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June 15, 2013

Three battles to know in U.S. history

By Justin Vernold
The Daily Star

---- — Like most Americans, I find myself every year on June 6 thinking of the brave and heroic efforts made in 1944, when the D-Day landings by Allied forces in Normandy first breached the walls of Adolf Hitler’s so-called “Fortress Europe.”

The battle, dramatized in such films as “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) and “The Longest Day” (1962), is among the most well-known American engagements of the war, along with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Bulge in present-day Belgium.

By attacking just as the Soviet Union’s offensive to the east was gaining steam, the Allies put Hitler in an impossible strategic conundrum that greatly expedited the war’s end, which came less than a year later. But after the Red Army’s decisive 1943 victory at the Battle of Kursk, Hitler’s downfall was inevitable, and the western Allies had some breathing room to plan the Normandy campaign carefully and methodically.

I’ve always thought Imperial Japan, by contrast, posed an imminent threat to the United States that has often gone understated. Japan’s battle-hardened, state-of-the-art navy and air force inflicted heavy defeats on the Allies in Singapore and the Philippines in 1942, and hoped to threaten the U.S. mainland by air and sea before America had a chance to tap into its vast strategic resources.

In that spirit, here are three battles from U.S. history whose stories I think should be told more often, in reverse chronological order.

• The Battle of Midway (June 4 to June 7, 1942). The Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor may have been shocking and horrific, but the Japanese high command soon learned that none of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers were at Pearl Harbor that day. In the early days of combined air and navy operations, aircraft carriers were of the utmost importance. They were also massively expensive and time-consuming to produce, so the stakes were high at Midway Island when four of them under the command of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo came looking for a fight.

But the brilliant work of U.S. codebreaker Joseph Rochefort had revealed Japan’s intentions, which gave Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher a chance to lure Nagumo into an ambush. In what British historian John Keegan called “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare,” all four Japanese carriers were sunk. Imperial Japan had reached its high-water mark, and could never hope to recover from such a catastrophic defeat.

• The Siege of Vicksburg (May 18 to July 4, 1863). In an era before motorized road transport, waterways and railroads lines were the key to Civil War military logistics. Vicksburg, Miss., the so-called “Gibraltar of the Confederacy,” was a fortress city from which the Confederacy could dominate the southern Mississippi River. This fact wasn’t lost on President Abraham Lincoln, who wrote “Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket.”

The city was captured in a bold, daring campaign by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who cleverly launched feint attacks while marching around Vicksburg from the south to catch the Confederate forces flat-footed. The Siege of Vicksburg, which coincided with the widely known Battle of Gettysburg, marked the war’s turning point.

• The Battles of Saratoga (Sept. 19 to Oct. 7, 1777). British Gen. John Burgoyne’s plan to quash the American colonial insurrection involved marching south from Quebec to the Hudson River Valley in a maneuver that would have split New England from the rest of the colonies. He met resistance from Gen. Horatio Gates, who erected roadblocks and destroyed bridges to slow the advance of Burgoyne’s weary, undersupplied force.

“Gentleman Johnny” was hoping the rebels would offer pitched battle, but Gates gave him a gutter brawl instead. Gates let Daniel Morgan’s sharpshooters harass Burgoyne as the latter approached Saratoga, and Morgan’s men took out numerous British officers.

Burgoyne and his rattled men drove the Patriots from the field at Freeman’s Farm, but could advance no farther and decided to lick their wounds for a few days while awaiting reinforcements. The help wasn’t coming, and while disease and desertion ravaged Burgoyne’s camp, Gates’ force swelled as colonial militiamen from all around smelled blood in the water.

Burgoyne attempted another attack at Bemis Heights and was nearly killed, with Patriot shots hitting his hat, coat and horse. Outnumbered, isolated and short on supplies, Burgoyne was forced to surrender, conceding a defeat that stunned Britain, not to mention most of Europe. Aside from the better-known Battle of Bunker Hill (1775), it’s hard to think of any more important clash in the American Revolution than that of Saratoga.

Justin Vernold is a copy editor at The Daily Star. Contact him at