Warfare has defined our history, created and destroyed entire nations, and repeatedly altered society in both major and subtle ways for thousands of years. While history is replete with battles both large and small, there are a few that have had a bigger hand in shaping the course of history than others. only a hand full have had a major impact on the course of history. The following list of the most important ones had major ramifications on our history that continue to be felt today.
This is the battle that effectively ended Hitler’s quest for world dominance and started Germany down the long road towards ultimate defeat in World War-II. Fought between July, 1942 and February, 1943, by the time it was over, 1.5 million men had been killed, captured, or wounded, with 91,000 Germans being taken prisoner and an entire German Army being wiped from the face of the Earth. So bad were German losses that the German army never fully recovered and was forced to largely take the defensive for the remainder of the war. While it’s unlikely that a German victory at Stalingrad would have cost the Russians the war, it would certainly have extended it by many months, possibly even giving the Germans the time required to perfect their own version of the atomic bomb.
Midway Island, 1942
What Stalingrad was to the Germans, the naval air engagement that raged between Japan and the United States for three days in June, 1942, was for the Japanese. Admiral Yamamoto’s plan was to seize Midway Island—a tiny atoll some four hundred miles west of Hawaii—which he planned to use as a springboard from which to attack the strategic islands later. Much to his surprise, he was met by a taskforce of American carriers under the command of Admiral Chester Nimitz and, in a battle that could have easily gone either way, he lost all four of his aircraft carriers, along with all their aircraft and some of his finest pilots, to Admiral Nimitz’ smaller American fleet. The defeat effectively spelled the end to Japanese expansion across the Pacific.
Actium, 31 BCE
History might have gone differently, If Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s fleet carried the day against the smaller naval forces of Octavian. In a sea battle of epic proportions, in the course of a few hours Antony and Cleopatra lost two-thirds of their fleet—about 200 ships—and any chance of ousting Octavian as Emperor of Rome once their soldiers got word of the defeat and began deserting in large numbers. Obviously not agreeable to being martyrs for a lost cause, the couple managed to escape the carnage and make their way back to Egypt to work on plan “B” that is committing suicide.
In a total repudiation of Napoleon’s attempt to reclaim his previous glory after a brief vacation to the island paradise of Elba, an undersized force of British, Dutch and Prussian troops under the command of the Duke of Wellington threw back Napoleon’s army at the little Belgian town of Waterloo, thereby bringing an ignoble end to his much-touted comeback tour. Of course, the “Little Corporal” had been on something of a slide since that unfortunate little affair in Russia a couple of years earlier, when he lost most of his army retreating from Moscow in the dead of winter, but this latest setback pretty much ended it for him. Of course, it’s not a certainty Napoleon would have ultimately succeeded even if he had bested Wellington, but it’s a certainty losing put whatever plans he had for the future on permanent hold.
Lose this one, and General Lee probably marches on Washington DC, sending Lincoln and his staff fleeing and forcing the country to accept the existence of a Confederate States of America. This one was a must win for the Union and, fortunately, the man in charge, George Meade, proved to be up to the task—though just barely. In a battle that raged for three sweltering days in July of 1863, the two massive armies pummeled each other into dust, but it was the superior Union position and Lee’s ill-advised decision to have General Pickett charge the center of the Union line that ended in the worst defeat in Confederate history. While the Union losses were heavy too, the North could better absorb such losses. The South, on the other hand, never recovered from Gettysburg and was forced to begin increasingly fighting a defensive battle to stave off inevitable defeat against a much more populous, industrially advanced and wealthier North.
In terms of numbers, this was a pretty puny battle (8,000 American troops, supported by 8,000 French troops, against some 9,000 British troops) but by the time it ended on October 19, 1781, it changed the world forever. The indomitable British Empire, the super power of its day, should have easily defeated the rag-tag colonists under George Washington, and for most of the war, they generally had the upper hand. By 1781, however, the upstart Americans had learned how to fight and, having acquired the assistance of England’s arch enemy, France, had become a small but professional fighting force. As a result, the British under Cornwallis found themselves trapped on a peninsula between the determined Americans on the one side and a French fleet on the other that made escape impossible and so, after a couple of weeks of fighting, they surrendered. In doing so, the Americans defeated the world’s premier military power and gained independence.
Battle of Salamis, 480 BCE
Imagine a sea battle today that involved over a thousand ships and one can begin to appreciate the magnitude of this single engagement between the outnumbered Greek Navy under Themistocles and the massive navy of King Xerxes of Persia. The Greeks had used guile to get the Persian fleet to sail into the narrow Straits of Salamis, where they were able to deprive them of taking advantage of their superior numbers, and dealt the Persians a humiliating defeat. As a result, Xerxes was forced to withdraw most of his army back to Persia, thereby leaving Greece to the Greeks.