Key point: These final stands are among the most important and memorable.
The Siege of the Alamo – February 23 – March 6, 1836
This famous battle pitted rebellious Texans, some of whom were Americans, against a Mexican army sent to crush their nascent independence movement. Mexican leader General Antonio Lopez De Santa Anna laid siege to the small mission, bombarding it for days and having several small skirmishes before a final assault on the night of March 5-6. All the combatants in the Alamo were killed other than one man, a slave of the Texan officer Col. William Travis, and several women. This short term Mexican victory backfired when “Remember the Alamo!” became the rallying cry. It has since become arguably the most famous battle of the American West.
The Battle of Rorke’s Drift – January 22-23, 1879
Immediately after their victory at nearby Isandlwana, a large Zulu army attacked a company of British soldiers at the Rorke’s Drift outpost. Though badly outnumbered, the English managed to hold off their opponents and inflict heavy casualties through sheer determination and bravery. The successful defense was a bright spot compared to the debacle at Isandlwana and 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded among the participants.
The Battle of Camarón – April 30, 1863
This is the French Foreign Legion’s defining battle. A company-sized patrol of 65 Legionnaires escorting a supply convoy was overtaken by a force of 800 Mexican cavalry, later reinforced by some 2,200 infantry. The French soldiers took cover in the nearby Hacienda Cameron Inn and swore to defend it to the death. The ensuing battle lasted around seven hours and ended only when the last 5 Legionnaires made a bayonet charge. The last two men alive were given permission by the Mexican commander to leave with the body of their commander, Captain Danjou, who had a wooden hand. Today that hand is the most revered artifact in the Legion’s long history.
The Fetterman Massacre – December 21, 1866
Captain William Fetterman longed for action against the local Native Americans, who had carried out a campaign of raids against the encroaching Americans. On December 21, he received all the action he could want and more. The native warriors, led by such braves as Crazy Horse, laid an ambush by attacking a wood-gathering party away from the camp. This brought out Fetterman at the head of 80 infantry and cavalry. Estimates are about 1,000 warriors attacked and overwhelmed them, killing all the Americans. Since the native accounts vary, it is still not known exactly what happened.
The Lost Battalion: The Men of the 77th Division, October 2-8, 1918
Some 554 men of the US 77th Division were surrounded by German troops when the French forces on their flank were stopped, leaving them isolated. Wishing to restore this hole in their lines the Germans attacked the American for six days; almost two-thirds of them became casualties. Despite this and shortages of food, water and ammunition, the Americans held out until other allied attacks forced a German retreat, relieving the beleaguered Yanks.
Siege of the International Legations, Peking Boxer Rebellion – June 20 – August 14, 1900
When the Chinese Boxer Rebellion attempted to drive foreign influence out of China the legations belonging to a number of foreign nations were besieged. The Boxers received on-and-off assistance from elements of the Chinese government. The siege was punctuated by periods of truce intersperse with heavy fighting. The 409 European, Japanese and American soldiers and sailors defending the legations suffered almost 50% dead and wounded. Two forces, one Japanese and one French, suffered over 100% casualties as wounded men returned to action only to be wounded again!
The Battle of the Little Big Horn – June 25-26, 1876
America’s most famous last stand. Lt. Col. George A. Custer led the 7th Cavalry Regiment against a large Native American encampment. Underestimating his foe, Custer split his command into three separate elements and attacked a much larger force of native warriors. The column led by Custer was wiped out. The remaining columns later linked up and made their own stand on a hill, surviving when their enemy moved off the next day. The events of the battle are even today the subject of much speculation and argument.
Wake Island – December 8-23, 1941
This isolated Pacific outpost was attacked the day after Pearl Harbor but a mixed forces of US Marines, Sailors and civilian workers managed to fend off the first landing attempt by the Japanese on December 11, sinking two destroyers and damaging a cruiser. Afterward the Japanese applied more resources to taking the island and a second attempt on December 23 succeeded despite heavy casualties. The small American force inflicted casualties all out of proportion to its size but suffered greatly in captivity after the battle.
Stalingrad – July 17, 1942 – February 2, 1943
This famous battle was also the last stand of the entire German 6th Army, proving everything was indeed bigger on the Eastern Front. After being cut off by Soviet counteroffensives, Nazi forces were prohibited from breaking out by Adolf Hitler, who was loath to ever retreat or give up territory. Unable to break the encirclement from outside, the Germans watched as their brethren in Stalingrad were slowly ground up in bitter urban warfare. Eventually their food and ammunition were exhausted and the 90,000 survivors surrendered. Only around 5,000 survived the war and returned to Germany in 1955.
Battle of Thermopylae – 480 BC
The sacrifice of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans has been told and retold until it is now practically a cliché. Though there were many more Greeks present, including Arcadians, Thebans and Thespians, the Spartans have received credit for the spirited defense of the Greek army’s rear guard. The main Greek army, variously estimated from 5-7,000 held off a much larger Persian force for two days. While ancient chroniclers claim the Persian force at over a million, modern estimates are much lower, at most a few hundred thousand, still long odds. On the third day, with the Persians now outflanking the Greeks Leonidas, his Spartans and around a thousand others remained to act as a rear guard. They were slaughtered but entered the annals of military history where they are celebrated to this day.
The Swiss Guard During the Sake of Rome – May 6, 1527
On this day a Hapsburg army entered Rome to sack and occupy it. Many of the troops were mutinous Lutheran mercenaries eager to claim loot. As this force closed on the Vatican, it became clear the Pope’s life was in jeopardy. To buy him time to flee 189 Swiss Guards made a stand on the Vatican grounds; only 42 survived the onslaught but Clement VII was able to reach relative safety. Today each new group of recruits to the Papal Guard is sworn in on May 6.
Battle of Shiroyama – September 24, 1877
This battle marked the end of the Samurai and ushered in a new age for Japan. Takamori Saigo, the leader of a group of 500 Samurai which had been defeated earlier, took position on a hill named Shiroyama near the city of Kagoshima. The Japanese army of 30,000 equipped with modern weapons surrounded them and began a punishing artillery bombardment. By morning only 40 Samurai remained. Saigo had been wounded earlier and either died or committed ritual suicide. The last 40 warriors charged, sword in hand, only to be shot down. The battle was used as a general influence for the final battle scene in the movie The Last Samurai.
The Battle off Samar – October 25, 1944
With a large Japanese fleet bearing down on them, the destroyers, destroyer escorts and escort carriers of the US task force designated Taffy 3 made a desperate stand. Beyond them was the US amphibious force conducting landings at Leyte Gulf. If the Japanese battleships and cruisers reached them it would be a slaughter. Taffy 3’s sailors fought with such aggressiveness the enemy fleet was turned back, though at a loss of 5 ships sunk, including two of the tiny carriers, and 2,496 casualties. It is still lauded as one of the US navy’s proudest moments.
Defense of Arnhem Bridge – September 17-26, 1944
The most distant of the airborne attacks of Operation Market Garden, British paratroopers were able to seize this bridge over the Lower Rhine River in order to hold it for advancing British 2nd Army. That force was delayed by a stubborn German defense, leaving the paratroopers isolated and with little supply. After holding for 9 days, the survivors withdrew, leaving a large number of wounded to be taken prisoner. It was a dark day for the British Army despite the valiant performance of the airborne troops.
The Warsaw Ghetto – April 19 – May 16, 1943
As the Nazis began to round up the last Jews from the Warsaw Ghettos, an underground group of Jewish fighters chose to resist. The ensuing battle was desperate and uneven as the poorly armed Jews fought to stave off almost-certain death in the camps. The Nazis used the incident as an excuse to murder thousands of ghetto residents and quickly deported the rest, leaving the Ghetto an empty and haunted place.