A Brief History
On July 27, 1689, the Battle of Killiecrankie was fought between Scots and Irish Jacobites against the forces of the Williamite Government of Scotland. Every so often a battle occurs at a funny sounding place or with a funny sounding name of the battle, and today we take a look at some of those funny sounding battles. (Yes, we are including some wars as well as battles…) Some that come to mind that are not on our list (too predictable) include The War of Jenkins Ear, The Football War, The Whiskey Rebellion, The Great Emu War,and The Battle of the Sexes. Plus, a lot of battles, wars, and raids were named after foods, such as Pork Chop Hill, Hamburger Hill, The Cod Wars, and The Boston Tea Party. Which battles would you add to the list?
Battle of Killiecrankie, July 27, 1689.
Despite the British origins of the United States, many places in Britain, including Scotland and Wales notably, have names that strike Americans as odd or “funny.” (Our places with Native American names probably strike the British as “funny.”) Known in its time as the Battle of Rinrory, our first entry was between 2400 foot soldiers and 40 cavalrymen of the rebellious Jacobites against 3500 to 5000 Scottish government foot troops and 100 cavalrymen during the First Jacobite Rising, a rebellion trying to restore James II and VII to the throne of Scotland (he was deposed in 1688 from both the throne of England and from the throne of Scotland. Even if you find the name of the battle “funny,” the results were not! The Jacobites suffered 800 casualties and the government troops suffered as many as 2000 casualties.
Bay of Pigs, April 17-20, 1961.
Probably the biggest debacle of the John F. Kennedy administration, the US backed Cuban counter-revolutionaries tried to take Cuba back from Fidel Castro and his communist party, but failed spectacularly, especially when Kennedy saw things were not going well and decided not to commit US forces to the battle. Cuba has remained a communist country ever since, even today when so few countries still espouse that political doctrine.
Battle of the Bulge, December 16, 1944-January 25, 1945.
An enormous last ditch effort by the Germans to conduct a decisive offensive operation on the Western Front of World War II, the battle sounds like the same one I have been fighting most of my adult life! (A slight weight problem…) An initial assault by over 400,000 German troops along with 1400+ armored vehicles and a thousand aircraft faced off against over 600,000 Allied troops (mostly Americans and British). The Allies rushed massive reinforcements of men and equipment into the battle, resources the Germans lacked, resulting in a tremendous Allied victory after initial German successes. The desperate Germans lost nearly 100,000 men killed/wounded/missing and about 800 precious aircraft. The Allies lost almost 90,000 men killed/wounded/missing and over 1000 aircraft, losses the Allies were easily able to make up, unlike the Germans who had no meaningful reserves left after the battle.
Battle of Negro Fort, July 27, 1816.
Today the term “Negro” is looked down upon as an anachronistic and sort of racist term, but back in those days it sure was better than some of the more insulting racial epithets used. We wrote about this battle in an article titled “The Battle of Negro Fort: Deadliest Cannon Shot in US Navy History.” On July 27, 1816, US gunboat #154 fired a cannon shot regarded as the deadliest single cannonball ever fired by the US Navy. The so-called Battle of Negro Fort touched off what became General Andrew Jackson’s conquest of Florida, and was the first big battle of the First Seminole War. During the War of 1812, the British had garrisoned a fort at Prospect Bluffs on the Apalachicola River of what was then Spanish Florida. With British Marines (1000 total British fighters) in the fort’s garrison were several hundred Africans (free men and runaway slaves) the British had recruited as “Colonial Marines.” The British called the fort Negro Fort, and abandoned it after the War of 1812 ended in 1815, paying off the African soldiers who in turn stayed and made the fort a settlement for runaway American slaves. General Gaines (Jackson’s subordinate) first offered terms of surrender to the commander of the Blacks, a man named Garson, who refused, claiming the British had ordered him to hold the fort, and Garson raised the British flag and a red flag indicating “no quarter” to emphasize his point. The fort contained about 200 Black militia armed with muskets and 10 cannons, but their artillery skills were minimal, and were ineffective against the American soldiers and gunboats 149 and 154. Another 100+ women and children were in the fort, along with about 30 Choctaw Indian fighters. The gunboats fired a few shots apiece to find the range, and then prepared “hot shot” pre-heated cannonballs for the main bombardment. (Red hot cannonballs could set fire to buildings and other flammables.) The very first shot from gunboat 154, commanded by Master Jairius Loomis, hit the enemy powder stores and caused an enormous explosion, virtually wiping out the entire fort! About 300 of the 334 people in the fort were killed.
The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, June 20, 1944.
Often referred to in history books as The Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Americans that were there called it by its better known name, the Marianas part because of the location and the “Turkey Shoot” because the Allied aviators slaughtered the Japanese pilots sent to attack the Allied naval forces making their inexorable advance toward Japan. In about a day of fierce aerial combat, the Americans lost 123 aircraft, a considerable number, but compared to the (as many as) 645 Japanese aircraft destroyed, the terrific disproportionate losses by the Japanese make the rout quite apparent. The Japanese also lost 3 aircraft carriers, 2 tanker ships and 6 other ships damaged along with nearly 3000 dead. The Americans lost 109 dead and a single battleship damaged.
The Battle of Megalopolis, 331 BC.
This ancient Greek battle between the forces of Alexander the Great of Macedon and King Agis III of Sparta is included because the author thinks the name of the battle sounds like it belongs in an action or super-hero comic book! Seriously, does “Megalopolis” sound like a real place? Apparently it is (or was), because Antipater led the Macedonians to victory over the much storied warriors from Sparta, with King Agis III conspiring with the long time enemies of the Greeks, the Persians, to gang up on the Macedonians. No matter how tough the Spartans were, the fact that the Macedonians put 40,000 men into the battle against only 20,000 Spartan foot troops and 2000 Spartan cavalry spelled doom for King Agis III and his team. Both sides suffered considerable casualties, with the Macedonians losing between 1000 and 3500 troops and the Spartans losing about 5300. Of course, the numerically superior Macedonians could absorb the losses much easier than the outmanned Spartans. The battle cost Agis III his life, as he was reportedly slain by a Macedonian javelin hurled at him. Although Alexander was not at the battle, he would enjoy much more military success over the next several years until his untimely death in 323 BC.
Battle of Cowpens, January 17, 1781.
Can you imagine a battle cry of “Watch your step!” We have no idea if there was such an admonition but considering the name of the battle you would think soldiers would have to be careful or they would be cleaning their boots after the battle! In reality, this battle during the American Revolutionary War was fought in the South Carolina town of Cowpens, not actually in a cowpen or cowpens. The town is indeed named after the cattle enclosures that once dominated the place. By the late date of 1781 in the war for American independence the Americans had taken the upper hand as Britain wearied from the war. The Battle of Cowpens was a major American victory, and the numbers of troops and casualties gives one a reference point by which the small scale of the fighting can be seen compared to some of the massive wars and battles fought at other times and places. The Americans, under the command of Brigadier General Daniel Morgan numbered only about 1800 or 1900 men, and they faced a British force under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Sir Banastre Tarleton of only 1150 men. Morgan conducted a rare double envelopment, the only such maneuver of the American Revolution to defeat the British. Against American losses of only 25 men killed, the British lost 110 killed, 229 wounded and 629 captured or missing. Only about 200 British avoided being killed or captured.
Battle of Gaugamela, October 1, 331 BC.
A massive battle between the Greek/Macedonian forces of Alexander the Great against the Persian Empire, the battle sounds like it belongs on an animated television cartoon series! Or perhaps like a monster that Godzilla has to save the world (or Japan) from! In real life this battle was one of the largest of ancient times, pitting Alexander the Great and 47,000 of his men against Darius III and somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 men according to modern estimates. (Estimates in ancient times were that the Persians had as many as a million men!) Casualty estimates are likewise inconsistent, with as few as 100 Greek ground troops killed along with 1000 of Alexander’s cavalry against Persian losses that were between 40,000 and 90,000, with 300,000 captured. In any case, it was an enormous victory for Alexander and his Greek/Macedonian army. Alexander and his men rounded up loads of Persian supplies and loot, and although Darius III escaped the battle, he was later killed by his own people who in turn submitted to Alexander. The Battle of Gaugamela marked the end of Achaemenid Persian Empire.
Battle of the Cheeses, 1865.
The name of this battle makes it a natural for a list such as this, a name that causes one to think, either it concerns some sort of cheese making competition, or way more unlikely, real fighting men used cheese as weapons in combat. The latter is the real case! In this oddly named battle, an Uruguayan ship ran out of cannonballs while fighting a Brazilian vessel. The resourceful Uruguayan captain ordered stale Dutch cheese to be loaded in the cannons! The first salvo missed the Brazilian ship, but the second salvo scored a remarkably lucky hit against the mainmast of the Brazilian ship, shattering the mainmast. We are unaware of any other such battle where cheese or other food became a battle winning weapon.
WAIT! In World War II the US destroyer USS O’Bannon found itself alongside a Japanese submarine that had surfaced. At first planning to ram the sub, the chance that the sub carried mines made ramming it a dangerous proposition and the skipper of the O’Bannon changed his mind, slowing his ship to where it was too close to use its guns against the enemy sub. The panicked American sailors started throwing potatoes at the submarine. Thinking the potatoes were hand grenades, the Japanese scrambled back into their sub, failing to man the deck gun that could have done the O’Bannon in. The wily destroyer captain quickly moved his ship just far enough away from the sub to bring his guns to bear, sinking the Japanese submarine. As this battle does not have a name, it does not get its own listing. Too bad!
The Grass Fight, November 26, 1835.
Although this battle sounds like the sort of suburban neighborhood one-upsmanship one might find on a reality television show about well groomed front yards, in reality it was a minor battle during the Texas Revolution, the Texas War for Independence. During a lull in the war, a Texan scout brought word to the American/Texans of a Mexican supply train. Thinking that they would plunder the supply train, seizing valuable food, ammunition and money (especially money), the Texans sent Jim Bowie (the famous guy) with 40 or 50 mounted men and 100 foot soldiers after the pack train. Mexican reinforcements arrived to help the wagoneers fight off the Texans, but the intrepid Texans, sensing the opportunity to gain wealth, fought off the Mexicans and forced them to flee, leaving the supply train to the victorious Texans. Imagine their disappointment when the Texans found out the wagons carried only freshly cut grass and hay to feed the Mexican animals!
Battle of the Herrings, February 12, 1429.
A battle during the Hundred Years War sometimes called the not so funny sounding Battle of Rouvray, the French and Scottish forces sought to intercept and seize a supply convoy of English wagons in the area of town of Rouvray in France, not far from Orleans where the town was being besieged by the English. With the rapid approach of the Lenten season, the supply train carried salted herrings for the English army that (of course) would not be eating meat during Lent and needed the fish. In addition to the barrels of herring, the supplies included crossbow bolts, cannons and cannon balls, presumably gunpowder and other such items. The English won a resounding victory, not only avoiding the loss of their supplies but inflicting severe losses on the Scots especially.
Battle of Pilot Knob, September 27, 1864.
As with many battles, this one has another name, the Battle of Fort Davidson, but who would include that name on a list of funny sounding battles? Not only fought near Fort Davidson in Missouri, the battle was fought during the American Civil War near the town of Pilot Knob in Iron County, Missouri. Outnumbered by the intimidating ratio of 10 to 1, the valiant Union defenders held off fierce Confederate attacks long enough to be able to slip away into the night and avoid the Union troops and equipment being captured. Although the Confederates were able to take possession of the fort, the cost of the battle in men, ammunition and stores precluded further offensive action that had been planned, resulting in a Pyrrhic victory. Union casualties numbered 184, while the Confederates had lost 1500 killed and wounded, men they could not afford to be without.
Battle of Wallop, 437 or 467.
Despite England being the source of the American language, back in the pre-William the Conqueror days (1066) the language would be unintelligible to modern speakers of the English language, and many words and place names sound quite strange to us today. Thus, we get the Battle of Wallop, which should actually be called the Battle of Middle Wallop, so you do not mistake it for a battle that may have taken place at Nether Wallop or Over Wallop. (These are real English places.) The 3 Wallop villages are located on the Wallop Brook in Hampshire. (Nether Wallop had its own battle, called the Battle of Guoloph in 400, which is kind of funny sounding itself. In fact, it might even be the same battle we are discussing!) The battle was fought between the forces of Vitalinus and Ambrosius during the reign of King Vortigern Vorteneu, commonly known as Vortigern the Very Thin (we are not making this up!), but formally known as Gwrtheyrn Gwrtheneu (whatever happened to names like Joe or Bill?). Details of the battle are sketchy, but the name is funny.
War of the Golden Stool, March-September 1900.
Also known as the Third Ashanti Expedition or the Ashanti Uprising, the conflict was between the colonial British and the West African Ashanti Empire that apparently had no desire to be taken over and controlled by the British. Fighting had been going on for many years, and after the British occupation of the Ashanti land in 1896 the local people rose up against their occupiers in 1900, although the British put down the “rebellion” and incorporated the land into their Gold Coast Colony. In 1957 the land became Ghana. So why the “Golden Stool?” Apparently the Golden Stool is a representation of the throne of the Ashanti people, the governing power of the country. It seems the Ashanti rulers sat on what to us may seem an odd curved sort of stool instead of some sort of grand throne, and the British thought they could control the country and the people if they could get their hands on the physical Golden Stool, which probably did not exist in the manner thought by the British.
Battle of the North Inch, September 1396.
The English are not the only British people to give strange names to places, and this time it was the Scots that fought at a place called The North Inch, a battle fought between only 30 men on each side, representing the Clan Chattan and the Clan Quhele. In fact, spectators watched the battle, including King Robert III of Scotland. The Clan Chattan lost 19 men killed, but slew all but one of their opponents, winning the battle. The reason for the battle is lost to history, but not the goofy name.
Battle of Pinkie, September 10, 1547.
A fierce battle between Scotland and England before the countries united under a single crown, the Battle of Pinkie was the last of the battles before the unification, and was part of the equally odd sounding Rough Wooing campaign (which sounds reminiscent of my dating life in high school). The battle, often referred to as the first “modern” battle in Britain, resulted in a massive Scottish loss, with between 6000 and 15000 Scots killed and 2000 Scots soldiers taken prisoner. The English lost only 200 to 600 killed. The English military had modernized into what could be called a “Renaissance Army,” while the Scots were still organized and equipped in the Medieval fashion, although both sides employed artillery in the battle. The battle was fought in Scotland near River Esk, in the vicinity of a place called Pinkie Cleugh. (Note: Despite numerous references found online, the author could not find out the origin of the name, Pinkie Cleugh. If you know what it means, let us know!)
Battle of the Bees, November 3-5, 1914.
Also known as the Battle of Tanga, this World War I sideshow was a British attempt to take over East Africa (modern Tanzania) from the occupying German forces that were undermanned and undersupplied, seemingly easy pickings. The British amassed 9000 men for the attack, including Indian colonial troops. The Germans had a total of only 1000 men. The British suffered about 1000 casualties, half of which were killed or missing, while the Germans lost only 16 Germans killed along with 55 of their Askaria allies, and with 76 total wounded. (British casualties may have been considerably higher.) The British debacle included the Germans telling the British delegation that demanded the surrender of the port involved that the harbor was mined, although it was not, keeping the British cruiser out of the harbor and failing to provide much needed support to the attacking troops. So why the reference to bees? Because both sides suffered numerous attacks from the stinging insects during the battle, as if modern combat is not bad enough!
Question for students (and subscribers): What battle or war do you believe has the oddest name? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Nolan, Cathal. The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost. Tantor Audio, 2018.
Parker, Geoffrey. The Cambridge History of Warfare. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
The featured image in this article, the charge of the Cameron Jacobite forces at the Battle of Killiecrankie from p. 393 of the 1873 book British Battles on Land and Sea, volume 1, uploaded by the British library to Flickr here, cropped and rotated, is from the Mechanical Curator collection, a set of over 1 million images scanned from out-of-copyright books and released to Flickr Commons by the British Library. 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 70 years or fewer. This work is in the public domain in the United States, because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1925.