The United States has experienced its share of military successes over the years. But its armed forces have also suffered some terrible setbacks. Here are eight of the very worst.
Compared to many other countries, the United States has never really suffered a cataclysmic military disaster. The continental U.S. has never faced a significant invasion force, its government has never been supplanted by that of a rival nation’s, nor has its armies ever experienced a colossal collapse on a scale similar to what happened to the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Since its inception as a nation, however, the U.S. has involved itself in a number of foreign campaigns, both near and far. And, as such, it has not been immune to military defeats, misfortune, and humiliation.
For the purposes of this list, therefore, a “military disaster” will be defined as a historically significant episode in which the U.S. military endured any of the following problems: protracted mission failure, an inability to thwart enemy action, or a breakdown in command and control structure. It can also include an embarrassing, lopsided, or unexpected defeat. Here’s the list in chronological order.
In what seemed like a good idea at the time, President James Madison led his country into war against British Canada. Madison was heavily influenced by the Republican “war hawks” from the frontier political districts of the South and West who sought to challenge the British blockade, many of whom also advocated for the annexation of some British Canadian territory. Some argued that an invasion was the only way to preserve American honor.
Battle of Queenstown Heights, October 13, 1812 (Painting by John David Kelly, circ. 1896/Library and Archives Canada)
Once hostilities broke out, dreams of a decisive victory quickly collapsed. As noted by historian Jesse Greenspan:
Yet despite its population advantage, the United States had only about 12,000 men in uniform, including “too many incompetent officers and too many raw, untrained recruits,”...A number of other factors also favored Canada at the war’s outset. For one thing, the British controlled the Great Lakes and were therefore better able to move troops and supplies. Moreover, they received support from Canadians, who many Americans falsely believed would welcome them as liberators, and from Native American tribes worried about U.S. expansionism. “The USA was woefully unprepared,”...“Plus, the logistical challenges of waging war on a distant frontier were daunting if not insuperable.”
By the following year, the British had taken complete control of the waters along the U.S. East Coast, harassing ships and threatening cities along the shoreline. Infamously, a fleet sailed up Chesapeake Bay, unleashing British forces who set government buildings afire in the District of Columbia, the new U.S. capital. By 1814, the U.S. government faced internal secession and external invasion. After Napoleon was defeated in 1814, the U.S. came to terms with Britain by signing the Treaty of Ghent which required both sides to give up territorial gains.
Just two days before the cataclysmic Battle of Antietam (another disaster we’ll get into in just a bit), Confederate troops handed Union forces its most significant military setback of the American Civil War by that point.
Harpers Ferry as it appeared in 1865 (public domain)
As part of the Confederacy’s drive north, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia sought to occupy the Shenandoah Valley to secure its line of supply and communications. As part of the plan, a portion of the army under the command of Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson would capture the garrison at Harpers Ferry in West Virginia.
During the fighting on the Maryland Heights from September 12 to 15, 1862, incoming Confederate columns were surprised to see that critical positions of the town had been left undefended. Jackson exploited the situation by positioning artillery at strategic points around the town and ordering Major General A. P. Hill to move his troops down the bank of the Shenandoah River in preparation for a surprise flank attack. The next morning, on September 15, Jackson’s 50 guns unleashed an artillery barrage from all sides, followed by an infantry assault. Union commander Colonel Dixon S. Miles soon realized the situation was hopeless and surrendered—but not before suffering a mortal wound that he died from the next day.
It was a resounding Confederate victory, one that resulted in the largest surrender of U.S. forces during the Civil War. Harpers Ferry was the largest Civil War engagement in present-day West Virginia, and is considered Jackson’s most complex and complete tactical victory. And as noted, it also set up the Battle of Antietam.
Though historians consider it a draw, the Battle of Antietam represented an important moral victory for Union forces. But, owing to severe blunders by both sides, it sparked the Civil War’s worst single day of casualties. Adding insult to injury, the battle wasn’t even necessary.
Confederate dead on the Hagerstown road at the Battle of Antietam (Credit: Alexander Gardner (photographer)/Library of Congress)
After Harpers Ferry, General Lee had time to occupy a strong defensive position behind Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Though outnumbered 87,000 to 50,000, Lee managed to repel Major General McClellan’s attacks until Jackson’s troops arrived.
The Battle of Antietam turned out to be the bloodiest day in American military history. Some 7,800 soldiers were killed, and another 15,500 wounded. U.S. forces wouldn’t experience single-day losses like that until D-Day, when 6,000 American troops were killed.
After the battle, President Lincoln declared Antietam a victory, but argued that McClellan should have fought Lee to the finish. And indeed, McClellan was in a position to do so, but he was reluctant to proceed owing to the appalling number of casualties. He let Lee fall back, ordering his men to bury the dead and set up field hospitals for the wounded. As noted by Colonel Ezra Carman, who survived the battle to write about it, “more errors were committed by the Union commander than in any other battle of the war.”
Lee also deserves some of the blame. British historian J. F. C. Fuller argues that Antietam was a “totally unnecessary battle” — one that forced Lee’s troops from Maryland, while also providing the “victory” that Lincoln needed before delivering the Emancipation Proclamation.
This episode in U.S. military history served more as an embarrassment than a disaster, but the failed effort to capture Mexican revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa was not without its consequences. What’s more, the reckless “Punitive Expedition,” as it was called, could have spiraled out of control, dragging the U.S. into a war with Mexico at a time when its forces were desperately needed elsewhere.
An artillery drill near the Mexican border, 1916 (public domain)
In early 1916, Villa’s forces attacked U.S. mining executives in Mexico, followed by raids in the town of Columbus, New Mexico, resulting in the deaths of 16 Americans. In response, the Wilson administration organized an expedition to pursue Villa with U.S. Army General John J. Pershing in command. His 10,000-strong force failed to capture the “bandit,” though the main body of Villa’s command was quashed. U.S. forces encountered significant local hostility in the attempt and were, in the words of Pershing, “outwitted and out-bluffed at every turn.”
An obviously American cartoon, March 10, 1916.
Afterwards, the inexperienced U.S. military framed the incident as “a learning experience.” Pershing would later write:
[W]hen the true history is written, it will not be a very inspiring chapter for school children, or even grownups to contemplate. Having dashed into Mexico with the intention of eating the Mexicans raw, we turned back at the first repulse and are now sneaking home under cover, like a whipped curr with its tail between its legs.
As noted in the U.S. historical archives: “The Punitive Expedition was one of several incidents during which the United States Government or its officials intervened directly in Mexican affairs during the Mexican Revolution. Concern over U.S. power and corporate control of Mexican natural resources would lead to further U.S.-Mexican disagreement over the nationalization of the oil industry in the 1920s.”
Poor relations between the two countries did not go unnoticed by Imperial Germany—not to mention U.S. military unpreparedness—who sought to exploit the situation by turning Mexican President Venustiano Carranza against the United States. In the infamous Zimmerman Telegram, the German Foreign Ministry offered the Mexican government U.S. territory in exchange for joining the German cause and tying U.S. forces to the continent. Instead, the scheme backfired, shifting American public opinion in favor of joining the Allies in the Great War.
Soon after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Imperial Army made its move on the Philippines’ main island of Luzon where U.S. General Douglas MacArthur’s troops were standing firm. The ensuing struggle for the island, known as the Battle of Bataan, would end in disaster for U.S. troops, severely compromising the nation’s hold on its Pacific territories.
On December 22, 1941, 43,000 Japanese soldiers landed on beaches 200 kilometers (124 miles) north of Manila. MacArthur had 130,000 men at his disposal, but the vast majority were Philippine reserve units, making the actual number closer to 31,000. The battle-hardened Japanese troops pushed hard, forcing MacArthur to withdraw his troops to the Bataan Peninsula on the west side of Manila Bay. The withdrawal of 15,000 U.S. and 65,000 Philippine soldiers was wrought with difficulties. Once established on the Peninsula, MacArthur struggled to feed 80,000 soldiers and 26,000 civilian refugees owing to the Japanese blockade. On January 9, 1942, Japanese troops began their assault on Bataan. MacArthur’s troops fought valiantly, but were ravaged by exhaustion, hunger, malaria, dengue fever, and dysentery.
Eventually, after weeks of bitter fighting, President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to leave for Australia. Along with his family and staff, he departed on March 12. Left in charge was Major General Jonathan Wainwright, who recognized the hopelessness of the situation. Remarkably, his troops fought on until May 5. The remaining 13,000 troops were forced to surrender—setting up one of the darkest episodes in U.S. military history—the Baatan Death March.
U.S. troops early in the Baatan Death March (Kings Academy)
Out of the 130,000 U.S. and Filipino troops, around 10,000 were killed, 20,000 wounded, and 75,000 taken prisoner. In comparison, the Japanese suffered 19,000 casualties.
The U.S. Army’s first encounter with the German Wehrmacht in World War II was a complete fiasco. Ultimately, the battle didn’t alter the course of the war, but it served as a rude wake-up call for the United States.
A Medium Tank M3 “Lee” from the U.S. 1st Armored Division during the Battle of Kasserine Pass, Tunisia. (U.S. Army Corps)
Beginning on January 30, 1943, General Lloyd Fredenhall’s freshly arrived American troops were mercilessly attacked in Tunisia by General Erwin Rommel’s rearmed 21st Panzer Division. The situation went from bad to worse in the following weeks. Writing in the Second World War, historian Antony Beevor explains:
Rommel decided to remove the American threat altogether with a three-pronged offensive. On 14 February, the 10th Panzer Division attacked westwards out of the Faid Pass, while the 21st Panzer Division came up from the south in a pincer. Seventy American tanks were destroyed in the first day’s fighting round Sidi Bou Zid. One of them was knocked out at a range of 2,700 meters by a Tiger’s 88mm gun. The shell of a Sherman’s 75mm could not penetrate a Tiger’s frontal armour even at point-blank range. On 16 February, a panzer crewman wrote home to apologize disingenuously for not having written, but his division had been fighting the Americans of the last couple of days. ‘You will have heard from yesterday’s Wehrmacht announcement that we shot up more than ninety tanks.’
Burning American tanks littered the landscape, while charred and panic-stricken American soldiers raced their jeeps, trucks, and any other wheeled vehicles away from the scene. Fredenhall had no idea what was going on at the front as he preferred his headquarters to be located far in the rear. When it was over, his II Corps lost over 6,000 men, 183 tanks, 104 half-tracks, more than 200 field guns, and 500 transport vehicles.
A scene from the movie Patton (1970), showing the disastrous aftermath of Kasserine Pass.
But as Beevor points out, it was even worse than that:
It had been a savage baptism of fire, made worse by confused orders from above. Troops fired at their own aircraft, destroying or damaging thirty-nine of them, and Allied squadrons attacked the wrong targets. On 22 February, some B-17 Flying Fortresses bombed a British Airfield instead of the Kasserine Pass.
It’s no wonder that the British would often quip, “How green is my ally?” As a consolation, the grossly ineffective Fredenhall was relieved of his command, replaced by Major General George S. Patton.
Two years after Fidel Castro came to power in an armed revolt, the U.S. government, in consultation with the CIA, dispatched a paramilitary group, called Brigade 2506, to Cuba in an effort to overthrow the new regime and establish a non-communist government friendly to the United States. But the armada, which consisted almost exclusively of Cuban exiles, was grossly outnumbered and poorly supported, resulting in a resounding failure after just three days.
The 1,400-strong invasion force landed at soggy beaches along the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961. The Cuban military was fully expecting them. Through Cuban exiles in Miami, Castro had learned of the invasion as early as October 1960. Almost immediately, the armada came under heavy fire. Cuban planes strafed the invading force, sank a pair of escort ships, and quashed its air support. By the next day, some 20,000 Cuban troops were advancing towards the beach. In response, the U.S. dispatched a half-dozen support aircraft, but they were quickly shot down.
Cuban troops inspecting a down airplane (Credit: unknown)
The invasion was crushed. Some 1,200 members of Brigade 2506 surrendered and more than 100 were killed. After 20 months of captivity, the U.S. government negotiated for their release by offering Castro $53 million worth of baby food and medicine in exchange for the prisoners.
While relatively small in scope, the half-hearted attempt to overthrow the Cuban government was not without its consequences. It was a tremendous embarrassment to the Kennedy Administration and the CIA. The botched coup also galvanized the public’s resolve in Cuba; in a note sent to JFK, Che Guevara wrote, “Thanks for [the Bay of Pigs]. Before the invasion, the revolution was weak. Now it’s stronger than ever.” The failure to remove the Castro regime also set the stage for Soviet opportunism and the ensuing Cuban Missile Crisis in the following year—a crisis that nearly led to all-out nuclear war.
The Iraqi army was ordered to disband during the spring of 2003—a decision that, in one fell swoop, eliminated the best means of securing Iraq from insurgent activity, while at the same time providing the enemy with some of its best commanders and fighters.
Rebuilding the army: Iraqi T-72s pass in review, Baghdad, June 30, 2009. (U.S. Air Force)
As noted by Robert Farley, an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, the decision to do so eradicated 80 years of institutional history. He writes:
The Royal Iraqi Army had come into existence in the early 1920s, when Iraq remained a protectorate of the British Empire. It had revolted in 1941, but the British made the wise decision to keep the force together so as to maintain order. In 1948, its units fought against Israeli forces during the wars of Israeli independence, and it participated in the 1967 war, if briefly. In the 1980s, it waged an eight-year struggle against Iran. While its legacy was complex, for many Iraqis, service in the Army (and in particular its performance against Iran) remained a source of personal and national pride.
Today, the army, or what’s left of it, is now the laughing stock of the region, retreating on a regular basis from ISIS forces. And indeed, the rise of ISIS is closely intertwined with the disbanding of the Iraqi military. One expert estimates that more than 25 of ISIS’s top 40 leaders served in the Iraqi military at some point.
“We could have done a lot better job of sorting through that and keeping the Iraqi army together,” General Ray Odierno told TIME magazine back in May. “We struggled for years to try to put it back together again.”
(Dis)Honorable mention: The Battle of Chosin Reservoir (1950), a decisive battle in the Korean War involving a UN coalition of U.S., British, and Korean forces set against the People’s Republic of China. This battle essentially established the 38th parallel separating north from south Korea.
Final notes: American forces did not experience a major disaster during the First World War, but its overall performance left much to be desired (also see Andrew Wiest’s essay, “The Reluctant Pupil: The American Army on the Western Front, 1917-1918,” a chapter in Matthias Strohn’s World War I Companion). And as for the myth that U.S. forces never lost a battle during the Vietnam War, this excellent article by G2mil’s Carlton Meyer shows this is far from true.
Sources: James A. Henrieta et al., America’s History | History.com | Harpers Ferry National Park Service | Civil War Trust 2 | U.S. Dep’t of State Archive | Antony Beevor: The Second World War | JFK Presidential Library and Museum | TIME: “How Disbanding the Iraqi Army Fueled ISIS”