This (and last) Week in American Military History:
Dec. 15, 1862: Union Army Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside ends his disastrous series of frontal attacks against Gen. Robert E. Lee’s well-entrenched Confederate forces along Marye’s Heights during the battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia. It is during the battle that Lee — emotionally moved by the valor of the Federal Army, which, despite terrible losses, attacks his impregnable position time-and-again — says, “It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.”
Dec. 16, 1944: A massive German Army force — composed of SS Panzer (SS armored units), Volksgrenadier (infantry), Panzergrenadier (armored infantry), and Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) — burst through the snow-covered Ardennes Forest and smash headlong into the weakest stretch of the Allied frontlines in Belgium.
The attack — which will become known as the Battle of the Bulge (because of the temporary bulging salient the German thrust will create in the Allied lines) — is a last ditch gamble on the part of the Germans, a surprise counteroffensive aimed at cutting American and British forces in half; crossing the Meuse River; encircling, isolating, and destroying Allied armies west of the Meuse; and perhaps reaching the North Sea.
It is not to be.
Despite the initial shock along a 60-to-70-mile front — and a rapid, 50-mile-deep penetration — German forces will quickly find themselves running up against giants of men like Gen. Anthony McAuliffe’s diehard paratroopers of the crack 101st Airborne Division, who — though surrounded, outnumbered, outgunned, freezing, and nearly starving to death — refuse to surrender the strategically vital highway hub at Bastogne.
The battle, which will last until Jan. 28, 1945, will prove to be the largest land battle of World War II and a decisive American victory. But it will not be without heavy losses: 19,000 American soldiers will be killed out of 81,000 total U.S. casualties in five weeks.
Dec. 21, 1861: The congressionally conceived "Medal of Honor" is signed into law authorizing such medals be awarded to enlisted sailors and Marines who "distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other seamanlike qualities." The Army version of the medal is signed into law the following summer.
Dec. 22, 1864: Following his “March to the Sea” and just before his “March through the Carolinas,” Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman presents the captured city of Savannah (Ga.) to Pres. Lincoln as a “Christmas gift.”
Dec. 24, 1814: The Treaty of Ghent is signed ending the War of 1812.
Dec. 25-26, 1776: Continental Army Gen. George Washington conducts his famous crossing of the Delaware River from the icy Pennsylvania shoreline to the equally frozen banks of New Jersey, followed by an eight-mile march to the town of Trenton where he meets and defeats the Hessians (German soldiers allied to the British).
Washington’s crossing and subsequent raid has been dubbed "America’s first special operation" in some military circles: Though there were many small-unit actions, raids, and Ranger operations during the Colonial Wars, and there was a special Marine landing in Nassau in the early months of the American Revolution. Still no special operation in American military history has been more heralded than that which took place on Christmas night exactly 233 years ago, this week.
Dec. 26, 1944: Elements of the U.S. 4th Armored Division — the spearhead of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army — break the German Army’s siege of Bastogne relieving the paratroopers of the 101st. The grateful but proud paratroopers insist they are only being "relieved," not "rescued."
AUTHOR’S NOTE: “This Week in American Military History,” appears every week as a feature of HUMAN EVENTS.
Let’s increase awareness of American military tradition and honor America’s greatest heroes by supporting the Medal of Honor Society’s 2010 Convention to be held in Charleston, S.C., Sept. 29 – Oct. 3, 2010 (for more information, click here).
Sign up to the Human Events newsletter