“Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser,” said General George Patton in numerous speeches delivered to his troops in 1944, later made famous in a cleaned up version delivered by actor George C. Scott. Patton mentioned in the same speech that America had never lost, nor never would lose a war. Perhaps not. But American troops have lost battles on their way to winning wars, some of them so decisively as to be considered disastrous. In the Mexican War and during the Spanish-American War American troops or sailors prevailed in all major combats; such was not the case in America’s other wars.
Military defeat is often the result of poor leadership, inaccurate information, surprise, and overwhelming numbers. Superior training and experience on the side of the victor has been a factor as well. In the case of nearly all American military defeats, lessons were learned and applied to later events, leading to successful outcomes. But that did not lessen the sting of defeat and the negative impact on morale and efficiency on bewildered and exhausted troops. Military disasters in the field have ended and launched careers, shaped borders, created long lasting animosities, and lengthened wars.
Here are ten times in which the US military suffered a disastrous setback while engaged in combat.
During the opening years of the War of 1812 the British strategy was focused largely on protecting Canada from American invasion and conducting hit and run raids on American coastal cities and towns. By the spring of 1814 the British Navy had established operations in the Chesapeake region, supported by their vastly superior Navy, and with Napoleon dispatched to Elba were prepared to strike hard against the Americans. While most of British army was sent to Canada to prepare an invasion of New York, a contingent of Wellington’s veterans of the Peninsula War was sent to Bermuda, and thence to Tangier Island in the Chesapeake. Their target was the American capital at Washington.
When the British troops, supplemented with sailors and Royal Marines, landed in Maryland American General William Winder moved to confront them. Winder had a force of over 1,000 regular army troops and between 5,000 and 7,000 militia at his command, which he positioned outside the town of Bladensburg, Maryland. Control of the small town allowed the Americans to defend the roads to Annapolis, Baltimore, and Washington. The American troops were supported by US Navy artillerymen commanded by Joshua Barney and established in fortified but poorly chosen defensive positions.
When the British arrived before the American lines on August 24, 1814 their commander, General Robert Ross, immediately detected and exploited the flaws in the American lines and although the American regulars and seamen held their ground for a time the less experienced militia did not. As the American army began to collapse under the British assault the President of the United States, James Madison, briefly assumed command before being escorted from the field to safety. Commodore Barney was gravely wounded, and though his men held off the British for a time they were overwhelmed when their ammunition ran out. By then the American militia was in full flight.
General Winder had made no previous plans regarding a retreat or a place for the army to re-form. In the end it wouldn’t have mattered since the American force simply disintegrated as the militia raced for safety. By late afternoon the militia were fleeing through the streets of Washington, adding to the panic already present in the capital, and the federal government was likewise seeking safe haven. The British Army entered Washington that night and set fire to numerous government buildings, including the White House and the Capitol.
After the war British sources referred to the battle as the “Bladensburg Races.” The much smaller British army inflicted a defeat upon the Americans which has been called the “…greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms.” Despite the victory, the subsequent burning of Washington was looked at with disapproval by the capitals of Europe, including London. General Ross was killed in battle later that summer, and his family’s coat of arms was changed to add the name of Bladensburg to his honors.