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American soldiers wade toward the beach under fire at Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. (National Archives)

If the Germans had flung the Normandy attackers into the sea and foiled the Allied invasion plan, the course of the war and the balance of power in Europe would have incalculably changed

Over the course of its history the United States military has engaged in many crucial and decisive battles. A few were truly tipping points that shaped wars’ outcomes, peace, the national identity—and even literally shaped America. Any such selection is open to debate and interpretation. But the battles cited here have certainly helped create and define America. Indeed, had these battles ended differently, the United States would today be a far different nation.

Bunker Hill
On the night of June 16–17, 1775, some 1,200 American militiamen moved onto Charlestown Peninsula, across the Charles River from Boston. In several hours of digging, they built a fort on a portion of Bunker Hill known as Breed’s Hill. At first glance this action looked like reckless bravado, given that Boston then held some 6,000 seasoned British regulars led by battle-tested generals and supported by a fleet of Royal Navy warships in the harbor.

But the Americans, led by Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam and Colonel William Prescott, knew what they were doing. Spies had revealed a British plan for a massive assault on the Rebel army that had besieged Boston for the previous two months. So Putnam and Prescott, veterans of the French and Indian War, seized the initiative, forcing the British to fight on ground the Americans chose.

The next afternoon British Maj. Gen. William Howe crossed the river with 2,500 men, planning to assault the Breed’s Hill defenses from the rear. A veteran American officer, Colonel John Stark, arrived on the battlefield just prior to the British attack, leading reinforcements that brought American strength to about 2,400 men. He anticipated Howe’s flanking maneuver and flung back the British light-infantry column, inflicting heavy casualties and forcing Howe to launch a frontal assault on the redoubt.

After an hour of ferocious fighting, the Americans ran out of ammunition, and the British overran the fort. The U.S. retreat sparked acrimony among American commanders—until they learned the British had incurred 1,054 casualties to the Rebels’ 450. “I wish we could sell them another hill at the same price,” wrote young Rhode Island Brig. Gen. Nathanael Greene.

Bunker Hill made both sides realize they were in for a real war. Most Americans had doubted their green soldiers could stand up to the vaunted British army. And the British had believed they were facing undisciplined mobs. If Howe’s strategy had worked, and he had routed or captured the men in the fort, he and his fellow generals planned to go on and destroy the entire Continental Army. If that had happened, the dream of an independent America would have evaporated.

Early in 1781 the six-year struggle for American independence seemed to be collapsing: Congress was bankrupt. Mutinies had shaken the Continental Army. The French minister to the United States had browbeaten—and bribed—Congress into agreeing to peace negotiations with the British.

Lt. Gen. Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the 5,500-man French expeditionary force, joined Maj. Gen. George Washington in an attack on British-held New York—an assault the enemy easily defeated. Rochambeau next proposed a march to Virginia to trap the marauding 8,000-man British army led by Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis. Washington dismissed the idea—until Rochambeau reported that the French West Indies fleet was heading for Chesapeake Bay, with 3,200 men and money to finance a campaign.

Washington led 2,500 Continentals and 4,000 French regulars on a stealthy 340-mile march to Virginia, where they learned astonishing news: The 29-ship French fleet had repulsed the British fleet’s attempt to rescue Cornwallis’ army, leaving it trapped in the tobacco port of Yorktown.

On September 28 Washington marched on Yorktown with 9,000 Continentals and militiamen to begin a siege. French-supplied heavy artillery wreaked havoc on the British defenses, and in night assaults on October 14, American and French regiments, one led by Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton, captured key redoubts that enabled their cannon to enfilade the British lines. Five days later Cornwallis surrendered, and his men marched out to lay down their guns, their drummers and fifers reportedly playing “The World Turn’d Upside Down.”

When British Prime Minister Lord North heard the news, he gasped, “Oh God, it is all over!” In Paris the French abandoned plans to negotiate a compromise peace that would have left the British in possession of Georgia, the Carolinas, New York City, Long Island and the northern half of Massachusetts (now the state of Maine). Without the Yorktown victory, the fragmented, bankrupt colonies would have collapsed into the triumphant arms of the Mother Country. Instead, Yorktown ensured the United States was here to stay.

New Orleans
In early December 1814 a huge British fleet carrying 10,000 victorious veterans of the war with Napoléon Bonaparte’s France anchored off the Louisiana coast. In command of the troops was Maj. Gen. Edward Pakenham, brother-in-law of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. The British expected to enjoy Christmas dinner in the strategic port city of New Orleans. Earlier in the year they had brushed aside American forces and torched government buildings in Washington, D.C. The War of 1812 had been militarily disastrous for the Americans, and disgusted New England politicians were even then meeting in Hartford, Conn., to discuss seceding from the young nation.

Defeatism was rampant in New Orleans. The American commander, Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, had barely 700 men. Civilians implored him to surrender and spare the city fiery destruction.

But “Old Hickory” was not the surrendering type. He summoned 2,000 mounted Tennesseeans from Baton Rouge, and when the British advance guard appeared just south of New Orleans, Jackson launched a night attack that shook the Redcoats’ confidence. He pulled back to a canal outside the city and began fortifying it, adding militiamen from Kentucky and Tennessee, plus a smattering of local pirates.

The British did not advance for another week, giving Jackson’s 4,500-plus men time to complete their fortified line. When Pakenham did finally attack—in daylight across an open cane field—on January 8, blasts of grapeshot tore huge gaps in his tightly packed formations, while Jackson’s infantry added a storm of musket fire that shattered regiment after regiment. Pakenham was killed while trying to rally his demoralized men.

With 2,042 men dead or wounded to only 71 American casualties, the British stumbled into retreat. Days later both sides learned the London government had signed a peace treaty several weeks before the battle, ending its continental ambitions south of Canada. When the news from New Orleans reached Washington, people danced in the streets. The would-be secessionists from New England slunk out of town, and nothing more was heard from their infamous convention. Jackson was on his way to the White House, while a revived and united America—which had learned the importance of a strong government and an effective military—took a giant step toward becoming a continental nation.

Mexico City
When President James Polk took office in March 1845, Mexico was threatening war with the United States over its recent annexation of Texas. Polk offered the Mexicans $25 million for Texas to the Rio Grande and another $30 million for provinces along the Pacific Coast. The Mexicans refused and in April ambushed a U.S. Army patrol along the Rio Grande, sparking war with the Americans.

The United States won a string of early battles, but Mexico would not concede defeat. Polk then ordered General Winfield Scott to land 12,000 troops at Veracruz and march to Mexico City. Though the Mexican army as a whole outnumbered Scott 3-to-1, he captured Veracruz in March 1847 and through the summer fought his way to the outskirts of Mexico City. There, in September 1847, his remaining 7,100 troops faced an enemy force of 16,000 men under Mexican dictator—and victor at the Alamo—General Antonio López de Santa Anna.

Overlooking the city was the hilltop fortress at Chapultepec. Scott attacked and in a desperate, bloody, daylong struggle captured the seemingly impregnable bastion. The Americans—including such West Pointers as Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, George Pickett and Ulysses S. Grant—surged toward Mexico City. Grant even hoisted a howitzer into a church tower and enfiladed the defenses at one of the capital’s key gates, helping speed the city’s surrender.

Nicholas Trist, an American diplomat traveling with the Army, negotiated the subsequent Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, adding to the nation land that would become California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, as well as parts of other Western and Southwestern states, in exchange for a payment of $18 million. This vast expansion of U.S. territory inspired even more Americans to move west, especially after gold was discovered in California the following year.

In the spring of 1863 General Robert E. Lee, commander of the 75,000-man Army of Northern Virginia, decided to invade the North and perhaps force President Abraham Lincoln to negotiate peace. Lee and other Confederate generals had repulsed Union attempts to invade the South, but the North’s industrial power and larger population would likely prevail if the war dragged on. Maj. Gen. George Meade, newly appointed commander of the Union’s 93,000-man Army of the Potomac, engaged Lee’s army at Gettysburg, Pa.

On July 1 the fighting comprised heavy skirmishing and cavalry clashes. By the second day Meade had created a defensive line south of the town. Convinced his infantry was superior to Meade’s, Lee attacked. Both sides suffered heavy casualties at Little Round Top, the Wheatfield and other sites, but the Union lines remained unbroken.

On the third day Lee sent Maj. Gen. George Pickett and 12,500 infantrymen against Meade’s center on Cemetery Ridge. Union artillery and small-arms fire inflicted heavy casualties and broke the attack. On July 4, after waiting for Meade to attack, Lee began a retreat to Virginia. Both sides had suffered staggering casualties—a total of more than 45,000 dead, wounded and missing, almost evenly divided.

At first no one realized Gettysburg was a turning point in the war, which lasted another two years. But the Confederate cause had received a mortal wound, and Lee would never again attempt an offensive in the North. Lincoln added to Gettysburg’s symbolic power by giving his greatest speech that November at the dedication of the battlefield cemetery. The Union—one nation—was preserved.

Manila Bay
On Feb. 15, 1898, the battleship USS Maine exploded and sank in the harbor of Havana, Cuba. The United States blamed the Spanish government, which was trying to suppress a revolt on the island, and the two nations were soon at war. They would exchange their first shots 9,400 miles away off Manila, capital of the Philippines.

President William McKinley had ordered Commodore George Dewey, commander of the American Asiatic Squadron, to “capture or destroy” the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay. On April 30, Dewey’s warships—four protected cruisers and two gunboats—entered Manila Bay via a channel the Spanish had neglected to mine and achieved almost complete surprise. Only two of Rear Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasarón’s seven ships was armored, and none of the crews had fired a gun in more than a year. Montojo’s only option was to anchor his squadron close to the heavy guns in the forts and shore batteries.

At 5:41 a.m. Dewey’s ships formed a line of battle 5,000 yards from the enemy. The Spanish squadron and shore batteries had opened fire, but their shells had fallen short. “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley,” Dewey told the captain of his flagship, the cruiser Olympia. The American squadron steamed back and forth, firing first from port and then from starboard guns, closing the range to 2,000 yards. Two Spanish ships exploded and sank. The rest retreated into shallow water where they, too, were destroyed. After a brief artillery duel, the shore batteries also surrendered.

Dewey ceased firing at 7:30 a.m. More than 380 Spaniards were dead or wounded, at a cost to the Americans of one man dead (from a heart attack) and nine wounded. Dewey cabled his success to Washington, and the news that the U.S. Navy had defeated a major European navy caused a sensation. The convincing victory signaled America’s arrival as a major power in the Pacific—a status underscored when, after a three-year guerrilla war, the Philippines became an American possession.

Second Marne
On May 27, 1918, German Field Marshal Erich Ludendorff threw more than 20 divisions at French and British forces north of Soissons, France. Weakened by mutinies, the French Sixth Army all but evaporated. In just three days German troops captured 50,000 Allied soldiers and reached the Marne River, less than 40 miles from Paris—and victory.

General Ferdinand Foch, Allied supreme commander, turned to the Americans. It would be the U.S. troops’ first major test in all-out combat on the Western Front, after months of being committed as piecemeal reinforcements by the struggling French. The 27,000-man 3rd Division deployed on the banks of the Marne, flanked by elements of other divisions.

When the Germans renewed their offensive on July 15, they were stunned by the Americans’ machine-gun and rifle fire, which took a terrible toll as the attackers crossed the Marne in rafts and canvas boats. On the right flank, six more French divisions vanished, but the 3rd Division’s line remained unbroken, isolating some 20,000 Germans who had crossed the river.

At dawn on July 18 the American 1st and 2nd divisions and a French colonial division stormed into the exposed right flank of the Marne salient. Their objective was the railroad that ran through Soissons—the main supply line for the half-million Germans in the salient. Attacking without artillery preparation, they achieved complete surprise and for 24 hours sent the Germans reeling. But on the second day German machine guns sprouted everywhere, and the Americans suffered more than 12,000 casualties.

At the end of the third day the Allies withdrew both shattered American divisions. The rail line remained uncut, but the stalled Germans abandoned all thought of crossing the river. They “shortened” their lines—a euphemism for retreat. Four months later the Germans surrendered, and America emerged as one of the world’s great military powers.

If the American troops had failed on the Marne, they would have been dismissed as inferior soldiers and dupes of the British and French. Germany could well have become the 20th century’s dominant world power.

In early June 1942 a Japanese fleet steamed toward the Midway Islands, 1,300 miles west of Hawaii. In the lead were four aircraft carriers with 248 aircraft, supported by two battleships and 15 heavy and light cruisers and destroyers. Several hundred miles behind this force came two light carriers, five battleships and 41 more support ships. Japan was hoping to crush the United States as a Pacific power and knock it out of the war.

Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, had humiliated the U.S. Navy. Japanese forces had all but erased the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, captured the Philippines, driven a British army from Malaysia and captured it at Singapore. Japan had captured the oil-rich Dutch East Indies with equal ease. Tokyo stood on the brink of conquering Asia.

Opposing the Japanese at Midway were three American aircraft carriers with 233 planes, and 25 escorting cruisers and destroyers, plus 127 land-based aircraft on Midway Island. But the Americans also had a secret advantage—they had broken Tokyo’s naval code and knew both the location and objectives of the Japanese fleet.

The Japanese carrier-based aircraft struck first on June 4, all but obliterating the American naval base on Midway and destroying most of its aircraft. The U.S. carriers launched their attack while the Japanese were trying to retrieve and refuel the Midway strike force. The Japanese shot down the lead U.S. torpedo planes without taking any hits to their ships. But following waves of Douglas SBD dive bombers sank a Japanese heavy cruiser and all four carriers. Although Japanese aircraft and a submarine managed to sink the carrier Yorktown and a destroyer, the U.S. Navy clearly won the battle and, with it, the initiative in the Pacific War.

The Japanese lost 3,057 men and all of their carrier aircraft. The Americans lost 307 men and 150 planes. The Japanese navy never recovered from these crippling losses. A few months later the United States seized the offensive by invading the Solomon Islands, putting American forces irrevocably on the road to Tokyo—and the end of the war.

On the night of June 5–6, 1944, 160,000 Allied troops—backed by 6,939 ships—began to cross the rolling English Channel toward the Normandy coast of France in history’s greatest amphibious assault. Wind, high seas and cloud cover on June 4 had threatened to abort the operation, but, ironically, the bad weather had persuaded German defenders there would be no invasion for weeks, and many generals left to visit their families and participate in war games. By the time they realized the assault had begun, some 25,000 British and American paratroopers and glider forces had landed in Normandy to seize bridges and disrupt the enemy response.

At 6:30 a.m. the first landing craft slid ashore and tens of thousands of men stormed onto beaches code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. On Sword Beach, British casualties were light but the invaders ran into serious resistance inland and failed to secure their chief objective, the port of Caen. At Juno the first wave of Canadians suffered 50-percent casualties, but they penetrated farther inland than any other force.

On Omaha Beach some 50,000 Americans of the 1st and 29th infantry divisions confronted looming bluffs bristling with mortars, machine guns and artillery. Every officer and sergeant in the first company ashore died within 10 minutes, and only two of 16 tanks reached the beach. For a few hours Allied commanders considered abandoning the beachhead. But soldiers banded together in impromptu companies and fought their way inland, establishing two isolated footholds beyond the bluffs.

On Utah Beach casualties were light, and the men of the 4th Infantry Division moved inland to link up with paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division. By the end of the day the Allies had secured every beachhead except Omaha. In two more days it, too, was in Allied hands, and a new struggle began as the Germans poured in men and tanks. But it was too late to stop the invasion on the beaches. It took another two months of ferocious fighting for the Allies to break out of the peninsula; on August 25, Free French and American troops liberated Paris, and the battered Germans retreated to the Rhine. By then Allied victory was only a matter of time.

If the Germans had flung the Normandy attackers into the sea and foiled the Allied invasion plan, the course of the war and the balance of power in Europe would have incalculably changed. As it was, the U.S. emerged from World War II a superpower.

On June 25, 1950, a Russian-equipped North Korean army of more than 100,000 men, spearheaded by T-34 tanks, invaded the Republic of Korea. Outnumbered, with antiquated weapons and scant armor and artillery, the ROK army fell back. On June 27, following a United Nations resolution authorizing collective military action to defend South Korea, President Harry S. Truman tapped General Douglas MacArthur—then supreme commander of the Allied powers in Japan—to lead the U.N. Command and its response to the invasion.

Short of men and materiel, on July 5 MacArthur sent an understrength infantry battalion with artillery from the Japan-based 24th Infantry Division to Korea to establish a defensive line. The unit, dubbed Task Force Smith, and other 24th ID elements delayed but were unable to halt the North Korean assault. By August, North Korean forces held all of South Korea except for a pocket surrounding the southeast port city of Pusan.

Though it was essentially destroyed in the process, the 24th ID’s delaying actions allowed Eighth U.S. Army commander Lt. Gen. Walton Walker to move additional forces into South Korea, enabling him to create a defensive perimeter around Pusan, telling his forces: “We are fighting a battle against time. There will be no more retreating, withdrawal or ‘readjustment of the lines’ or any other term you choose.…If some of us must die, we will die fighting together.”

For the next six weeks the North Koreans shrugged off heavy casualties and reinforced their army until they had some 70,000 troops attacking the Pusan Perimeter simultaneously at five points. Walker took advantage of his interior lines and shuttled “fire brigade” U.S. Army and Marine units to threatened points. His mobile defense tactics and the growing confidence of his troops, together with tactical air superiority, allowed Walker to fight the enemy to a standstill.

The bitter and costly struggle for Pusan ended in mid-September when Walker’s reinforced Eighth Army launched a breakout in conjunction with MacArthur’s amphibious landing of U.N. forces at Inchon. The combined forces pushed the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel and out of South Korea.

The Korean War was far from over: Chinese intervention in October sparked three more years of combat. But the successful defense of Pusan had affirmed U.S. and U.N. determination to fight when the Cold War turned hot; kept U.N. forces from being pushed off the peninsula; bought time for the U.N. buildup that saved South Korea from communist rule; and stalled Soviet expansionism in Asia.