A Brief History
On July 1, 1863, the battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania began, perhaps the most important battle of the US Civil War. Many historians have considered it the battle that the war hinged on, especially as it was the “high water mark” of the Confederate invasion of the North. We list here some of the most important, most critical battles in our nation’s history, battles that the very existence of the country depended on. Since the only wars that our existence hinged on were the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II, by our definition only those wars can be considered. (Note: Although the Battle of Midway was certainly the turning point in the Pacific in 1942, we do not see the Japanese as an actual threat to America’s existence or sovereignty in World War II.)
5. Normandy, 1944.
If the D-Day invasion had failed, especially if it failed decisively, the Germans may have been able to redeploy forces to the East and potentially defeat the Soviets, creating an entirely different scenario for the resolution of World War II. After the Battle of the Atlantic, Normandy is certainly the most critical battle of World War II for the US.
4. Antietam, 1862.
Only barely a victory for the Union Army, the battle was the bloodiest single day in US military history with 22,000 combined casualties and almost 4000 combined deaths. Although an enormous blunder by the Union Army to fail to run down and keep attacking a numerically smaller Confederate Army, the fact that the Confederates retreated gave the appearance and technical definition of a defeat for the Rebels. This battle was critical to the Civil War in that it encouraged President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which combined with an apparent Union victory kept France and Britain from recognizing the Confederacy and perhaps even entering the war on the side of the South.
3. The Battle of the Atlantic, 1941-1945.
(Yes we know the British were a primary participant, but you better believe Americans fought this battle and in a major way.) German surface ships were taken care of by the British before they became a factor for the US Navy and Merchant Marine, but the terrible threat from German submarines threatened to starve out Britain and isolate the US, perhaps putting us in such a poor position as to have to negotiate a separate peace. Such a “peace” would likely have been temporary and would have resulted (quite possibly) in a German defeat of the USSR without US supplies and a Western Front. We see this victory over the U-Boats as the most pivotal victory of World War II. This battle was won not only by brave men and brilliant tactics, but also by technology, resulting in advances in SONAR/ASDIC, RADAR, anti-sub weapons such as the “Hedgehog” depth charge thrower, and the electrical “degaussing” of ships (to defeat magnetic torpedoes and mines). Improved airplanes such as the B-24 Liberator equipped with centimetric radar and search lights kept U-Boats underwater and took the night away from them. The unprecedented rapid building of Liberty ships outpaced the German ability to sink them.
2. Saratoga, 1777.
Kind of a 2 battle engagement, the British won a meaningless victory in the initial engagement, and were crushed by the Americans 3 weeks later. Considered the turning point of the Revolution, consider the numbers as an indication as to how great a victory it was for America: 90 Americans killed and 240 wounded, 440 British Killed and 695 wounded, with 6,222 British soldiers captured, the entire force! The British Army and politicians were on notice that Americans would fight hard and effectively, and France took this victory as a decisive factor In deciding to side with the Americans and intervene on our behalf. This support was critical to final victory. Note: A portion of the British forces were actually German “Hessians.” Note: Although Yorktown was another huge American victory that also resulted in the capture of the entire British force that pretty much ended the war, it seems the tide had already turned by that point and the victory was not as stunning. Plus, French forces played a major role in that battle.
1. Gettysburg, 1863.
The largest battle of the War Between the States, this battle is usually described as the turning point in the war, a crushing defeat for Confederate forces that would spend the rest of the war fighting for survival defensively rather than fighting for independence offensively. Over 46,000 American casualties, almost 8,000 of which died, and over 11,000 from both sides captured or missing. A Confederate victory here could have resulted in further incursion into the North by CSA forces and a subsequent cry for settlement from Northerners.
Question for students (and subscribers): The order listed is the order we think is most important, but we invite you to tell us what battles and in what order you think are most important in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Davis, Paul K. 100 Decisive Battles: From Ancient Times to the Present.
Potomac Corral of the Westerners. Great Western Indian Fights. Mjf Books, 1997.
Unknown Author. A Comprehensive Sketch of the Merrimac and Monitor Naval Battle: Giving an Accurate Account of the Most Important Naval Engagement in the Annals of War (Classic Reprint). Forgotten Books, 2017.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of a postage stamp designed by Roy Gjertson, 1963 5-cent issue, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, is in the public domain in the United States, because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.
You can also watch a video version of this list on YouTube.