Stars and Stripes Forever: America's 5 Biggest Military Victories

Five great American victories, spanning from 1780 until 1944. Which will take the top spot?

Is there an American way of war? The question evokes deep controversy, not least because for a very long time, Americans considered themselves an exceptionally peaceful nation. Even into the twentieth century, American presidents boasted about the nation’s aversion to war and defense expenditures.

But even during the period in which the United States openly embraced pacifism, its military forces won some remarkable victories. This article examines five great American victories, spanning from 1780 until 1944. We’re looking for neither technically impressive victories (although most of these are), nor predictable thrashings. With one major exception, these battles did not turn on chance or on the need for remarkable heroism (although such heroism was always present). Instead, these successes came at the end of well-conceived and executed campaigns, designed to integrate the elements of national power into a strategic victory. We’re looking at how the United States built a series of advantages that led inexorably to victory, even if the outcome sometimes remained in doubt until the final play.

Battle of Yorktown

The Battle of Saratoga decisively ended British attempts to subdue the northern colonies. Although British forces remained in control of certain critical areas (including especially New York City), the focus of British attention turned south. British commanders hoped to rally loyalists, and perhaps to fully detach the southern colonies from the rebellion. British forces won several major victories, although colonial resistance continued and the loyalist recruits never appeared in the anticipated numbers.

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In early 1781, Lord Charles Cornwallis led an invasion of Virginia, in an effort to cut off rebel forces in the south from their sources of supply. Blundering, bad communication, and poor command relationships on the British side led Cornwallis to occupy Yorktown, while waiting for outside support. Yorktown was defensible, but could also be easily cut off through the effective combination of naval and ground power. Washington and Lafayette saw the opportunity for a major victory, and moved quickly to take advantage. The French and the colonials executed a series of moves that required exceedingly complex planning, especially given the communications technology of the day.

The siege of Yorktown began on September 28, 1781, and ended with Cornwallis’s surrender on October 19, after the Royal Navy failed to break through. Opponents of the war in the British government quickly took advantage of Cornwallis’ defeat, and peace negotiations soon ensued.

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.

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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.

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