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50 Most Important Battles in American History, 1740-2007
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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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1. Board Game: Liberty: The American Revolution 1775-83 [Average Rating:7.22 Overall Rank:1385]
Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
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Yorktown, September 28th – October 17th, 1781

What Happened: Charles Cornwallis made a base at Yorktown, Virginia, only to find himself blockaded by a French fleet, and besieged by Americans under George Washington, and French forces led by Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau. While a great victory for America, it would have been impossible without the French fleet, army and siege guns.

Consequences: Both John Adams and Washington felt that the revolution was on the brink of collapse due to financial pressure, a steep decline in the war’s popularity, and growing discontent among the officers and soldiers of the Continental Army. The victory here took out a major British force, giving the American’s their first big strategic victory since Saratoga. Lord North’s Tory government soon fell out; the new Whig government chose to suspend hostilities and conclude peace. America was born on the fields of Yorktown.


Charles O'Hara surrenders in the place of Cornwallis:
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2. Board Game: The Civil War [Average Rating:7.64 Overall Rank:576]
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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Fort Sumter, April 12th - 13th, 1861

What Happened: In a grand game of chicken, South Carolina demanded that the Federal government give up Fort Sumter after the state seceded. President James Buchanan, and then Abraham Lincoln refused. After a long, but bloodless bombardment, the fort surrendered.

Consequences: All hopes of avoiding war ended. Where the blame lies is a matter of contention, but I feel it was the South’s fault. Robert Toombs put is best when he opposed the use of force: “ [we] will lose us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet's nest.... Legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary. It puts us in the wrong. It is fatal." The consequence would be a bloody war that would forever change the nation. Ironically the fort would prove to be a rock against Union attempts to take the important port of Charleston.


Fort Sumter bombarded:
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3. Board Game: Zero! [Average Rating:6.92 Overall Rank:1458]
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Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941

What Happened: Japan’s elite carrier forces attacked the Pacific fleet’s headquarters, taking out several battleships.

Consequences: The film Tora! Tora! Tora! seemed to get it when they showed autumn leaves being blown away in Washington D.C. on the morning of the 7th. Pearl Harbor destroyed the old America, and replaced it with a global giant. Yamamoto may not have uttered "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve," but it sums up the deeper truth of the attack.
In the short term the destruction of the battleship fleet forced the Americans to rely upon aircraft carriers to fight the Japanese. Both Pearl Harbor and the destruction of Britain's Force Z confirmed the end of the battleship.


USS Arizona ablaze:
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4. Board Game: Champion Hill [Average Rating:7.14 Overall Rank:3928]
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Champion Hill, May 16th, 1863

What Happened: After a fierce struggle, Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee defeated a Confederate force led by John C. Pemberton.

Consequences: The defeat of Pemberton on the field forced him to retreat to Vicksburg, where Grant surrounded him, and then conducted a siege. After weeks of resistance Pemberton surrendered his army and the city. The loss of Vicksburg was the decisive blow to the Confederacy since it caused the immediate loss of an army(although many later returned to Confederate service), and cut the South in two. With the Mississippi River navigable again, the Midwest’s sagging support for the war increased, and it freed Union troops for service elsewhere. Lastly though, Grant’s critics were silenced, and the road to his assumption to high command had begun.


Bowen's counterattack:

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5. Board Game: Saratoga [Average Rating:7.11 Overall Rank:1828]
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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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Freeman’s Farm, September 19th, 1777

What Happened: John Burgoyne’s advance on Albany was halted after a fierce battle with Continentals led by Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan.

Consequences: Even though Burgoyne’s advance into northern New York had suffered many setbacks, a major victory could have reversed the tide. The fall of Albany might not have had the desired effect of cutting off New England, but certainly Burgoyne would have escaped his humiliating surrender at Saratoga almost a month later. In addition Burgoyne claimed the battle as a Pyrrhic victory, and a more out right defeat might have convinced him to retreat before the disaster at Bemis Heights. After the situation reached desperate levels, Burgoyne retreated, then surrendered. This victory would prompt French and Spanish entry into the war, making American independence possible.


Burgoyne surrenders to Horatio Gates:

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6. Board Game: Gettysburg: Badges of Courage [Average Rating:7.07 Overall Rank:2657]
 
Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
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Gettysburg, July 1st - 3rd, 1863

What Happened: Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia wasted itself in three days of attacks against their luckless adversary, the Army of the Potomac under the hard fighting George Meade.

Consequences: With the exception of the Bristoe campaign, Lee could never again wage offensive warfare in the tradition of Napoleon. Lee’s losses in terms of men and officers were horrific and irreplaceable, and the initiative in the east forever passed to the Union. For the North the battle became a rallying point, and along with the surrender of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, a signal that the South was beginning to lose the war.


The dead of Gettysburg:
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7. Board Game: Battles of Trenton and Princeton [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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Trenton, December 26th, 1776

What Happened: Washington’s dispirited and ravaged army launched a sudden counterattack against a Hessian garrison under Johann Rall, capturing over 60% of them.

Consequences: Washington’s almost bloodless victory revitalized the moral of the army and government after the disastrous New York campaign. Without the victory the army would have melted away, and Washington would be remembered as a fool.


Washington and his army crosses the Delaware:
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8. Board Game: A Bloody Business: The Battle of Hue, 1968 [Average Rating:6.67 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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Hue, January 30th – March 3rd, 1968

What Happened: As part of the Tet Offensive Communist Vietnamese forces overran Hue, only to be expelled after a bloody contest.

Consequences: While Hue was retaken, the grueling campaign, coupled with the media’s intense coverage of the battle, showed the extent to which the Vietnamese were still capable of battle. Support for the Vietnam War declined in America, and calls to bring the troops home would gradually force the hand of the government. In addition Hue illustrated the great paradox of the war, that Americans had to destroy a city to save it for a native population that seemed ambivalent.


A Street fight in Hue:

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9. Board Game: Objective: Atlanta [Average Rating:6.46 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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Atlanta, July 22nd, 1864

What Happened: John Bell Hood launched his Army of Tennessee in a desperate attempt to defeat William Tecumseh Sherman, only to suffer heavy losses.

Consequences: The battle was Hood’s last real chance to defeat Sherman. Afterwards it became a siege, a scenario Hood could not win. The fall of the city ensured Lincoln’s reelection, and ultimate victory for the Union.


The Union counterattack:

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10. Board Game: U-Boat [Average Rating:6.35 Unranked]
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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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Battle of the Atlantic, September 3rd, 1939 - May 7th, 1945

What Happened: Mostly through the use of U-boats, Germany tried to strangle the flow of supplies to Britain. After years of violent clashes at sea, the combined weight of America and Britain effectively won the battle in May 1943.

Consequences: While Britain fought most of the battle, America’s contribution in ship production made the difference, combined with British techniques and the cracking of the enigma code. Victory in the Atlantic kept Britain alive, and allowed the Allies to sustain the build up for the Normandy landings. Germany’s best chance to defeat the Western Allies evaporated, although the battle raged on until the war’s bitter end.


US aircraft protects a Convoy:
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11. Board Game: Axis & Allies: D-Day [Average Rating:6.41 Overall Rank:1608]
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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Normandy, June 6th - August 25th, 1944

What Happened: Allied forces landed at Normandy France, created a beachhead, and then broke out, liberating France, Belgium and Luxembourg before Christmas, while dealing heavy damage to the German military.

Consequences: The creation of a second front sped up the fall of Nazi Germany, and ended any chance of the Soviets occupying some of western Europe. American soldiers, tactics and strategy proved to be sound, although by 1944 Germany’s army wasn’t the mighty giant it once had been. It also confirmed America’s reliance on overwhelming firepower as the best way to achieve victory.


US Troops land at Omaha Beach:
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12. Board Game: War of 1812 [Average Rating:7.02 Overall Rank:1370]
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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Lundy's Lane, July 25th, 1814

What Happened: After defeating the British at Chippawa, the American invasion of Canada stalled.

Consequences: The belief that the militia, based upon the “militia myth” of the American Revolution, could be superior to a professional army was laid to rest. Although the campaign was a defeat, the regular army forces led by Jacob Brown and Winfield Scott were nearly successful, and certainly it was not a disaster like Queenston Heights. From here the professional American Army was born. Also the British victory prevented the annexation of Canada, and except for some border disputes, insured Canada’s independence from America.


The attack of the US Regulars:
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13. Board Game: Midway [Average Rating:6.53 Overall Rank:2000]
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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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Midway, June 4th - 7th, 1942

What Happened: American carrier forces under Ray Spruance and Jack Fletcher sank four Japanese aircraft carriers.

Consequences: America retrieved the initiative while the Japanese carrier arm never recovered, and after 1942 could not challenge the Americans. Whether or not Japan had a chance to win the war is debatable, but Midway certainly sped up their eventual defeat.


The Japanese Cruiser Mikuma on the verge of sinking:

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14. Board Game: Savannah [Average Rating:6.71 Overall Rank:4050]
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Second Savannah, September 16th - October 18th, 1779

What Happened: A Franco-American effort to retake Savannah ended in total disaster.

Consequences: The battle ended America’s best hope to spoil Britain’s southern effort. A victory here would have been a major blow to the British, possibly decisive. Instead Savannah became a base from which the British launched their invasion of South Carolina, prolonging the war and causing serious damage to the American cause. In addition Franco-American military relations became strained until 1781.


Americans vainly assault the British:
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15. Board Game: Gringo! [Average Rating:7.13 Overall Rank:2919]
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Chapultepec September 12th - 13th, 1847

What Happened: Winfield Scott’s army stormed the Mexican fortress of Chapultepec.

Consequences: Mexico City soon fell, assuring an American victory and subsequent land gains from the Mexican-American War.


US forces storm Chapultepec:

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16. Board Game: Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal [Average Rating:6.90 Overall Rank:1672]
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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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Guadalcanal, August 7th, 1942 - February 9th, 1942

What Happened: After a series of hard fought land, air, and naval battles the Americans secured the island of Guadalcanal.

Consequences: With the victory America seized the initiative in the Pacific, and despite some ebb in 1943, we never let go. The Japanese, attempting to stop the American offensive, ultimately failed at a high cost to all their branches of service, especially the air arm.


Marines at Guadalcanal:
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17. Board Game: Rebels & Redcoats: Volume III [Average Rating:6.81 Overall Rank:6462]
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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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Long Island, August 29th, 1776

What Happened: William Howe’s British army outflanked Washington’s poorly trained Continental Army, leading to a humiliating defeat.

Consequences: The battle secured New York City, although it was some time before the Continentals abandoned the city. The New England militia army melted after Long Island, and Washington soon came to rely upon a force of trained regulars. The battle also ended the delusion of “Bunker Hillism” in which Americans thought the British would repeat the mistakes made earlier in the war. Most importantly though, Howe failed to follow up the victory with an attack on Washington’s last line. Howe had won a great victory, but the war would go on.


Elite Delaware troops hold off the British:

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18. Board Game: Fury on Champlain [Average Rating:5.87 Unranked]
Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
United States
New Orleans
Louisiana
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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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Lake Champlain, September 6th - 11th, 1814

What Happened: Thomas MacDonough’s fleet defeated Britain’s attempt to secure the lake.

Consequences: The victory ended British hopes of gaining territory in New England, or greater control over the great northern lakes. The Treaty of Ghent would thus assure Status Quo Antebellum. For the US fleet the victory, along with Lake Eerie, and the heroics of Isaac Hull and Stephen Decatur, cemented the reputation of fleet. Even the militia preformed well in the land skirmishes that accompanied the naval battle.


The naval battle at Plattsburgh Bay:

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19. Board Game: Shiloh: April 1862 [Average Rating:7.04 Overall Rank:4544]
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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Shiloh, April 6th - 7th, 1862

What Happened: The Confederates launched a surprise attack on Ulysses S. Grant’s camp in Tennessee, but were ultimately defeated.

Consequences: Shiloh was the first horrific battle to be fought by Americans, a fight whose casualties approached the scale of European warfare. While certainly a defeat for the South, it was a Pyrrhic victory for the north because it gave commanders an excuse to be cautious, and led to the sidelining of Grant. Both considerations helped to create a long period of Union inactivity in the west. The greatest effect might have been psychological. The rosewater days of the war ended on that terrible April morning and both sides then saw the struggle as an epic test of wills.


Union soldiers holding the Hornet's Nest
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20. Board Game: Dixie: Bull Run [Average Rating:6.27 Overall Rank:3069]
Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
United States
New Orleans
Louisiana
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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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1st First Bull Run, July 21st, 1861

What Happened: Two untrained armies fought in northern Virginia, with the South gaining a well deserved victory.

Consequences: While a Northern victory wouldn’t have ended the war it might have shortened it and certainly the victory solidified the Confederacy's position in Virginia and among Southerners in general. The battle also caused the rise of George B. McClellan and “Stonewall” Jackson, who would both play important roles in the conflict.


Part of the Stonewall Brigade deflects a Union attack:
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21. Board Game: Antietam: Burnished Rows of Steel [Average Rating:6.59 Overall Rank:5032]
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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Antietam, September 17th, 1862

What Happened: George McClellan attacked Robert E. Lee, and was repulsed after savage fighting, but Lee lost too many men to remain in Maryland.

Consequences: The victory gave Lincoln the means to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, while defeat in Maryland, Mississippi, and Kentucky prevented European recognition of the Confederacy. On the downside McClellan squandered a great chance to finish off Lee. Neither Meade or Grant would see such an opportunity until 1865.


A Union advance under heavy fire:
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22. Board Game: Wilderness Wars [Average Rating:7.00 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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The Thames, October 5th, 1813

What Happened: A force of militia under William Henry Harrison crushed a small Indian and British force.

Consequences: American control over the Northwest, in contention since 1783, was secured. Tecumseh, the last great Indian leader who had a chance to effect the outcome of American expansion, perished in the fighting.


The death of Tecumseh:
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23. Board Game: Rock of the Marne [Average Rating:6.79 Overall Rank:4183]
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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Second Marne, July 15th – August 6th, 1918

What Happened: A combined French, British, Italian, and American counterattack halted the German spring offensive.

Consequences: The battle ended Imperial Germany’s last chance for victory. Americans, making up a significant portion of the troops involved, fought well and played an important role in the victory. It was the first use of American troops in a decisive World War I battle.


The 28th Division in deadly combat:
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24. Board Game: Bunker Hill [Average Rating:5.71 Overall Rank:8532]
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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Bunker Hill, June 17th, 1775

What Happened: After three frontal assaults, the British expelled the Americans from Breed’s Hill and secured Bunker Hill.

Consequences: In the short run the tenuous British position in Boston was secured, but Bunker Hill’s consequences were of a more psychological order. The battle ended any notions that the British could win the war with ease, and proved that Americans could fight. The battle turned Howe into a cautious commander. For Americans the battle, along with others, created an air of misplaced self confidence that was shattered at Long Island. Much like Shiloh did for the Civil War, Bunker Hill affirmed that the war would be long and hard.


The militia stand at Breed's Hill:
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25. Board Game: The Ironclads [Average Rating:7.21 Overall Rank:2201]
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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Hampton Roads, March 8th - 9th, 1862

What Happened: The ironclad CSS Virginia wrecked the Union fleet off Hampton Roads, only to be contested by the USS Monitor the following day.

Consequences: The reign of the iron ship began as both vessels proved to be seaworthy and capable to defeating wooden ships with ease. Oddly enough, neither Moniter or Virginia survived the year, as ironclads were still quite vulnerable outside of battle. Virginia would be scuttled and the Monitor sank in a storm. In the short run the defeat ended the South’s best chance to ravage a Federal fleet.


Clash of the Ironclads:
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