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Top 5 — or Bottom — Biggest American Military Disasters

Artist’s re-creation of the death of Shawnee Chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames, Oct. 5, 1813, lithograph 1833. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Artist’s re-creation of the death of Shawnee Chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames, Oct. 5, 1813, lithograph 1833.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.


Robert Farley, at The National Interest has an interesting piece entitled “The Five Biggest Military Disaster in American Military History“.

In this article, I concentrate on specific operational and strategic decisions, leaving aside broader, grand-strategic judgments that may have led the United States into ill-considered conflicts. The United States may well have erred politically in engaging in the War of 1812, World War I, the Vietnam War and Operation Iraqi Freedom, but here I consider how specific failures worsened America’s military and strategic position.

Invasion of Canada

At the opening of the War of 1812, U.S. forces invaded Upper and Lower Canada. Americans expected a relatively easy going; the notion that Canada represented the soft underbelly of the British empire had been popular among American statesmen for some time. Civilian and military leaders alike expected a quick capitulation, forced in part by the support of the local population. But Americans overestimated their support among Canadians, overestimated their military capabilities, and underestimated British power. Instead of an easy victory, the British handed the Americans a devastating defeat.

American forces (largely consisting of recently mobilized militias) prepared to invade Canada on three axes of advance, but did not attack simultaneously and could not support one another. American forces were inexperienced at fighting against a professional army and lacked good logistics. This limited their ability to concentrate forces against British weak points. The Americans also lacked a good backup plan for the reverses that the British soon handed them. None of the American commanders (led by William Hull, veteran of the Revolutionary War) displayed any enthusiasm for the fight, or any willingness to take the risks necessary to press advantages.

The real disaster of the campaign became apparent at Detroit in August, when a combined British and Native American army forced Hull to surrender, despite superior numbers. The British followed up their victory by seizing and burning several American frontier outposts, although they lacked the numbers and logistical tail to probe very deeply into American territory. The other two prongs of the invasion failed to march much beyond their jumping off points. American forces won several notable successes later in the war, restoring their position along the border, but never effectively threatened British Canada.

The failure of the invasion turned what Americans had imagined as an easy, lucrative offensive war into a defensive struggle. It dealt a major setback to the vision, cherished by Americans, of a North America completely under the domination of the United States. Britain would hold its position on the continent, eventually ensuring the independence of Canada from Washington.

Go read the whole thing above. I gotta run and will give it some thought later.

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