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The Decisive Moment

Historians often adorn battle assessments with a tried-and-true array of adjectives, clichés that pass through our consciousness like neutrinos zipping through our body—making no mark, arousing no feeling, leaving no trace. We all know them: bitter, fierce, major, suicidal, key, epochal and the ever popular decisive.

It’s probably fair to say that almost every battle ever fought was “decisive” in some way, if only to decide who was left standing. But commonly when historians use the term, they mean that a battle decided something really big, in the way of strategic goals or international alignments.

Some battles have been truly decisive, their outcomes determining the fate of a nation or empire, or marking a palpable swerve in the trajectory of human history. One reward of reading history is the realization that a single battle can be a fulcrum upon which human events teeter. Another is to argue over which battles belong on a list of the truly decisive and why. For instance:

Marathon, because Persia could not dominate the West.

Constantinople, because artillery could threaten any fortress.

Quebec, because North America would not be French.

Moscow, because Russia would not be German.

Midway, because Japan would not rule the Pacific.

Here on our home turf, it’s clear that after the 1781 victory at Yorktown, the United States would be an independent power. When the British army under Lord Cornwallis got boxed in between George Washington’s army and Admiral de Grasse’s navy, laid down their weapons and gave up trying to hold the American colonies by armed force, the known political world turned upside down. British Prime Minister Lord North acknowledged as much after hearing of the surrender at Yorktown: “Oh God! It is all over.”

While the British army may have fifed and drummed up some surrender music, there is scant evidence for the widely accepted notion they played the song, “The World Turned Upside Down.” The symbolism appeals, but it is—like the tales of Washington’s cherry tree and silver dollar toss—a charming fable rather than history.

Still, there is no mistaking the decisive moment.