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The U.S. Military’s 5 Biggest Victories (And 5 Most Stunning Defeats)

After Great Britain failed to subdue the colonies in the North, some form of eventual independence became extremely likely. The details of that independence, however, depended on the military situation at the conclusion of the peace. The decisive victory of the Continental Army at Yorktown meant that Britain could not prosecute the war in the south with any hope of success, and that rebel recapture of other outposts was just a matter of time.

Battle of Mexico City:

In the spring of 1846, the United States determined, on the flimsiest of pretexts, to appropriate for itself a third of the territory of its only independent neighbor in North America. The United States had recently annexed Texas, and sought to acquire further territories in New Mexico and California.

Early U.S. operations seized key points and won several major battles along the Texas-Mexico border and in California, but Mexico refused to capitulate or negotiate, and Mexican forces had sufficient maneuver space to avoid contact with major U.S. formations. Consequently, success depended on forcing Mexico to accept a political settlement by forcing its most powerful armies to defend it critical national assets.

The campaign to take Mexico City began with an amphibious landing at Veracruz, In early March 1847, Winfield Scott landed with a force of 12,000 men that included many of what would become the luminaries of the Civil War. Scott’s army forced the surrender of the sizable Mexican garrison, and then occupied the city. Scott judged Mexico City to be the center of gravity for the Santa Ana government, and expected that the Mexicans would fight for it.

Scott was correct. American forces marched west into Mexico’s interior, winning a bloody fight against Santa Ana’s forces in the approaches to Puebla, before capturing the city on May 1. By the beginning of August, Scott had occupied the high ground around Mexico City. In early September, U.S. forces stormed the city, capturing the Mexican capital. Although engagements continued for several months after the conquest, Mexican forces never seriously threatened to evict Scott, and Mexico eventually agreed to enormous territorial concessions.

While we might be tempted to reflect on the justice of the war, there’s no question that victory in the Mexican-American War fundamentally redrew the map of North America. The United States acquired vast, thinly populated territories that extended all the way to the Pacific, while Mexico lost nearly a third of its territory. It would be some time before the United States could settle this territory (although statehood for California came quickly), but in purely territorial terms it represents one of the most successful wars of the nineteenth century.

Battle of Vicksburg: 

The Battle of Vicksburg was the culmination of a six-month Union campaign to seize the most important remaining Confederate fortress on the Mississippi. The great river system represented both an important Confederate asset, and a serious vulnerability. Control of the river allowed communication between the eastern and western Confederate states, as well as easy north-south movement. In Union hands, however, the river represented a highway into the bowels of the Confederacy.

The operation came primarily under the command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant, along with his deputy, Major General William T. Sherman. Over a six-month period, Grant and Sherman seized the initiative in the theater of operations, maneuvering and fighting their way across swampy, inhospitable terrain. The operation was as much a triumph of logistical planning and engineering as a victory of pure arms, with the central Union challenge involving the safe transit of troops to the vicinity of the city.

On May 18, 1863, Grant trapped the out-maneuvered Confederates in Vicksburg itself. The siege of Vicksburg lasted forty-six days, with the defenders (led by Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton) surrendering on July 4.

Vicksburg confirmed Union control of the Mississippi, meaning that Union forces could prevent the western Confederacy from supporting the east. It also confirmed the ascendance of Ulysses S. Grant and William Sherman to the senior ranks of Union commanders.

It left the underbelly of the Confederacy open to attack by Union armies, and gave thousands of slave the opportunity to make their way to Union lines. Lee recovered from his defeat at Gettysburg, and the armies of the Confederacy remained viable for two more years, especially in the east. Vicksburg, however, fatally undercut the national unity of the Confederacy, and its ability to manage its own territory.

Battle of Midway: 

In the first six months of 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had accomplished nearly every strategic task that it had set for itself. The IJN had facilitated the seizure the Dutch East Indies, Indochina, Malaya and Singapore; it had destroyed the major units of the Royal Navy in the Far East, and ranged deep into the Indian Ocean; and it had devastated Dutch, Australian, American and British naval strength at engagements from Pearl Harbor to Java Sea.

The most important remaining task was the destruction of the carriers of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. The Pearl Harbor attack had damaged or destroyed most of the battleship force, but the three carriers of the Pacific Fleet were on other missions. These carriers would soon be supported by three more, although USS Lexington was lost at the Battle of Coral Sea, which also damaged USS Yorktown and HIJMS Shokaku.