Ten Embarrassing American Military Disasters the Government Wished the Public Hadn’t Discovered

Ten Embarrassing American Military Disasters the Government Wished the Public Hadn’t Discovered

Larry Holzwarth - December 3, 2017

“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.

Ten Embarrassing American Military Disasters the Government Wished the Public Hadn’t Discovered
A burning USS California slowly sinking in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack. US Navy

Here are ten times in which the US military suffered a disastrous setback while engaged in combat.

Ten Embarrassing American Military Disasters the Government Wished the Public Hadn’t Discovered
James Madison took serving as Commander in Chief to actually serving on the field of battle in 1814. Wikipedia

Bladensburg, 1814

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.

Ten Embarrassing American Military Disasters the Government Wished the Public Hadn’t Discovered
Baron Johann deKalb, one of Washington’s favorite generals, was mortally trying to stop the rout at Camden. National Archives

Camden, 1780

After the Battle of Monmouth Court House in 1778, British strategy for prosecuting the war in North America shifted from the mid-Atlantic states to the South. The British believed that a large loyalist faction in the southern states would help their troops, and also looked for support from newly freed slaves. After seizing Savannah and then Charleston, British troops looked to secure the back country of South Carolina before eventually moving north through North Carolina and Virginia. Several battles in South Carolina led to British Commander Sir Henry Clinton’s belief that the state had been pacified. Clinton returned to New York, leaving behind Charles, Lord Cornwallis to command British and loyalist troops.

Washington responded by sending two regiments of his best Continental troops and General Horatio Gates to command them. Gates was widely regarded as the Hero of Saratoga, a title he did little to discourage. When Gates arrived he assumed command over troops which had been up to then led by the popular and capable Baron de Kalb. Gates was unfamiliar with the country and his troops, about two thirds of which were local militia, and ignored the services of established Patriot guerrilla fighters such as Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter.

When Gates attacked the British garrison at Camden on August 16, 1780 the left wing of his army was made up of militia from Virginia and North Carolina. The British counterattacked with bayonets and the North Carolina militia fled so fast and far that they didn’t stop until they arrived at Hillsborough, North Carolina – 200 miles from the battlefield. The Virginia contingent remained near the scene but disengaged from the battle. With more than half of the American army gone, the Continentals retreated in good order, although Baron de Kalb was mortally wounded.

General Gates fled with the North Carolinians, although well ahead of most of the militiamen, mounted on a noted racehorse. He arrived in Hillsborough on August 19, having covered the two hundred miles in three and a half days. The American army in the Southern theater was all but destroyed. Gates had used his political connections and reputation as the Hero of Saratoga to acquire the Southern command, now he used them to exonerate himself and avoid court-martial for the crushing defeat.

Washington sent Nathaniel Greene to assume command in the South and rebuild the army. The debacle at Camden cost the Americans more than 900 killed and wounded, and over 1,000 men taken prisoner by the British. By contrast, Lord Cornwallis reported 68 British dead and 245 wounded. Although Gates rejoined Washington’s staff later in the war, he served merely in an advisory capacity and never again commanded troops.

Ten Embarrassing American Military Disasters the Government Wished the Public Hadn’t Discovered
Arthur St. Clair was in command in the worst defeat Americans ever suffered at the hands of Native Americans. Independence Hall

Wabash, 1791

The worst defeat ever inflicted upon American troops by Native Americans did not occur at the Little Big Horn in 1876. It occurred in what was then known as the Northwest Territory of the young United States, which had been ceded by the British in the Treaty of Paris. The signatories of that Treaty were the French, the British and the Americans. The Northwest Territory was occupied by none of these, and was instead held by Native American tribes including Shawnee, Miami, Huron, Delaware, and many others.

The tribes formed what became known as the Western Confederacy in 1786, and raids by the tribes on western settlements led to the government in Washington sending federal troops. By the late 1780s more than 1,500 settlers and explorers had been killed in the Ohio and Wabash Valleys and surrounding lands. After an earlier expedition ended in failure, President Washington sent Arthur St. Clair, the governor of the Northwest Territory and a Major General in the Army, on an expedition to destroy the Western Confederacy in the summer of 1791.

St. Clair assembled and trained his army in Fort Washington, (Cincinnati) and marched it north to the area of present day Fort Wayne, Indiana, arriving there in late October. Throughout the summer the size of his expedition shrank due to desertions, disease, and occasional hit and run attacks. Meanwhile, the Western Confederacy assembled a force of well over 1,100 warriors, led by the Miami Little Turtle and the Shawnee known as Blue Jacket. St. Clair’s force was just under 1,500 men, accompanied by nearly 250 women and children.

On the evening of November 3 the Natives attacked the American troops, using tactics which drew the Americans into woods where they were shortly surrounded and slaughtered. Each subsequent American bayonet charge led to a Native withdrawal, encirclement, and massacre. By the time the remnants of St. Clair’s force managed to escape, 97% of the troops involved were casualties – the highest casualty rate ever experienced by the United States Army in combat. Over nine hundred troops and thirty-nine officers were killed. The number of prisoners taken is unknown since most were executed by the Natives.

The British celebrated the Native American victory and used it to drum up support for their proposed Indian Barrier state between the United States and British Canada. President Washington lobbied Congress to strengthen the American Army – which it did – and sent General Anthony Wayne with new troops to end the threat. Wayne’s troops crushed the Confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.

Ten Embarrassing American Military Disasters the Government Wished the Public Hadn’t Discovered
With British colors flying over the American Flag, USS Chesapeake is led into Halifax, a British prize. Library and Archives Canada

USS Chesapeake, 1813

USS Chesapeake was one of the original six frigates authorized by Congress as part of the newly established United States Navy in 1794. The ship served in the brief naval war with France known as the Quasi-War and in the First Barbary War in the Mediterranean. In 1807 it was involved in an incident with the British frigate Leopard, in which Leopard fired into Chesapeake when the latter failed to allow itself to be boarded and searched for British deserters. This event helped foster the War of 1812.

In December of 1812, Chesapeake commenced a cruise which resulted in the ship inflicting almost a quarter of a million dollars of damage to British commerce (almost $4.5 million today), through the capture and destruction of British shipping. In May of 1813 James Lawrence assumed command of the ship in Boston, where it was refitting. Lawrence had difficulty filling his crew for the next voyage and Chesapeake was manned by sailors from many nations, many of them inexperienced in a man-of-war.

Outside of Boston patrolled HMS Shannon, a crack British frigate which had been commanded by Philip Broke since 1806. When Lawrence heard of Shannon’s presence he sailed from Boston determined to capture the English ship, motivated in part by the series of successes by American ships against their British adversaries the previous year.

In the engagement in the early evening of May 31, 1813, Shannon quickly outgunned Chesapeake, and after rendering his opponent unmanageable Broke personally led a boarding party to effect its capture. Both Broke and Lawrence were severely wounded during the battle, with Lawrence giving his final order, “Don’t give up the ship,” before being carried below. He died while his captured ship was being escorted to the British naval base at Halifax. Broke survived and was knighted for his victory.

The loss of Chesapeake changed the approach of the US Navy, which up until then had enjoyed a string of victories against the British. American frigates largely remained in port for the remainder of the war, rather than being sent out on commerce raiding cruises. Chesapeake remained in British service until 1819. After the ship was sold some of its timbers were used to build the Chesapeake Mill, still standing in Wickham, England.

Ten Embarrassing American Military Disasters the Government Wished the Public Hadn’t Discovered
General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered Charleston to the British and later accepted Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown. National Archives

Charleston, 1780

In the Spring of 1780 the British Army under Sir Henry Clinton decided that Savannah, then in British hands, was inconvenient as a port to support the planned British conquest of the Carolinas. Charleston with its fine natural harbor was selected to serve as the British headquarters for the Southern colonies. Clinton landed a substantial army below Charleston and by late March had the city nearly surrounded.

Charleston was defended by a small fleet of frigates and sloops commanded by Abraham Whipple, and by about 3,500 Continental troops and militia, under the overall command of General Benjamin Lincoln. As the British consolidated their hold on the areas outside of the city, Lincoln attempted to strengthen the fortifications which protected it from direct attack. Whipple decided the small ships under his command were no match for the British fleet and withdrew them up the Ashley River.

By April, British troops under Lord Cornwallis had secured the Cooper River area east of the city, and Lincoln found his command completely surrounded. Lincoln requested to be able to surrender with the Honors of War. Clinton denied this request and tightened his grip on the surrounding area. By the beginning of May British artillery was hitting homes in the city.

On May 7 Fort Moultrie, located on Sullivan’s Island outside of the city, surrendered to the British. Civilian leaders within Charleston petitioned Lincoln to surrender to avoid destruction of the city by British artillery. On May 12 Lincoln agreed after again requesting the Honors of War and again being denied by Clinton. The surrender was the largest of American troops in the Revolutionary War.

The loss of Charleston and the more than 5,000 American troops and sailors was a severe blow to the Patriots, with the war in the North at a stalemate. The British captured the port of Charleston, more than 300 pieces of artillery, almost 50 ships and harbor craft, and tons of munitions and other military stores. The loss meant that there was no operational Patriot Army in the South and other than militia and guerrilla groups no resistance to British and Loyalist operations from Virginia to Georgia.

Ten Embarrassing American Military Disasters the Government Wished the Public Hadn’t Discovered
USS Minneapolis at Tulagi showing the damage received at Tassafaronga. Wikipedia

Tassafaronga, 1942

During the Battle of Guadalcanal Japanese Navy operations were directed at reinforcing their troops on the island and harassing the Americans by shelling them at night. The US Navy countered this by attacking Japanese units, and nightly gun battles between American and Japanese ships led to heavy losses on both sides. So many ships were sunk in the waters around Guadalcanal that a portion of them were nicknamed Ironbottom Sound.

On the night of November 30, 1942 a force of Japanese destroyers were sent to the area of the Sound known as The Slot to deliver supplies. The Japanese had by then taken to floating supplies ashore in barrels towed to the area by destroyers. The force of eight Japanese destroyers were attacked by a task force of five cruisers and four destroyers under the command of US Admiral Carlton Wright.

The Americans had the advantage of surprise afforded them by the use of radar and opened a gun battle with the severely outgunned Japanese. With the island at their backs and the US cruisers blocking their escape to the open sea, the Japanese fired a “shotgun blast” of long range torpedoes at the American battle line.

Four of the five cruisers were hit. USS Minneapolis, USS Pensacola, and USS New Orleans, all received severe damage. USS Honolulu emerged unscathed but the last American cruiser in the battle line, USS Northampton, was not so lucky. Struck by two of the Japanese torpedoes, Northampton both burned and flooded before being abandoned by its crew. The other three badly damaged cruisers managed to make it to nearby Tulagi; all three were out of action for many months. The Japanese lost one destroyer.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Savo Island (in which the US Navy lost four heavy cruisers), Tassafaronga was the worst defeat suffered by the United States Navy during the Second World War. It led to changes in the manner of deploying US capital ships and provided further impetus for the development of flashless propellant for the Navy’s big guns. Despite the heavy losses taken by the Navy at Tassafaronga, they did succeed in preventing the Japanese from resupplying their troops, helping the Japanese decision to abandon Guadalcanal at the end of the year.

Ten Embarrassing American Military Disasters the Government Wished the Public Hadn’t Discovered
Erwin Rommel speaks to the German crew of a captured American halftrack in Tunisia. Wikipedia

Kasserine Pass, 1943

After the Americans successfully invaded North Africa in Operation Torch in 1942, German and Italian troops were quickly organized to destroy the inexperienced US Army. The Americans were not alone in the region, supported by both Free French and British troops, but the bulk of the fighting at Kasserine was by the American II Corps, commanded by General Lloyd Fredendall.

Fredendall’s opposite was Erwin Rommel, who attacked the American positions in the Atlas Mountains. Rommel pushed against British and American units, who offered stubborn resistance to the Germans despite glaring problems with communication. The American commander remained far behind the lines, which were on terrain of which he had no first-hand experience.

More experienced British units often failed to provide relevant information regarding tactics which they had developed, leaving the Americans in exposed positions and poorly prepared fortifications. American troops had not yet realized the need to dig in deeply and to avoid being bunched closely together when facing enemy barrage. Despite these and other failings, the inexperienced Americans still managed to prevent Rommel from exploiting his initial gains, and eventually managed to stop the German attacks.

The Americans were pushed back more than fifty miles before supporting artillery and counterattacks managed to halt the German thrust. The Americans took heavy casualties in men and equipment, and despite stopping the German attack morale suffered as a result of the losses and the lack of leadership present with the troops.

General Eisenhower relieved Fredendall after Kasserine Pass and he was sent home, in large part because of his failure to instill the necessary discipline in the troops under his command. Fredendall had rarely visited the front lines of his command and was uninformed on many issues which were exposed by the battle. Eisenhower took immediate steps to streamline the Allied chain of command to enhance communications between British, French and American units at all levels, and temporarily assigned a new commander to II Corps – General George Patton.

Ten Embarrassing American Military Disasters the Government Wished the Public Hadn’t Discovered
A Liberator flies over a Ploesti refinery during Operation Tidal Wave. US Army

Ploesti, 1943

As part of the United States Army Air Force’s strategic bombing campaign, oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania, were designated to be priority targets. The USAAF wanted to deny access to oil to the German military and to war production. Nine refineries around Ploesti were targeted as a single raid conducted on August 1, 1943.

Called Operation Tidal Wave, the USAAF launched 177 B-24 Liberator heavy bombers at the oil refineries from their bases in the Libyan desert near Benghazi. The flight to the target area was executed at low altitudes and in strict radio silence. These factors contributed to the aircraft becoming strung out during the flight to the targets. Navigational errors by lead planes led to others breaking from the formation to follow the correct flight paths, further weakening the overall formation.

Heavy anti-aircraft fire over the targets and the approaches to them combined with strong fighter attacks on the unescorted bombers to inflict heavy damage to the mission. Many of the bombers failed to find their targets completely and resorted to striking targets of opportunity. Some of the bombers flew so low over their targets that the machine gunners in the B-24’s engaged anti-aircraft gunners on the ground.

Of the 177 bombers which took off on the mission (one was lost in an accident on take-off) 88 returned to their Libyan bases. Of those, more than fifty had extensive battle damage. Three hundred and ten aircrew were killed and another 108 were captured by Axis troops after bailing out or crashing in Romania. Several of the Liberators were forced to land in neutral Turkey; their aircrews were interned.

USAAF officials estimated that up to 40% of the refining capacity at Ploesti was destroyed. They were wrong. Most of the damage sustained was repaired within a few weeks and by September it was admitted that there had been “…no curtailment of overall product output…” at the refineries. By the end of September output of refined oil at Ploesti had actually increased above the rate before the raid.

Ten Embarrassing American Military Disasters the Government Wished the Public Hadn’t Discovered
A fanciful depiction of the Paoli “Massacre”. In reality the American troops quickly fled the field. Wikipedia

Paoli, 1777

During the Campaign to defend Philadelphia from capture by the British Washington’s army, soundly defeated at the Battle of Brandywine, redeployed to protect the city from the troops under British commander William Howe. Washington placed a division under Mad Anthony Wayne near Chester, Pennsylvania, to harass the British line of march and possibly capture the enemies supply wagons,

Wayne encamped at Paoli, near the British lines, with about 1,500 men. His encampment was about a mile from that of a larger encampment of Maryland militia, about 2,000 men. Wayne believed his position to be unknown to the British, who had moved little since the Battle of Brandywine. Loyalist spies soon reported Wayne’s position to Howe, who determined to attack the attachment.

On September 20 a British contingent of about 1,200 men approached Wayne’s camp, armed only with bayonets, with the flints removed from their muskets to ensure that no chance shot would give away surprise. They attacked the sleeping Americans shortly before midnight, and Wayne’s men, facing a surprise bayonet attack, were quickly routed. The British drove the Americans from their camp and during pursuit ran into the larger militia encampment, which they quickly routed as well.

About 3,500 American troops were driven from the field by a force one third their size, armed only with bayonets, unable to fire their muskets. The British suffered a total of 4 men killed and seven wounded while thoroughly defeating an entire division.

American losses were over 200 killed or wounded and another 71 captured by the British. The attack at Paoli became known as the Paoli Massacre, largely because of the British use of the bayonet as the sole weapon, but no massacre took place there. The loss of Wayne’s division contributed to the demoralization of the Americans who would soon abandon Philadelphia to Howe.

Ten Embarrassing American Military Disasters the Government Wished the Public Hadn’t Discovered
A German E-Boat in 1945. They operated in the English Channel throughout the war. Wikipedia

Exercise Tiger, 1944

Exercise Tiger was one of the many full scale rehearsal exercises conducted by the Allies in preparation for Operation Overlord. Tiger was developed to provide training for the American troops scheduled to invade France at Utah Beach, using the British beach at Slapton Sands.

On the morning of April 28, 1944 a flotilla of eight LSTs loaded with American troops, combat engineers, and equipment were operating in Lyme Bay, on the English Channel, when they were attacked by nine German E-Boats. E-Boats were similar to the American PT-Boats and were armed with machine guns and torpedoes. One of the vessels assigned to protect the LSTs was not present due to its having been damaged in a collision with an LST. A replacement escort had not yet arrived.

Four of the LSTs were attacked by the E-Boats. One of the LSTs was damaged by friendly fire as the Americans attempted to engage the E-Boats. Another was set afire by the German attack but managed to make it to shore, although over one hundred Navy officers and sailors were lost. LST-531 was sunk by a torpedo attack, over 400 Army and Navy personnel were lost.

A fourth vessel, LST-507, took the lives of another 202 US Army and Navy servicemen when it sank. Many of the casualties were from hypothermia in the cold waters of Lyme Bay. Others, in a grim foreshadowing of the D-Day invasion, drowned when the weight of their combat gear pulled them underwater.

All survivors of Exercise Tiger were placed on maximum security to ensure word of the disaster did not become known prior to the actual invasion. A total of 749 US Navy and Army personnel died during the dress rehearsal for the invasion of Utah Beach. By comparison, 197 American servicemen were killed in the actual invasion of Utah Beach.