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50 Most Important Battles in American History, 1740-2007
Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
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I’m finishing up my masters thesis in history. A major part of my work has been in American history, and being that I aim to be a military historian, I decided that trying to gage the most important battles in our nation’s past would be an interesting exercise. In addition to my own observations, I’ve drawn a lot from the work of Russell Weigley, Bruce Catton, Charles Royster, John Ferling, Ronald Spector, William O'Neill, Shelby Foote, James M. McPherson, Williamson Murray, Allan R. Millett and Don Higginbotham among many others.

Defining what a battle is can be a real challenge when you are considering American warfare from 1740-2007. On one end you have the classic single engagement like Gettysburg, but by World War II battles often meant massive operations in one sector. Generally though I’ve followed the idea of the single battle, with only a few exceptions, like Normandy and the Atlantic in both World Wars. Also there are economic battles of air and sea, in which a nation uses ships or airplanes to cripple the enemy’s economy and will to fight. I have grudgingly left out the bombing of Japan, but I have included three prolonged “battles” on the high seas, in which America had to preserve its’ commerce. I also didn’t include colonial warfare before 1740 because it was of an almost purely guerrilla nature, lacked decisive events, and because of my general ignorance of our early battles with the natives.

Some choices are obvious, others might draw some flak, but I welcome opinions of every stripe, and any input that will make this a better list.

Just before submitting this list I noticed that there are a few battles I'd rate lower (Long Island, Shiloh, Operation Market Garden) and some I'd rate higher (Santiago, Desert Storm, Salerno), but the drag function won't work, and I am for the most part pretty happy with this list. It was time consuming, but quite enjoyable.

This list has been so successful, I'm going to make one for 51-100.
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26. Board Game: Gaines Mill [Average Rating:7.41 Overall Rank:3983]
Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
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Seven Days, June 25th – July 1st, 1862

What Happened: In a series of hammering attacks Lee drove McClellan from the gates of Richmond.

Consequences: While not Lee’s best battle, the series of engagements drove the cautious McClellan from Richmond, prolonging the war and passing the initiative to Lee. At the same time Lee learned which of his officers could be trusted and began to build an elite officer corps within the army. McClellan, already on the political ropes, never recovered his status after his perplexing defeat.


The Irish Brigade at Gaines Mill:

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27. Board Game: Send in the Marines [Average Rating:7.50 Unranked]
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Second Fallujah, November 7th - December 23rd, 2004

I’ll get into some trouble for this one, but I think the hollow victory of Fallujah underlines a deep truth about modern warfare that some people refuse to acknowledge.

What Happened: After George W. Bush’s reelection, marine and Iraqi security forces retook Fallujah from insurgent forces.

Consequences: The battle was a major blow to the insurgency, but failed to ultimately stem the tide of violence in Iraq. Like Hue in 1968, the fighting was intense, and results were the destruction of a city that American’s were suppose to be saving. The battle illustrated that American forces can win battles but not guerrilla wars. The lessons of Vietnam remain relevant and our enemies have taken note.


Marine artillery shells Fallujah:
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28. Board Game: Victory By Any Means: Fire As She Bears Edition [Average Rating:8.21 Unranked]
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Quasi War, 1798-1800

What Happened: After years of French privateering, America fought an undeclared naval war, which the French essentially won.

Consequences: The effect of the war was mostly political, as it caused a split in the Federalist party between the aggressive Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, who opposed out right war. The fear of Hamilton gaining influence from a formal war with France helped fuel the rise of Francophile Thomas Jefferson; leading to the demise of the Federalists. For the navy it stood among the lowest points of its' history.


Battle between the Delaware and the French privateer Croyable:

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29. Board Game: Operation Desert Storm [Average Rating:7.00 Unranked]
Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
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Well, I'm afraid it'll have to wait. Whatever it was, I'm sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?
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Operation Desert Storm, February 24th - 27th, 1991

What Happened: Coalition forces destroyed the Iraqi military and freed Kuwait.

Consequences: The military reforms of Carter and Reagan were vindicated, as American technology proved to be superior, even in the face of some well thought enemy battle plans. It proved that in conventional warfare America could not be beaten in the post Cold War world, which on the negative side reaffirmed the use of guerrilla tactics.


US aircraft in action:
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30. Board Game: To Forge a Nation [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
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Queenston Heights, October 13th, 1812

What Happened: An outnumbered British force humiliated the first American invasion of Canada.

Consequences: The victory proved that the militia was not good for sustained battle against regulars and that America’s army needed a major overhaul, which came to fruition in 1814. The battle also led to the death of Isaac Brock, Britain’s best commander during the war.


A dying Brock urges his men forward:

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31. Board Game: Pacific Victory [Average Rating:6.88 Overall Rank:2007]
Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
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Well, I'm afraid it'll have to wait. Whatever it was, I'm sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?
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Philippine Sea, June 19th - 20th, 1944

What Happened: American forces defeated a Japanese attempt to halt the invasion of the Mariana Islands.

Consequences: The battle ensured the success of the Mariana landings, while the Japanese carrier forces were crippled beyond repair. America's own carrier tactics were completely vindicated. The Marianas would be the base from which the bombing of Japan, both conventional and atomic, would begin.


A Japanese bomber is torn apart by anti aircraft fire:

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32. Board Game: The Halls of Montezuma [Average Rating:6.55 Overall Rank:3612]
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Monterrey, September 21st - 24th, 1846

What Happened: Zachary Taylor forced a Mexican army to surrender at Monterrey, then concluded an armistice with Pedro de Ampudia.

Consequences: A costly strategic victory for Taylor, the armistice outraged President James K. Polk, who said the Taylor had no right to conclude treaties with the enemy, reaffirming the separation of military and political power. The battle also displayed the superiority of American tactics, where despite heavy losses, we came out victorious. Mexican fortunes steadily declined afterwards.


Street Fighting in Monterrey:
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33. Board Game: The Korean War [Average Rating:7.54 Overall Rank:1555]
Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
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Well, I'm afraid it'll have to wait. Whatever it was, I'm sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?
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Chosin Reservoir, November 26th – December 13th, 1950

What Happened: The Chinese came to the aid of North Korea, and forced the American Army back towards Seoul.

Consequences: MacArthur’s attempt at crushing North Korea utterly failed, and afterwards American military planners would never again minimize the importance of China, with consequences for the Vietnam War. While the Chinese were victorious, it came at high cost, and ultimately the Korean War became a stalemate.


Marines breakout from Chosin Resvoir
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34. Board Game: Glory II: Across the Rappahannock [Average Rating:6.37 Overall Rank:4990]
Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
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Chancellorsville, May 3rd - 4th, 1863

What Happened: Robert E. Lee divided his army in the wilderness of Virginia and after two days of attacks drove back the Army of the Potomac.

Consequences: Lee’s daring victory helped stave off the Union’s advance into Virginia, but it came came at high cost. 13,000 men were lost and Stonewall Jackson, Lee's most trusted lieutenant, died. The battle gave Lee enough leverage to get Davis's approval for the Second invasion of the North, while it built an air of invincibility within the army that would be shattered at Gettysburg.


The last meeting of Lee and Jackson:
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35. Board Game: Paths of Glory [Average Rating:8.03 Overall Rank:46]
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1st Battle of the Atlantic, July 28th, 1914 – November 11th, 1918

What Happened: German U-boats ravaged British shipping, but the addition of the American navy and William Sims’s push for a convoy system, played an important part in curtailing the U-boat menace.

Consequences: The great success of Germany’s U-boat war would be an inspiration for latter naval campaigns, including the highly successful American submarine war against Japan. By keeping Britain afloat the war would continue, and America could bring troops to the Western Front.


USS Ticonderoga:
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36. Board Game: Inchon: MacArthur's Gambit [Average Rating:6.97 Overall Rank:4561]
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Well, I'm afraid it'll have to wait. Whatever it was, I'm sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?
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Inchon, September 15th - 28th, 1950

What Happened: MacArthur’s forces landed in the rear of North Korea’s army.

Consequences: North Korea was forced to retreat, and at low cost, MacArthur had turned strategic defeat into victory. Like Lee at Chancellorsville, the incredible victory added to the arrogance of the commander, with dire consequences as UN forces invaded North Korea.


Marines at Inchon:
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37. Board Game: Khe Sanh, 1968 [Average Rating:5.86 Unranked]
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Khe Sanh, January 21 - April 8th, 1968

What Happened: North Vietnamese forces attacked the Marine base at Khe Sanh, but failed to take it.

Consequences: What the North Vietnamese were attempting at Khe Sanh remains a mystery. Was it a diversion or a major offensive? Regardless the battle compelled William Westmoreland to commit numerous battalions to the battle, which would damage the war effort during the Tet Offensive. It also showed the level to which Westmoreland and the administration was misreading the overall situation, an important component in the eventual defeat.


A grunt at Khe Sanh:

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38. Board Game: Carolina Rebels [Average Rating:5.50 Unranked]
Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
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Cowpens, January 17th, 1781

What Happened: Banastre Tarleton’s feared command was almost annihilated by a small force of militia and Continentals under Daniel Morgan.

Consequences: Tarleton’s fearsome reputation evaporated, and the loss of over 1,000 men was a hard blow to the small British army operating in the Carolinas. Cornwallis became even more desperate for a victory, with momentous consequences. The combined losses of King’s Mountain, Cowpens, and Guilford would convince Cornwallis to invade Virginia with disastrous consequences. Morgan also confirmed the usefulness of Nathaniel Greene’s strategy of dispersal, and Morgan’s own use of the militia as skirmishers.


American cavalry charge the British:

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39. Board Game: Grant Takes Command [Average Rating:7.93 Overall Rank:1640]
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Second Petersburg, June 15th - 18th, 1864

What Happened: The Army of the Potomac outmaneuvered Lee but due to a breakdown in command, and the exhaustion of a hard campaign, they could not take Petersburg.

Consequences: The fall of Petersburg would have validated the bloodshed of Grant’s previous battles with Lee, and insured the fall of Richmond and Lincoln’s reelection. Instead a long siege began that Lee could not win, but denied Grant the decisive victory he had been searching for since the Wilderness. It would be up to Sherman and Hood to decide the fate of the nation.


Union forces storm the Dimmock Line:
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40. Board Game: Schley at Santiago Bay [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
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Santiago, July 3rd - 17th, 1898

What Happened: Winfield Scott Schley’s fleet destroyed Spain’s Carribean squadron at Santiago, which soon fell after a quick siege.

Consequences: The destruction of the fleet convinced Spain to seek peace, which gave America an overseas empire.


Wreck of the Vizcaya:
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41. Board Game: A Dark and Bloody Ground [Average Rating:5.51 Overall Rank:8779]
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The Wabash, November 4th, 1791

What Happened: An Indian alliance struck an army under Arthur St. Clair and nearly wiped it out.

Consequences: While a great victory for the Indians, it caused the Americans to redouble their efforts at pacification, which came to fruition at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The victory at Fallen Timbers made the westward movement into Ohio easier.


The Indian attack:

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42. Board Game: Monty's Gamble: Market Garden [Average Rating:7.09 Overall Rank:2059]
 
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Operation Market Garden, September 17th - 25th, 1944

What Happened: In a daring airborne attack, American and British paratroopers captured numerous bridges in Holland and awaited relief from the British XXX corps. The Germans recaptured the important Arnhem bridge over the Rhine River.

Consequences: While the paratroopers did an excellent job, the operation was a costly failure, and one of Germany’s last strategic victories. The operation caused further tension between the British and American commanders, leaving the question of what would have happened if the supplies were given to Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group.


The 82nd Airborne lands in Holland:
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43. Board Game: Great War at Sea: 1898, The Spanish American War [Average Rating:6.64 Overall Rank:4587]
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Fag an bealac! Riam nar druid ar sbarin lann! Erin go Bragh! Remember Ireland and Fontenoy!
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Well, I'm afraid it'll have to wait. Whatever it was, I'm sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?
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Manila Bay, May 1st, 1898

What Happened: Admiral George Dewey destroyed the Spanish Pacific squadron in a lopsided battle.

Consequences: The victory all but secured the Philippines for America, leading to a long occupation.


Dewey on the bridge of the Olympia:
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44. Board Game: Salerno: Operation Avalanche [Average Rating:7.33 Unranked]
Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
United States
New Orleans
Louisiana
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Fag an bealac! Riam nar druid ar sbarin lann! Erin go Bragh! Remember Ireland and Fontenoy!
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Well, I'm afraid it'll have to wait. Whatever it was, I'm sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?
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Salerno, September 9th - October 6th, 1943

What Happened: Allied forces landed at Salerno, Italy, and liberated Naples after beating back a determined German attack.

Consequences: The success of the operation led to an Allied commitment to the Italian Front, with controversial consequences. The heavy casualties and failure to achieve any great strategic breakthrough brought heavy criticism, while others cited that the invasion took away valuable German troops from operations elsewhere. The controversy continues, but all agree that the war in Europe, for better or worse, was permanently altered.


Landing at Salerno:
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45. Board Game: Pusan Perimeter [Average Rating:7.56 Unranked]
Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
United States
New Orleans
Louisiana
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Fag an bealac! Riam nar druid ar sbarin lann! Erin go Bragh! Remember Ireland and Fontenoy!
badge
Well, I'm afraid it'll have to wait. Whatever it was, I'm sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?
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Pusan Perimeter, August 1st - September 15th, 1950

What Happened: After the initial defeats along the border, US and South Korean forces prevented the North Koreans from victory.

Consequences: The stubborn defense signaled that America was committed to defending South Korea. The battle enabled MacArthur to land at Inchon, and made the liberation of South Korea much easier, while the North Koreans suffered heavy losses in the attack on Pusan.


Marines carry a wounded comrade:
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46. Board Game: Ardennes '44 [Average Rating:7.96 Overall Rank:916]
Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
United States
New Orleans
Louisiana
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Fag an bealac! Riam nar druid ar sbarin lann! Erin go Bragh! Remember Ireland and Fontenoy!
badge
Well, I'm afraid it'll have to wait. Whatever it was, I'm sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?
mbmbmbmbmb
Battle of the Bulge, December 16th, 1944 - January 25th, 1945

What Happened: A massive German offensive created a bulge on the Allied lines, which was then reduced.

Consequences: Germany had already lost the war, and the battle simply sped up their collapse. The offensive failed because of bad logistics, the lack of another offensive to distract the Allies as had happened in 1940, and the sheer tenacity of the American defense. The battle remains the largest ever fought by America, and the shining moment of G.I. Joe.


A destroyed German Mark IV:
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47. Board Game: Memoir '44: Pacific Theater [Average Rating:7.83 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.83 Unranked]
Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
United States
New Orleans
Louisiana
flag msg tools
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Fag an bealac! Riam nar druid ar sbarin lann! Erin go Bragh! Remember Ireland and Fontenoy!
badge
Well, I'm afraid it'll have to wait. Whatever it was, I'm sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?
mbmbmbmbmb
Peleliu, September 15th - November 25th, 1944

What Happened: The island of Peleliu in the Palau chain was secured at a horrendous cost of life.

Consequences: The operation was costly and fruitless, as the airfield proved unnecessary for the invasion of Leyte. The battle also signaled the beginning of Japan’s stubborn defensive tactics, that would maul American forces at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and make the invasion of Japan look like a dangerous undertaking. In many ways the nightmare stage of Pacific War was beginning.


Worn out marines in the hell of Peleliu:
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48. Board Game: The Lost Battalion: The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, 1918 [Average Rating:6.93 Overall Rank:6368]
Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
United States
New Orleans
Louisiana
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Fag an bealac! Riam nar druid ar sbarin lann! Erin go Bragh! Remember Ireland and Fontenoy!
badge
Well, I'm afraid it'll have to wait. Whatever it was, I'm sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?
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Argonne Forest, September 26th – November 11th, 1918

What Happened: The American Army under J.J. Pershing launched a major, independent offensive that failed to achieve its long term goals, but exerted tremendous pressure on the crumbling German army.

Consequences: The American army displayed the strengths of courage and tenacity in the fight, but also committed many blunders, understandably because it was the first massive use of American troops since 1865. The battle played a role in bringing about the armistice.


Burial detail during the battle:
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49. Board Game: Hamburger Hill [Average Rating:6.16 Overall Rank:8000]
Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
United States
New Orleans
Louisiana
flag msg tools
designer
Fag an bealac! Riam nar druid ar sbarin lann! Erin go Bragh! Remember Ireland and Fontenoy!
badge
Well, I'm afraid it'll have to wait. Whatever it was, I'm sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?
mbmbmbmbmb
Hamburger Hill, May 10th – 20th, 1969

What Happened: American forces took a fortified hill at high cost.

Consequences: The high cost in lives, combined with the increasingly negative media and political reaction to the war, ended Creighton Abrams’s policy of “maximum pressure”. Troop withdrawals from Vietnam soon began. The battle also illustrated that despite the apocalyptic losses of Tet, the Communists could still fight.


Wounded men from the 11th assault on Hamburger Hill:
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50. Board Game: Custer's Last Stand [Average Rating:6.50 Unranked]
Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
United States
New Orleans
Louisiana
flag msg tools
designer
Fag an bealac! Riam nar druid ar sbarin lann! Erin go Bragh! Remember Ireland and Fontenoy!
badge
Well, I'm afraid it'll have to wait. Whatever it was, I'm sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?
mbmbmbmbmb
Little Bighorn, June 25th - 26th, 1876

What Happened: A detachment under George Custer was eliminated by a confederation of tribes under Sitting Bull.

Consequences: The last great Indian victory had the same consequences as the Wabash triumph. The US government redoubled its’ efforts to crush the Indians, leading to the last and possibly bitterest phase of Indian fighting.


The site of Custer's defeat:
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