10 Most Important Battles in American History and Why: Part IV—the Final Two.
By RU Twisted
Well, here we are. The final two. I’d like to say something profound that would be the poetically written version of a drum roll, but instead I’ll save the hoopla and get right to it, as you’ve probably already guessed what we’re covering by this point.
The Battle of Gettysburg
On July 1, 1863, Union and Confederate forces collided in the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which had an estimated population of about 2,000 people. The battle lasted through July 3 and is considered by most to be the seminal conflict in the Civil War.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee, after his victory at Chancellorsville, led his Army of Northern Virginia on a second invasion of the north with the intent on taking the fighting away from an already war-ravaged South. Major General George Meade, three days into his command of the Union Army, had moved his forces into Pennsylvania with the intent of being in between the Confederate Army and Washington, D.C.
For three days, elements of both armies met at places like Oak Hill, Seminary Ridge, Barlow’s Knoll, Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, and many others in what would come to be known as not only a turning point in the war but also a focal point of American history. Casualties on both sides were extreme but the Confederate forces suffered absolutely devastating losses and would never be the same again.
Why it’s important: I’m not sure that the significance of the Battle of Gettysburg can be overstated. Between the first and third of July, Union and Confederate forces are estimated to have lost between 45,000 and 51,000 in killed, wounded, or missing soldiers. Of the 120 general officers present, 9 were either killed or mortally wounded during the battle. 63 medals of honor were given to Union Soldiers alone for their actions. Days 1, 2, and 3 of the battle by themselves rank in the top 15 of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.
But let’s be clear; the Battle of Gettysburg is important for much larger reasons than just statistics. Its significance goes well beyond mere numbers of casualties.
Gettysburg was without question a major turning point in the war that did more to shape our country than probably any other. After July 3, 1863, Confederate forces would be permanently on the defensive in a conflict that is still largely misunderstood by a great deal of our population. The inability of Confederate forces to mount significant offense into the North proved their lack of material and personnel resources. Conversely, it showed both sides that the Union Army had resources to spare and was willing to do so in any number of ways.
The Battle of Gettysburg marked the beginning of the end of an idea that dates back to the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution itself. The concepts of states’ rights, of the right to secede, and what federalism meant were all radically changed during and after the Civil War, and the events at Gettysburg signified that change. As many historians have pointed out, the Civil War was a demarcation point when we went from “these” United States to “the” United States. Gettysburg was the same point within the war itself and, as a result, has become one of the most significant battles in our history.
Operation Overlord, aka The Battle of Normandy
On June 6, 1944, after months of planning and high-level deceptions thrown at the Germans, Allied forces invaded Normandy, France on what has come to be one of the most easily recognized names in military history—D-Day. Over 150,000 troops in 5,000 ships and 1,200 planes crossed into German-occupied France under the leadership of GEN Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had been named Commander of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF—proving that awkward nomenclature didn’t begin in the 1980s). It was an operation so large and taken so seriously that the live-fire rehearsal, Exercise Tiger, cost the lives of 946 American Servicemen.
American, Canadian, British, and French forces inserted via water and air in military offensive that was unparalleled in size and scope—especially when factoring in this new and totally kick-ass methodology known as “airborne!” (I may, for the record, be somewhat biased). By the end of the operation in late August (Operation Neptune was the Normandy assault; Overlord was the name for the entire operation), over two million Allied troops were in France. Between 6 June and the end of August, American forces suffered over 20,000 killed and over 90,000 wounded (total Allied casualties topped 200,000).
Why it’s important: In the context of the European theater of World War II, nothing was more significant than Operation Overlord. From a strategic point of view, the level of planning and deception that went into setting the stage for the Normandy invasion was without comparison. From a tactical perspective it was not only successful, but also provided numerous lessons for future leaders and students of military theory. Consider the fact that, despite the tremendous level of preparation as well as the experience of the leadership involved, it was almost as if they planned for every contingency on the first day and neglected to make provision for what would meet them on the second day and following. The bocage—or thorny hedgerows—proved to be a major stumbling block that forced some of the heaviest and bloodiest fighting and seems to have been almost overlooked completely in the planning stage.
Yet it remains, perhaps for that reason, as one of the greatest examples of American fighting forces overcoming obstacles in the history of our nation. It is due to this that the Normandy invasion’s importance transcends military strategic significance.
No other battle or series of battles features so prominently in our minds when considering the topic of American exceptionalism. When we think of our nation’s heroes fighting against tremendous adversity in horrible conditions, chances are pretty good that we reflect on the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, The Big Red One, or shots from one of several other D-Day themed movies. And while that could indicate that our ideas of American greatness are somewhat skewed by Hollywood, the simple fact is that those movies resonated with us in the first place because this was such an extraordinary event.
D-Day, and Operation Overlord as a whole, marked a truly significant moment in American history. It wasn’t just one of the biggest military operations ever conducted by our forces; it marked the beginning of the end of the largest war the world had ever seen. The end of WWII ushered in a period of American greatness that, although possibly mythologized by popular media, still gave birth to huge numbers of people that resulted in me, you, and an explosion of technological advancement unlike any the world has ever seen. The invasion of Normandy signals the introduction of that era.
Well, there you have it—the ten most important battles in our country’s history. I’m sure there are several that deserved to be on this list that didn’t make it, but I’m also sure that the ones I included are pretty damn important and worthy of study before being dismissed.
America, for better or worse, is what it is because of a lot of bloodshed. The very least we can do is understand how important those events were and why.