A Brief History
On April 13, 1861, the US Army installation known as Fort Sumter located at Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, surrendered to the rebellious forces of the fledgling Confederate States of America after a bombardment. The next day, the fort was surrendered to the Confederates with no men killed on either side. While the armed forces of the United States have been overwhelmingly successful over the course of many wars and conflicts, there have been those inevitable times with failure has resulted in the humiliating surrender of American military personnel and/or installations or ships. Today we address some of the most humiliating such incidents. Feel free to nominate other such incidents that we could have included on our list. (There is no significance to the order in which the incidents are listed.)
1. Fort Sumter, 1861.
Fort Sumter was built in response to the War of 1812 as part of the effort to protect the American coast against foreign invaders. It was not really completed when South Carolina became the first state to secede in 1860, although the fort was fairly imposing at it was. The garrison of 85 Union soldiers were faced by about 600 Confederates, and the prospect of constant bombardment with no way of reinforcing the fort or replying in a meaningful way. The supplies of food were also dwindling. An attempt to resupply the fort by an unarmed merchant ship was stopped by Confederate shore batteries. After a day of bombardment, Major Robert Anderson saw no reason to get his men killed with no hope of victory and surrendered his fort. The Battle of Fort Sumter is usually regarded as the first battle of the American Civil War, an inauspicious beginning for the Union.
2. USS Pueblo, 1968.
The United States has had a troubled relationship with North Korea since the Korean War (1950-1953), and no peace treaty has ever been signed officially ending that war. During the Cold War, the USS Pueblo, a lightly armed (only 2 .50 caliber machineguns) intelligence gathering ship was sailing in international waters off the coast of North Korea when North Korean forces attacked and seized the ship and its crew, killing 1 crew member in the process. After 11 months of mistreatment and even torture, the surviving crew members were finally repatriated to the United States, though North Korea never gave the ship back to the US. Used by North Korea as a propaganda museum ship, the Pueblo remains on the active roll of US ships despite being held as captured. Unfortunately, the negotiations that brought the American crew home included an “admission” by the US that the Pueblo had violated North Korean territorial waters. The Pueblo incident is but one of many examples of North Korean criminal activity that keep the country a pariah in decent company.
3. US Embassy in Teheran, 1979.
On November 4, 1979, a mob of angry Iranians stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took 90 people hostage. Americans made up 52 of those hostages and included US Marines assigned to the embassy and diplomatic workers. Violation of an embassy by another country is normally considered an act of war, but in this case the US never treated it as such, and 52 of our citizens remained hostages for 444 days. No reprisals were ever carried out. The American hostages were released on January 20, 1981 at the same time incoming President Ronald Reagan finished his inauguration speech. This timing has been pointed to as Iranian fear that Reagan would severely punish them if Americans were still hostage when Reagan took office, or that the Iranians were punishing President Carter for refusing to return the Shah to Iran. Another popular theory is that Reagan’s political henchmen bribed the Iranians to continue to hold the hostages until Reagan took office, even though negotiations to free them had already been completed. (Algeria had brokered the negotiations that led to the hostage release.) In exchange for the hostages, the Carter administration released billions of dollars’ worth of frozen Iranian assets, a fact not revealed until years later.
4. US Forces Philippines, 1942.
The United States became involved in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War (1898), effectively making them US territory. After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1942, the Philippines were also attacked by the Japanese and invaded soon afterwards. American and Filipino troops resisted the Japanese as best they could without reinforcements until finally being forced down the Bataan Peninsula to the fortress island of Corregidor, the American/Filipino force being compelled to surrender on April 9, 1942, when Major General Edward King surrendered his 60,000 to 80,000 American and Filipino soldiers to the Japanese. (General Douglas MacArthur had been in charge of the combined forces in the Philippines, but was spirited away on orders of President Roosevelt, prompting MacArthur’s famous pledge, “I shall return.”) Following the surrender and capture of all those prisoners, the Japanese engaged in brutality on a massive scale heretofore unknown to Americans, conducting the Bataan Death March and the deaths of 5000 to 18000 Filipino troops and 500 to 1000 American troops. Many that survived the Death March died later in brutal captivity, with inexact numbers known, but with estimates of 26,000 Filipinos and 1500 Americans. Approximately 22,000 Americans had been captured at Bataan/Corregidor, and only 15,000 survived to be liberated at the end of World War II.
5. Detroit, 1812.
The War of 1812 is often portrayed to be an ill-considered venture by the United States in engaging a country as powerful as Britain in a war that may well have been settled diplomatically. The US went ahead with hostilities and the war generally did not go well, especially in Michigan and in a foray into the invasion of Canada. Governor William Hull of the Michigan Territory led a failed invasion of Canada, and then retreated to Detroit, then a stronghold for the Americans. When his garrison of over 2400 men armed with 30 cannons behind fortified walls was approached by an inferior British force of 700 soldiers and militiamen reinforced by about 600 Native Americans, but only supported by 8 cannons and 2 mortars, Hull nervously surrendered his considerable command with hardly a fight, the largest American surrender in history until the Civil War. The Americans had suffered 7 killed and 2493 captured, while British losses were 2 men wounded. A US Navy brig (small warship) was also surrendered. Hull was later court martialed in 1814 and was convicted of cowardice and dereliction of duty. Sentenced to death by firing squad, his life was spared by President Madison because of Hull’s prior service during the American Revolutionary War.
6. Harper’s Ferry, 1862.
Colonel Dixon Miles was tasked with holding the important armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia against attack by Confederate troops, and had 14,000 US Army soldiers, of the Army of the Potomac under command of General George McLellan, at his disposal. When Confederate forces under Generals Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and A.P. Hill approached with 21,000 to 26,000 troops in 1862, they were startled to find the city and armory without forward posts warning of the approach of the Confederate troops. The town itself was nearly impossible to defend, being situated on low ground, and necessitated a forward defense of positions taken on more advantageous terrain outside of the town. The Union commanders neglected to make those moves. From September 12 to September 15, 1862, a one sided battle was fought in which the Union had lost 44 men killed and 173 wounded, but the real toll was a staggering 12,419 Union troops captured. Miles was killed at the end of the battle, saving him the absolute embarrassment and possible court martial that would have followed. The Confederate forces lost 39 killed and 247 wounded, as well as having taken the town, the Union armory, and the prisoners.
7. Charleston, 1780.
While the American Revolutionary War was going badly for the British in the Northern colonies, the British paid more attention to the Southern colonies to find success. Charleston, South Carolina was a major American port and an important part of the defense of the Southern colonies. The British laid siege to Charleston on March 29, 1780, with nearly 13,000 soldiers and militiamen, supported by 4500 sailors on a considerable fleet of 6 ships of the line (battleships of their day), 8 frigates, 4 armed galleys and 90 cargo vessels. Defending Charleston were a total of 6577 men, soldiers, militia and sailors combined, supported by a more modest fleet of 3 frigates, 5 sloops of war, 1 schooner, 1 brig and 3 armed galleys. The result of the battle that lasted until May 12, 1780, was the surrender of Charleston along with 5466 Americans taken prisoner, 311 artillery pieces captured and all American vessels captured. British losses were only 76 killed and 189 wounded, while the Americans lost 89 dead and 139 wounded. The resounding British victory demoralized other American units in South Carolina and led to the surrender of even more American troops in the backcountry of the colony. Not until Harper’s Ferry in 1862 had the Americans suffered so many men taken prisoner in one action. The War in South Carolina transitioned after Charleston to a guerilla action without large unit involvement.
8. Abandoning Washington, D.C., 1814.
As the American fortunes went downhill during the War of 1812, the British routed regular American troops at the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24, 1814. The British then marched into the now defenseless American capital city of Washington and the American government, including President Madison, fled, leaving the city to the British. Angry over the American burning of Port Dover, in what is now Ontario, Canada, the British burned much of Washington and sacked the city. Burned were the White House (which went by the name, Presidential Mansion, back then), the Capitol building, and other US government buildings. The burning was followed by a heavy thunderstorm that doused the fires, and a tornado then ripped through Washington, helping to cause the British force to depart the city. The occupation of Washington lasted only 1 day, but left an indelible scar on the American psyche.
9. Wake Island, 1941.
With the Pearl Harbor attack setting off World War II in the Pacific, American bases in the Pacific came under attack by the Japanese, including Wake Island, first attacked on December 8, 1941. Over the next 2 weeks the Americans, Marines, sailors, soldiers, airmen and civilians, defended the island fiercely, much to the chagrin of the Japanese attackers that expected to waltz right in and take the island. The tiny American garrison consisted of a main force of 449 US Marines, supported by 68 US Navy sailors and 5 US Army soldiers, with 12 aircraft, 12 anti-aircraft guns and 6 shore batteries. The Japanese threw at this tiny island 3 cruisers and 6 destroyers supported by troop transports and submarines, and later added 2 aircraft carriers, 2 cruisers, 2 destroyers and an additional 2500 ground troops. Despite being promised reinforcements, the American war planners reluctantly decided not to try to relieve the brave Wake garrison that held out magnificently against repeated Japanese attacks, deciding instead to leave the island and its defenders to their fate. Killed were 52 Americans with 2 missing, and 49 wounded. The rest were captured and treated horribly by the Japanese who were intensely angry by the fierce American opposition to the invasion that had been expected to be a cakewalk. The Japanese later executed 98 American civilian workers that had been captured along with the military men. While America celebrated the incredible resistance of the Wake Island garrison, the stench of having abandoned such brave men remains a black mark on the legacy of the US military.
10. US Navy Riverine Patrol boats in Iran, 2016.
The United States and Iran have had a tense and contentious relationship ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran overthrew the US backed Shah and installed a theocratic Islamic government. When the Iranians allowed “students” to storm and seize the US Embassy in 1979, the relationship between the countries was strained to the breaking point. Iranian hostility to Israel, a US ally, and support of terrorists also cause tensions, as do US led international sanctions against Iran in order to preclude Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program. Then the Gulf War between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988), then another Gulf War (1990-1991) when Iraq invaded Kuwait and the US led an international coalition to liberate Kuwait, all had effects on the Iran-US relationship. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, Iran began a continuous program of interfering with Iraqi politics in order to create an Iraq in tune with Iran’s goals, a program resisted by the US and leading to proxy fighting between Iranian backed factions in Iraq and American troops. With this backdrop of decades of tension and conflict, in 2016 2 American riverine patrol boats, each with a crew of 5 men, were captured by the Iranian Navy near Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf. The Iranians claimed the American boats had illegally entered Iranian national waters, and later analysis appeared to confirm that claim. The US at first claimed the intrusion into Iranian territory was due to one of the boats breaking down, but later admitted that navigational errors had been responsible for the trespass. The American boats were approached by 4 Iranian patrol boats, and the Americans allowed the Iranians to board the US boats without a fight. The American sailors and their boats were taken into custody. The US and the US Navy were humiliated by having their boats taken without a fight and the sailors forced to kneel with hands on their heads at gunpoint. The American sailors were taken ashore, and the boats piloted to Iranian shores. Intense diplomatic communications followed, and the Americans and their boats were released 15 hours after being captured. Iran later claimed the US had apologized for the trespass, but the US denied having issued an apology.
Question for students (and subscribers): What incident do you consider the most humiliating US surrender? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Pitch, Anthony. Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814. Naval Institute Press, 2000.
Regan, Geoffrey. Snafu: Great American Military Disasters. Avon Books, 1993.
The featured image in this article, Bombardment of Fort Sumter by Currier & Ives, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.