Welcome to the third and final installment in our series of the fifteen decisive battles of history. The first ten, as we've discussed in the two earlier posts, were as follows: the Battle of Salamis, the Battle of Gaugamela, the Qin conquest of the Chu, the Battle of Zama, the Battle of Yarmouk, the Arab Siege of Constantinople, the Battle of Hattin, the Conquest of Goa, the Siege of Tenochtitlan, and the Defeat of the Spanish Armada. So, here we go with our final five: Poltava, Saratoga, Valmy, Atlanta, and Dunkirk.
Before the reign of Czar Peter the Great, Russia was an enormous yet backward country, far behind the intellectual and technical development of the Western nations. In one of the clearest proofs that the Great Man Theory of History is no fiction, Peter the Great essentially hauled Russia into the modern world through sheer force of will. Having toured Western Europe early in his reign and learning how far behind other countries Russia was, he resolved to modernize his realm.
He also set his sights on expanding Russian power and territory. The result was the Great Northern War, in which Russia under Peter the Great was matched against Sweden, then at the height of its power and under the rule of the dynamic, ambitious, and brilliant King Charles XII. In the early years of the war, Russia suffered one defeat after another at the hands of the Swedes. Most notably, at the Battle of Narva in 1700, a Swedish army of only 10,000 men utterly destroyed a Russian force roughly four times its strength.
Rather than give in, however, Peter the Great became determined to gain revenge. While Charles XII, in one of the great miscalculations of history, turned toward Poland and ignored Russia for the next few years, Peter the Great worked to modernize and train his army, establishing war industries, and slowly retaking territory back from the Swedes. Finally turning his attention to Russia again in 1708, Charles XII invaded Russia in the hopes of smashing its army and forcing Peter to surrender. The following year, the two opposing armies met at Poltava.
The battle was a brutal and bloody slugfest. Despite having superior numbers, Peter was wary of the tactical skill of Charles and carefully choose a defensive position. Charles, overconfident, attacked with gusto. Yet the Russian army was not the same force that had been defeated at Narva years earlier. They stood up to the Swedish attack, held it, and then counterattacked. By the end of the day, the Swedish army had been effectively destroyed as a fighting force. Only Charles and a handful of soldiers escaped.
Poltava marked the emergence of Russia as a major power upon the world stage, a position it has held ever since. Had Russia lost the battle, it might have continued its unenlightened slumber and remained a backward state. Instead, having crushed its most dangerous enemy, Russia developed a confidence and awareness with which it marched forward to play a major role in Europe and throughout the world right down to the present day.
In 1761, the British Empire appeared well on its way to becoming the dominant world power, having defeated its great rival France in the globe-spanning Seven Years War, taken control of India and North America, and having no rival when it came to sea power. Yet a series of unforgivable political blunders by British politicians alienated their subjects in the American colonies and led to the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775, with the Americans declaring themselves independent the following year.
At first, it looked like the military might of the British Empire would crush the rebels. The British easily took New York and, though they suffered some setbacks in the winter of 1776, went on to win the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown in 1777, capturing the rebel capital at Philadelphia. At the same time, a large army of British regular and German mercenaries under the command of the bombastic General John Burgoyne was pushing down the Hudson Valley from Canada, on the way to cutting the colonies in two.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, the tide turned in favor of the Americans. Burgoyne's advance was slowed by Continental soldiers as American militia rapidly mobilized and swarmed around the enemy force like white blood cells attacking a bacteria. Although the Americans were technically under the command of General Horatio Gates, the real leadership was exercised by Daniel Morgan and Benedict Arnold (later the great traitor). The engineering genius of Polish volunteer Thaddeus Kosciuszko also proved pivotal. Fighting with unconventional tactics, making use of the cover of the woods, the army of citizen-soldiers brought the army of Burgoyne to a halt. In a series of battles, the strength of the British was worn down and they were caught in a position from which they could not retreat. On October 17, Burgoyne surrendered.
This proved the decisive battle of the American Revolution. France, sensing that an American victory was possible and wanting revenge on their British enemies, joined the war as an ally of the United States. French troops, French ships, French money, and French arms and munitions would now play their part in the conflict. Although the war would go on for four more years and see many more battles, it was the American victory at Saratoga that proved decisive in the end. Had America lost at Saratoga, our national anthem would today be God Save the Queen rather than the Star Spangled Banner.
In truth, the Battle of Valmy was not much of a battle. Yet its effects were so profound that all of subsequent history was fundamentally different. In a sense, it divided history into two great ages. Before Valmy, history was largely the story of kings and emperors; after Valmy, history was mostly the story of nations.
The French Revolution had broken out in 1789. By 1792, it had gone farther than anyone had ever imagined. The power of the king and the nobility was gradually whittled away, feudalism was abolished, the Church was disestablished, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen were proclaimed. French society had been turned upside down and the rulers of the other European nations were understandably fearful that the contagion of revolution would spread to their countries as well. In the summer of 1792, the revolutionaries stormed the royal palace, massacred the king's Swiss Guard, and took Louis XVI prisoner. All of this was too much for the other European monarchs, who invaded France in order to restore the king and destroy the Revolution.
The feared Prussian Army spearheaded the invasion, sweeping aside disorganized resistance until it came upon the French force at Valmy. Heavy rains had turned the ground very muddy, limiting the maneuver options. The resulting battle scarcely deserves the name; "engagement" might be a better term. The two sides exchanged ineffectual artillery fire for a little while. The Prussian infantry advanced towards the French lines, then concluded that an assault over the muddy ground probably wasn't a good idea. The battle then simply sputtered out. Total casualties were only a few hundred killed or wounded. Tired and at the end of their supply lines, the Prussians fell back to the east.
The battle might have been anticlimactic, but the Prussian withdrawal following the engagement at Valmy marked an epochal moment in world history. The reactionary forces of the European royal courts had lost their chance to strangle the French Revolution while it was still in its cradle. In subsequent years, French armies would rampage across Europe, bringing their revolutionary ideas with them. Not until Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo in 1815 would peace return to Europe and by then it bore little resemblance to what it had been before 1789.
Conventional wisdom about the American Civil War tells us that the decisive turning point took place in early July of 1863, when Robert E. Lee's army was defeated at Gettysburg and, just a day later, the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg surrendered, giving the Union complete control of the Mississippi River. I respectfully disagree with the conventional wisdom, however. The South could still have won the war after the twin disasters of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, whose importance (particularly in the case of the former) has been generally overrated. Indeed, the Confederacy has a much greater chance of winning its independence in 1864 than in 1863, due to that year's presidential election in the North. Had the South simply hung on and caused sufficient Northern casualties in 1864, Northern political will to continue the war could have collapsed, Lincoln could have been voted out of office, and a negotiated settlement could have been negotiated by a new administration. The fighting in the first half of 1864 went the Confederacy's way, with multiple Union disasters at Cold Harbor, Kennesaw Mountain, the Crater sapping Northern public morale to the breaking point.
Confederate hopes for victory collapsed when William Tecumseh Sherman captured the city of Atlanta on September 2, scarcely two months before the election. It was the end result of a series of bloody battles around the city - Peachtree Creek, Atlanta, Ezra Church, and Jonesboro - between July and August. On July 17, President Jefferson Davis had replaced the careful and cautious Joseph Johnston with the aggressive John Bell Hood, who proceeded to lose every battle he fought against Sherman despite the courage of his men, thereby fatally weakening the Army of Tennessee in the process. The victory at Atlanta, combined with other Union successes in the summer and fall, restored Northern popular will to go on with the war and brought a landslide victory for Lincoln in the fall elections.
If the Confederates had held Atlanta, perhaps by keeping Johnston in command of the defending army (the plot of my novel Shattered Nation) it's entirely possible that Lincoln would have lost the election and a Democratic administration would have been willing to negotiate a peace. The consequences of this are hard to overestimate. If the United States had fractured into two and possibly more nations, the subsequent course of the 20th Century would have been so different as to be unrecognizable.
The last hundred years have been "The American Century" in more ways than one. It was the power of the United States that allowed the Western Allies to destroy Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, then face down the threat of Soviet communism during the Cold War. American popular culture today sets the tone for the rest of the world, American education and economic practices are copied in almost every country, and the military power of the United States remains paramount (though perhaps not forever). All of this essentially dictated the course of the 20th Century. Had the country been fractured by an independent Confederacy, everything certainly would have been changed.
The story of the 20th Century is largely the story of the struggle between democracy and totalitarianism. At no point were the forces of democracy closer to total defeat than in the spring of 1940. In late May, Nazi Germany was in the process of crushing France, had gained both the Soviet Union and Imperial Japan as de facto allies, and would soon be joined in the war by Fascist Italy. The United States remained stubbornly neutral, with large majorities of the population expressing a strong desire to stay out of the war. The only force holding the line for freedom was Britain, under the determined leadership of Winston Churchill.
Yet in the last days of May, the British army was trapped on the French shore in and around the port city of Dunkirk, along with thousands of isolated French and Belgian troops. The German panzers, heretofore invincible, inexplicably halted on Hitler's orders (the reasons for this order remain the subject of historical dispute to this day). It seemed that the trapped Allied forces would be forced to surrender, which would effectively mean the end of Britain's ability to continue the war. On May 28, Churchill darkly warned the House of Commons to prepare for "hard and heavy tidings".
It was at this critical moment, when the forces of totalitarianism appeared on the brink of triumph, that the Miracle of Dunkirk occurred. The Royal Navy, aided by an amazing fleet of civilian vessels that included fishing boats and pleasure yachts, swept to the rescue in what was called Operation Dynamo. As the gallant First French Army fought a desperate rearguard action at Lille and the Royal Air Force sortied to blunt air attacks by the Luftwaffe, the ships began picking the men up on May 27. Planners had initially thought they'd be lucky to rescue 40,000 men. By the time the evacuation ended on June 4, however, no less than 338,000 men had been rescued and all of Britain rejoiced at the deliverance of their army.
Dunkirk, as Churchill was careful to point out, was an evacuation and no battlefield triumph. But having rescued its trapped army at a moment when all seemed lost, the morale of the British people survived the catastrophic fall of France and remained strong enough to weather the storm that was to come. More practically, the thousands of troops saved at Dunkirk formed the core of the rebuilt British Army that would go on to fight the Germans and Italians for the rest of the war.
Ultimately, though, the most important consequence of Dunkirk probably occurred in the meeting rooms of the British War Cabinet. While the evacuation was ongoing, Churchill was challenged by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, who argued that the war was a lost cause and that approaches should be made to Hitler for a negotiated peace. Halifax had already opened some back channel communications through the Italians. After days of deliberations, Churchill firmly rejected the idea of peace talks, saying, "If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground."
If the Dunkirk evacuation had failed, however, and the British Expeditionary Force had been either wiped out of forced to surrender, it is likely that Churchill would have been forced out as Prime Minister and Halifax or some other person put in his place. The collapse of morale and the lack of troops would have made the situation appear hopeless. The new British leader would have faced irresistible pressure to make the very sort of peace approaches to Germany that Halifax proposed and some sort of armistice would almost certainly have resulted. In that event, Hitler would have solidified his position on the Continent of Europe, with France and many other nations under his heel, Italy as a dutiful ally, and now Britain disarmed and powerless. Hitler would have been free to turn against the Soviet Union with all his strength, against which the Russians could not have prevailed. The history of the rest of the 20th Century would have been very, very dark, indeed.