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Memorial Day Question: What Was the Worst U.S. Military Defeat Ever?

USS Arizona. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
USS Arizona in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The Worst U.S. Military Defeat Ever – Not Pearl Harbor? History is written by the winners, but even the victors can face significant setbacks in wartime. The United States military has had its fair share of such defeats – and some were far worse than others. Several notable battles make the shortlist for “worst” American combat losses.

Among those is the Battle of Long Island, where George Washington failed to hold off the British invasion of New York during the early years of the American Revolution. However, the Continental Army avoided complete annihilation and successfully slipped across Long Island Sound under the cover of darkness. What was a humiliating defeat for Washington revealed the key to the eventual success for the Americans – even in a loss, as long as the Continental Army remained intact the British couldn’t declare victory.

Likewise, the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 goes down as a true disaster, which of course it was, but American losses still only totaled 268 men killed. In fact, the 7th Cavalry Regiment was far from destroyed, and the Great Sioux War ended in U.S. victory soon after.

Even Kasserine Pass – the first significant U.S. land battle of the Second World War against Nazi Germany – has been overstated for being a momentous defeat. The loss occurred in part because the U.S. Army leadership in French North Africa assumed the German Afrika Korps was a spent force, yet it proved that it still had some fight left in it. Soon after that stinging loss, General George S. Patton arrived and righted the ship. Rather than a massive setback, the Battle of Kasserine Pass was an expensive and tragically bloody lesson for the U.S. Army, and within a few months, the North African Campaign was concluded.

The True Worst Defeat For the U.S. Military

In terms of numbers, nothing compares to the now largely forgotten Battle of the Hürtgen Forest. It has been overshadowed by other battles of the Second World War, yet Hürtgen Forest – fought between September 19, 1944, and February 10, 1945 – still resulted in 33,000 U.S. soldiers killed and wounded, including both combat and non-combat losses, with an upper estimate as great as 55,000; whereas German casualties were 28,000.

More importantly, it was a German defensive victory and an offensive failure for the Allies.

Rather than a single attack, the action in Hürtgen Forest was a series of engagements – and while it essentially ended on December 16, 1944, when the Battle of the Bulge began, fighting in the sector even continued until the following February. It was the longest battle fought on German ground during World War II, and was also the longest single battle the U.S. Army has ever fought.

The failure to achieve victory was made worse by the fact that the United States First Army was the largest American fighting force in Europe, and it mounted an attack exactly where it was expected, and where the Germans were most prepared. No consideration was ever given to bypassing or screening the forest, and instead, the U.S. forces pressed their attack on what was described as the “worst place of any.”

The battle was so costly that it has been described as an Allied “defeat of the first magnitude,” with specific credit given to German Field Marshal Walter Model for mounting a successful defense. It has been overshadowed, likely as it began just as another Allied defeat – Operation Market Garden – was unfolding, while it concluded just as the Germans launched the ill-fated Battle of the Bulge. Those became two of the most documented and written about battles in history, while Hürtgen Forest has remained largely overlooked for the failure that it was.

Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.