
The 1775 American invasion of Canada was a two-pronged attack on the British citadel of Quebec. One branch was launched from Fort Ticonderoga, captured Montreal, and descended the St. Lawrence River to Quebec. Led by Brigadier General Richard Montgomery, troops from New England and New York accomplished their mission and prepared to attack the city. They were joined with a band of American troops commanded by Benedict Arnold. His men followed a route up the Kennebec River through the Maine wilderness, across swampy terrain all but impassable, wearing inadequate clothing and with little food.
But they made it, and on New Years Eve 1775, the combined American commands launched an assault on Quebec. It was bloodily repulsed by the British and Canadians. Montgomery was killed, Arnold was severely wounded, and more than half of his command was taken prisoner. The following spring the British drove the remnants of the American army out of Canada. It was the first defeat of the Americans during the Revolutionary War, and it secured Canada as a base of operations for the British for the rest of the conflict. Nearly as disheartening as the military defeat was the Americans learning Canada had little interest in joining the 13 American colonies in rebellion against Great Britain.
9. The Battle of Camden during the Revolutionary War
When General Horatio Gates was assigned to command the southern branch of the Continental Army, he arrived as the strutting, self-appointed “Hero of Saratoga.” In fact, that battle had been won for him through the exertions of Benedict Arnold, John Stark, Daniel Morgan, and other leaders. Gates, however, believed he should be in command of all the Continental Army, rather than the Virginian to whom Congress had given command, George Washington. In South Carolina, at Camden, despite having numerical superiority of nearly 2:1, Gates mishandled his troops. The 4,000-man American army was routed by 2,100 British, suffering 1,900 killed, wounded, and captured.
Gates wasn’t one of them. He was mounted that day on a horse well known locally for its speed and endurance. Gates made use of both attributes. As his command was pursued and harassed by British cavalry, the Hero of Saratoga rode north, finally coming to a stop in Charlotte, North Carolina that evening, safe from pursuit, and over 60 miles from the battlefield. Three days later he was 180 miles from the scene of his defeat when he reported the disaster to Congress, rather than to Washington. A politically connected officer, he managed to avoid formal inquiries into his conduct and defeat, though he never again held a field command. Washington dispatched Nathaniel Greene to rebuild the southern army and continue the revolution in that theater.
8. The Battle of the Wabash, the worst defeat ever suffered at the hands of Native Americans
Most consider Custer’s debacle at Little Big Horn to be the worst defeat ever inflicted by American Indians on the United States Army. It wasn’t even close. In 1791, approximately 1,000 American troops faced a more or less equally sized force of Native Americans along the Wabash River. The Indians were from several tribes, including Shawnee, Delaware, Miami, and others. They were led by Little Turtle, Blue Jacket, and Buckongahelas. The Americans were led by General Arthur St. Clair, who led his force from Fort Washington on the Ohio River (Cincinnati) to confront the natives on the Wabash, near present day Fort Recovery, Ohio.
The Native Americans attacked on the morning of November 4, 1791, as St. Clair’s men were at breakfast. To say that the defeat was total is an understatement. Of St. Clair’s 1,000-man force, 933 were casualties, with over 630 of those killed. There were also casualties among the women and children accompanying the troops. The Indians suffered 21 dead, and an estimated 40 wounded. St. Clair escaped the battle unscathed, though he was in the thick of the fighting, with three horses shot from under him. The battle featured the highest casualty rate ever suffered by the United States Army, and it was the worst defeat inflicted on the US Army by American Indians in the nation’s history.
7. The Surrender of Detroit in 1812
During the days leading up to America’s declaration of war on Great Britain in 1812, the frontier post of Fort Detroit was reinforced. Eventually General William Hull, the governor of the Michigan Territory, commanded a force of just under 2,200 men, about three quarters of them militia. He also had 30 guns to defend Fort Detroit, though his supplies of food were limited. The only item he had in large supply was whiskey. When a smaller British force arrived to besiege the city, supported by a large force of Indians, it threatened Hull’s supply lines. Early bombardments by the British in late July unnerved the American general.
Hull asked the British commander, General Isaac Brock, for three days to discuss surrender terms and prepare to abandon the post. Brock gave him three hours. Hull surrendered his entire command and the post, the American regulars taken as prisoners of war. The militia were paroled and sent home. Hull’s surrender of a large force to an enemy of inferior numbers was an astounding and humiliating defeat for American arms. Some said he was drunk at the time. He was court-martialed, convicted of cowardice (the presiding officer was Henry Dearborn, who had been taken prisoner during the invasion of Canada in 1775), and sentenced to death, though President James Madison commuted his sentence. His nephew, Isaac Hull, redeemed the family name with his victory in USS Constitution over HMS Guerriere later that summer.
6. The Bladensburg debacle led to the burning of Washington
In August 1814, an American force of regular troops, sailors, marines, and militia prepared to meet the invading British Army at Bladensburg, Maryland, about eight miles north of Washington DC. The American forces were commanded by Brigadier General William Winder, though President Madison was present near the battlefield and observed part of the fight. He wasn’t there long. The British force swept through the American Army, while the militia fled before the bayonets glittering in the hot August sun. Some American units, including naval gunners under Commodore Joshua Barney, stood their ground and inflicted heavy casualties on the British before being overrun.
The rout was so severe that it became known as the Bladensburg Races. President Madison and the rest of the American government abandoned Washington, which the British entered that night. The Capitol, White House, and other buildings of the government as well as private dwellings and some businesses were burned. August 24, 1814, was one of the most humiliating days in American military and civic history. It was also a day in which American blacks and whites served together in Joshua Barney’s naval unit; despite Madison’s concern that blacks would flee before the enemy, Barney’s men stood to their guns until captured or killed.
5. The Battle of Ball’s Bluff during the Civil War
In October 1861, the Union Army sent a reconnaissance force across the Potomac River to determine whether the Confederate Army was occupying Leesburg, Virginia. Three months earlier the Union had suffered a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Bull Run, and General George B. McClellan was in the process of rebuilding his forces in preparation for an attack in Virginia. A Union force under the command of General Pomeroy Stone was under the belief that an exposed Confederate encampment was ripe for attack near Ball’s Bluff, across the river from Union encampments on Harrison Island in the Potomac. Stone’s force moved into position to attack the camp on the evening of October 20.
In the morning they learned they had been misinformed. There was no Confederate camp. Instead, Stone’s force was exposed, and the absence of sufficient boats meant it could not be reinforced. What began as a skirmish with advanced Confederate units developed into a full-fledged engagement. Of the 1,700 men of Stone’s command engaged in the fighting, more than half became casualties before the remainder could be extracted to safety. A young Union Lieutenant who fought and was severely wounded that day was named Oliver Wendell Holmes. A sitting US Senator, Edward Baker, fought in the battle and was killed. The battle was a blow to Union morale, and Congress created the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which existed for the remainder of the war.
4. The Battle of Drewry’s Bluff during the Civil War
The United States Navy held the advantages of superior firepower and experience over their Confederate counterparts during the Civil War. In 1862, with Union forces on the Peninsula below Richmond, Virginia, a flotilla of US Naval vessels was sent up the James River toward the Confederate Capital. Their mission was to probe the defenses of the city, and if possible, reduce them with naval bombardment. The Confederate ironclad Virginia had been scuttled, having failed to break the Union blockade, and because maneuvering the unwieldy vessel in the James River was virtually impossible. Five Union vessels proceeded upriver, including the ironclads USS Monitor, and USS Galena.
With the ironclads were USS Aroostock, and Port Royal, and an experimental revenue cutter, partially ironclad and partially submersible, Naugatuck. The Union ships penetrated to a bend in the James overlooked by Fort Darling atop Drewry’s Bluff. The fort had been armed with the heavy guns from the scuttled Virginia. Though those guns had failed to do much damage to Monitor during the famous engagement between the two ironclads, they did significant damage to Galena from their mounts on the fort. The Union ironclads were pounded by the fort’s guns, the wooden sided ships didn’t dare approach, and the entire flotilla was forced to withdraw, having done little damage and having failed to gain the information desired by McClellan. The engagement destroyed what little faith McClellan had in the Navy.
3. The Battle of Tassafaronga during World War II
During the naval battles fought at night in the Solomon Islands in the Guadalcanal campaign, the Japanese had two significant advantages. They had flashless powder for their ship’s guns, and extremely long-range torpedoes. The United States had the advantage of radar on most capital ships. On the night of November 30, 1942 an American force of five heavy cruisers and six destroyers caught a Japanese flotilla of eight destroyers. The American force positioned itself between the Japanese and the open sea and opened fire, sinking one of the enemy destroyers. The American commander, Admiral Carleton Wright, believed his force was outside torpedo range.
It wasn’t, and the flashes of the cruiser’s guns revealed the position of the battle line. The Japanese launched a volley of Long Lance torpedoes. Four American cruisers were hit and one, Northampton, was sunk. Three others, Pensacola, New Orleans, and Minneapolis were heavily damaged, all of them out of action for many months. The remaining Japanese destroyers escaped. It was one of the worst defeats suffered by the US Navy in its history. Nonetheless, 12 days after the battle the Japanese decided to abandon Guadalcanal, no longer able to suffer the casualties sustained in resupplying the island.
2. The Battle of Kasserine Pass during World War II
After the American landings in North Africa during Operation Torch, units of the US Army crossed the Atlas Mountains and established positions near Faid in Tunisia. The Battle of Kasserine Pass began when French troops were attacked by the Germans and American armor moved to the support of their ally. The Germans retreated, luring the Americans to pursue, and German artillery decimated the Allied tanks. The Americans were forced to withdraw into the Atlas Mountains. German forces under Erwin Rommel attacked the American defensive positions, overrunning them and forcing them backwards.
Before Rommel’s attack was finally stopped, American forces and their allies were pushed back fifty miles, in the first major engagement between US forces and the German Army. They suffered heavy casualties, with 6,300 men killed, wounded, or missing. They also lost over 180 tanks, 200 guns, and 600 other vehicles. American commander Dwight D. Eisenhower relieved the scene commander, Major General Lloyd Fredendall. He was replaced with Major General George S. Patton. The defeat at what came to be known as the Battle of Kasserine Pass was the worst defeat suffered by the Americans in the European Theater of Operations in the Second World War.
1. The Battle of Savo Island during World War II
The first major naval battle of the Guadalcanal campaign served to give notice of the ferocity of the fighting at sea around the Solomon Islands. Six American heavy cruisers, supported by two light cruisers and fifteen destroyers, engaged an inferior Japanese force of five heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and one destroyer. Fought on the night of August 9, 1942, the Americans engaged the Japanese as they were attempting to attack the landing force on the island of Guadalcanal, destroying the landing craft and bombarding the troops ashore. The inexperience of the Allied force in night fighting at sea was quickly revealed.
At the Battle of Savo island, 37 minutes of heavy firing led to the loss one Australian and three American heavy cruisers. The Japanese also damaged several other ships. Over 1,000 Allied sailors were killed during the battle. In return, the Allied damage inflicted on the Japanese was relatively light. Three of their cruisers were lightly damaged, though none put out of action, and 129 Japanese sailors were killed. The Battle of Savo Island was the first engagement in waters which would come to be known as Ironbottom Sound during the Guadalcanal Campaign. Before the war ended, fifty Japanese and Allied ships were sunk in those waters. Other than Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Savo Island was the worst defeat in the history of the United States Navy.