In the U.S. Army we have a long tradition of victory – or so we tell ourselves. We proudly carry the campaign streamers from past conflicts on our unit colors and enjoy hearing about the exploits of past heroes. Victory is our expectation. But what if that isn’t what happens? Now, I’m not talking about the nebulous idea of strategic victory in places like Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan; I’m talking about the sharp and nasty feeling of operational and tactical defeat. Retreat. Withdrawal. Being overrun. Loss of soldiers. Loss of entire units. Disaster.
We’re far more comfortable talking about potential victory than we are discussing the possibility and – let’s be honest – very strong likelihood of loss. And even when we are discussing loss, we spend more time talking about mitigating risks than we do how to react should the adverse occur. This means that we have a generation of young leaders who learn about loss only when it actually happens. This is decisively the opposite of how we treat everything else in the Army as regards training. We don’t send soldiers into battle without ever having fired their weapon; why should we send commanders to war without at least having some training on how to deal with loss and defeat?
And yes, we do train for some loss: vehicle recovery, casualty evacuation, and breaking contact come to mind. But how well do those test a unit for a full and total breakdown? Or is it perhaps better to not even put that idea into soldiers’ heads? These are the questions we should at least be asking, as leaders.
Fortunately – or rather unfortunately – we have no end of historical examples of loss and defeat in the U.S. Army to use as case studies – even if we are loathe to study them or admit that they exist.
The first thing to remember is that there are varying levels of loss. The first is the most desirable, if we can call loss desirable: loss with preservation. The ideal example of this is George Washington’s campaigns through New York and New Jersey from 1776 through 1777. In the fall of 1776, Washington’s force of 19,000 militia and Continentals was slowly driven out of New York City. It was not Washington’s finest hour; he lost 3,000 men who were captured because of lack of communications. He was driven from Manhattan, then Harlem, then White Plains, and then withdrew under heavy pressure into New Jersey – that’s how you know it was bad. No one goes to New Jersey voluntarily. By the end of the campaign he had barely 5,000 troops left.
To many, this would appear to be a complete defeat; Washington had lost more than two thirds of his force to battle and attrition, as well as losing the largest city on the eastern seaboard. And he was now in full retreat. To the British, it was a decisive victory for those very reasons. But Washington did not see the war in those terms; for him, the survival of the Continental Army was the most important factor of the war. The loss of New York taught him that population centers mattered little as long as he could field a force. And even with his small army, Washington was able to make life difficult for the British through constant raids and local attacks. In December, he made a large raid at Trenton which caused 1,000 Hessian casualties and drew British General Howe out of his fortifications into New Jersey. This led to a local British defeat at Princeton which raised Continental morale and caused Howe to withdraw from New Jersey.
Washington spent the remainder of 1777 successfully not losing, for lack of a better term. He played a masterful ballet with the British, skillfully avoiding a decisive battle where he might have been wiped out. While Washington eventually lost Philadelphia, the British would learn a lesson that Napoleon would learn in Moscow: it is relatively easy to secure a hostile city deep in enemy territory; it is far harder to hold it. And they learned what all the rest of us already know: Philly is not a city worth staying in longer than a few days (Kidding, I love all you Philadelphians). By not risking his army in general battle, Washington set the conditions for successful operations elsewhere – namely, Saratoga – which would bring in foreign aid. This proved indispensable in winning the war for the Continental Army.
Loss with preservation means that you know what to do when you retreat; that there is a plan for a withdrawal; that the force is made to realize that although you may be retreating, you are not doing so out of defeat. It means that the loss can be followed up by a counterattack. It is what the idea of defense in depth is based on: temporary loss of forward positions in order to overextend the enemy and make them vulnerable to a counterattack. It is an incredibly difficult thing to do and must be trained on. A withdrawal can turn into a retreat which can turn into a panic very quickly, unless troops are disciplined and well-led. Tactical withdrawals and disengagements may often be necessary in future conflict, which is why they need to be part of training now.
The next level of loss is a full on retreat. This is best typified by the U.S. Army loss at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Both the U.S. Army and the Confederate armies were amateurs at war and fairly evenly matched. The U.S. Army under Irvin McDowell gained an initial advantage in the attack but overextended and exhausted itself just as the Confederates received reinforcements. Because of the poor or even non-existent training in the U.S. Army which largely consisted of volunteer units made up of 90-day troops, the retreat of some units caused an overall panic that infected nearly every unit on the battlefield. Fortunately, a small rear guard was able to cover the route which staved off total destruction of the army. The Confederates were so exhausted and disorganized from the battle that they were not able to pursue. Whole U.S. units abandoned their position and equipment without even firing a shot.
This defeat almost ruined U.S. chances for a victory in the east, but for the sad condition of the Confederate forces. Their victory left their army in such a disarray that the U.S. was able to reform and put a force in the field in a short time. However, this defeat and the cultural sting of it would haunt the Army of the Potomac (the main U.S. Army in the east) for several years. It would take until the summer of 1863 for that army to shake off the sting of Bull Run, despite performing very well in multiple campaigns. Victory, they say, can be contagious. Defeat can be as well.
The worst thing that can befall an army or a unit is full-on destruction. Units are sometimes destroyed for a greater cause: to delay oncoming enemy forces or to seize a vital piece of terrain. Even the dismal performance of the US II Corps at Kasserine Pass in 1943 – a defeat if ever there was one – at least served to delay the Axis advance and buy time for an Allied counterattack. Similarly, the U.S. forces in the Philippines in 1942 fought a sustained action under incredible duress to buy time for the U.S. Navy to recover from Pearl Harbor and return to the Pacific in force. But the destruction of an entire army or large body of troops is far more difficult to justify or recover from. For example, the destruction of Task Force Smith in Korea contributed nothing to the overall situation on the peninsula beyond serving as a wake-up call to the low levels of readiness in the U.S. Army in 1950.
Similarly, the 1791 destruction of General Arthur St. Clair’s Army along the Wabash River in western Ohio was an unmitigated disaster. A previous force of 400 militia and regulars had been soundly defeated near present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana, so St. Clair had been sent on a punitive expedition. St. Clair went into the campaign with little intelligence of his enemy – a loose confederacy of western Native American nations – and an insufficient force to wage backcountry warfare. President George Washington urged St. Clair, a veteran of the American Revolution, to move from his base of operations near present-day Cincinnati in the summer months but logistics difficulties and recruitment problems delayed him until the fall. To Washington, alarm bells should have been ringing that this looked all to familiar to the disastrous Braddock expedition into Pennsylvania in 1755.
When St. Clair finally moved his force of about 2,000 regulars, militia, and three-month levies – accompanied by hundreds of camp followers – the going was slow. Desertions began to take a toll as the force moved up through the Ohio back country until by November 3, St. Clair was down to just under 1,000 effective soldiers. Encamping on a hill, St. Clair’s force neglected to dig any type of protective positions and set up camp as if they were in garrison. They were therefore unprepared when the enemy under Little Turtle struck. The militia scattered and broke in the face of heavy fire as the regulars formed ranks and fired volleys. Little Turtle pulled his force back and then began flanking the regulars, who fixed bayonets and charged. While this was considered the most effective tactic of the day, Little Turtle simply allowed the charge to pass through his ranks and then closed in again. This happened three times before the exhausted regulars fells back. U.S. artillery had been placed away from the infantry and – unsupported – the gunners were shot down early in the fight, denying St. Clair this key advantage.
After three hours of fighting, St. Clair knew that he had to get his force out of there. They attempted one final charge to clear the area to allow for a retreat but as before Little Turtle allowed the troops to pass before returning to strike the flanks and rear. The retreat turned into a rout as the U.S. soldiers fled back to the relative safety of Fort Jefferson several miles away. Losses had been catastrophic. Over 800 Americans were dead; nearly all of the remainder wounded. Enlisted men suffered a 94% casualty rate, making it the worst defeat in U.S. Army history. Half the U.S. Army of the time lay dead or wounded.
Response from the government was swift: St. Clair was forced to resign, Congress began the first special investigation into the conduct of a military action, the regular and militia military forces were strengthened and reformed, and money committed for a full campaign in the west. In other words, much like the defeat of Task Force Smith, it was a wake-up call concerning military readiness. But at a shocking cost of lives lost. Both actions stand as reminders of the hubris of U.S. military leaders and the folly of attempting to project force on the cheap. Separated as they are by 159 years, they share the same causes and the same lessons learned.
Defeat should not be unexpected, nor unlooked for. Leaders who understand that withdrawal is sometimes necessary can preserve their force to fight another day. Which is why it is important to think about and train for a day when we are overmatched on the battlefield. History shows us that the U.S. Army goes into every new conflict unprepared for the new challenges it will face; the lessons learned come with the unnecessary expenditure of lives and equipment. But if we learn to adapt and be accustomed to thinking about loss, we can better preserve the force and situate ourselves for eventual counterattack.
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About the Editor: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.
Cover photo: U.S. troops surrendering on Bataan during World War II.