Win the Battle, Lose the War: 6 of History's Costliest Military Victories
Win the Battle, Lose the War: 6 of History’s Costliest Military Victories

Win the Battle, Lose the War: 6 of History’s Costliest Military Victories

Patrick Lynch - April 13, 2017

5 – Battle of Borodino (1812)

Win the Battle, Lose the War: 6 of History’s Costliest Military Victories

Although he achieved a victory, the Battle of Borodino was one of the costliest of Napoleon’s military career. It occurred a couple of months into the French invasion of Russia, and while he managed to defeat the Russian forces led by General Kutuzov, the casualties were so high that his entire invasion was in jeopardy. While his Grand Armee enjoyed fantastic success elsewhere in Europe, it found the going tough when it encountered the treacherous conditions in Russia.

The Russian Army had no interest in engaging directly with the French, so they continued to retreat and burned crops and resources along the way. As a result, Napoleon’s ‘living off the land’ strategy was ruined, and his army’s supply lines were stretched to the limit. Eventually, the Russian army turned to fight at the town of Borodino some 70 miles from Moscow. Napoleon was happy to engage because he knew a decisive win would pave the way to Moscow and represent a major step in his plan to conquer Russia.

At Borodino on September 7, 1812, two of the greatest armies in Europe squared off as the Grand Armee had somewhere between 130,000 and 190,000 men against the Russian forces with 120,000-160,000 soldiers. The French had 587 guns against 624 Russian guns. As usual, Napoleon attacked aggressively but sustained large losses as the Russians opted for a counterattacking strategy.

Eventually, the French took control of the battlefield and seized a key position. However, Napoleon did not want to risk his Imperial Guard; he apparently said that he could win the battle without their intervention.

While this proved to be correct, the decision allowed Kutuzov to retreat from the field in relatively decent shape. A total of 60,000 men died at Borodino and Napoleon could ill-afford the losses (some 30,000-35,000 French soldiers died or were wounded or captured). Nonetheless, he was free to take Moscow.

Unfortunately for him, the Russians did not do what he expected. They elected to abandon the city so when the French arrived, less than one-third of its population remained, and law & order had completely broken down. Also, the stores had been plundered so there were few supplies to feast upon.

Napoleon had expected to receive the Tsar in Moscow and bask in the glow of victory, but there wasn’t even a Russian general there to surrender on bended knee. The French were in Moscow for a day when a huge fire engulfed the city, and eventually they fled on October 19. By then, the Russian army had regrouped and harassed the French until Napoleon decided to abandon his invasion in 1812. In just six months, Napoleon had lost almost half a million men.

6 – Battle of Chancellorsville (1863)

Win the Battle, Lose the War: 6 of History’s Costliest Military Victories
Robert E. Lee. Washington Times

In many ways, the Battle of Chancellorsville showed the best and worst of General Robert E. Lee. Although it is widely regarded as his masterpiece, the Confederate army lost an enormous number of soldiers, losses it could not afford, and crucially, resulted in the death of Stonewall Jackson, a man Lee referred to as his ‘right arm’. Lee faced a Union army almost twice the size of his and took a huge gamble with a bold strategy that paid off.

On April 30, 1863, Lee commanded an army of approximately 60,000 men and found an enemy army of over 100,000 men, led by General Joseph Hooker, right behind him. A battle began that lasted for six days and resulted in approximately 30,000 casualties between the two armies.

Instead of pressing home his initial advantage, Hooker decided to set up a defensive position, and when Lee arrived on the scene on May 1, he was able to plan his own flank movement with the aid of Jackson.

The following day, Lee divided his army and Jackson took 30,000 men to fight against the Union’s weak right flank where he won a stunning victory. In fact, only the arrival of nightfall prevented him from completely destroying the enemy. That night, Jackson died in a tragic friendly fire incident. The Union army attacked the rear of Lee’s forces on May 3 but the Confederate general was able to beat them back, and on May 6, Hooker withdrew his remaining army.

Although both sides sustained enormous casualties, the Union had the far greater manpower and resources and could bear the losses and regroup. In contrast, the Confederate army was at a severe disadvantage. Within a couple of months, Lee would do battle with the Union at the Battle of Gettysburg; the conflict often said to be the turning point in the Civil War.