The Alamo, Chancellorsville And Borodino, Was Victory Really Worth The Cost?

A few weeks ago an article covering some victories throughout history provoked quite a bit of discussion. These victories came at such a cost that they can hardly be called a victory. Here are some of the battles where the cost to the victor was so high that they almost seem like a defeat.

1812 Battle of Borodino

Everyone knows that it is unwise to invade Russia, especially in the winter. Not only is the land harsh and vast, but the Russian people will fight through appalling conditions and are willing to bear heavy losses. Napoleon hoped to end the already disastrous campaign by seizing Moscow, to force the Russians to peace. After marching for months through the scorched earth path set by the Russians, the two massive armies met at Borodino.

Roughly a quarter of a million troops clashed together as Napoleon’s well-trained army attacked the entrenched Russians near Borodino, just a little way from Moscow. The Russian right was adequately guarded by a river, the center by a large redoubt, but the left had only a few patches of woods and rough terrain guarding an otherwise vulnerable position.

Napoleon’s army attacked largely towards the Russian center and left. They were able to push up and into many of the fortified positions, by these elevated positions flattened out on the Russian side, allowing an easy Russian counterattack. During this focused attack, a group of Russian cavalry completed a wide sweeping flank on the French left flank. They did not have enough men to land a decisive blow here, but threw the French into enough confusion to enable the Russian to reorganize their defense.

This forced the French to have to once again attack entrenched Russian positions, with heavy casualties. The battle on the Russian left flank was largely inconclusive due to the amount of ground to be covered and the scattered forests and brush. The Russians were slowly pushed back, but never fully routed, and retreated in relatively good order.

The repeated assaults of fortified position caused a lot of the French casualties.
The repeated assaults of fortified position caused a lot of the French casualties.

Napoleon won the field, but at a terribly high cost. His army suffered 30-35,000 killed or wounded, including many of the officers who had to brave the danger to get their men to attack the Russian redoubts. With supplies already low, the French wounded had little hope of recovery, as illness and malnutrition were already widespread. The Russians lost about 10,000 more men, but fewer officers were killed. Moscow was abandoned and stripped of anything useful, causing confusion and frustration for Napoleon who was denied his strategic victory. Knowing that he was too far extended, Napoleon was forced into a disastrous retreat.

1836 Battle of the Alamo

The battle of the Alamo was a fairly small engagement, but  with huge significance for the future of Texas and the U.S. Texans in Mexican territory had largely disapproved of how the Mexican government ran its territories. Forming the Republic of Texas, these Texans drove out the Mexicans and laid claim to southwest Texas.

This was not taken very well by Mexican President Santa Anna, who viewed the Texans as bandits stealing his land. This meant that they would be treated as bandits and ruthlessly prosecuted and executed if captured.

About 200-250 Texans garrisoned inside the Alamo, a former Spanish mission outpost, designed to be defended against native skirmishes, not professional armies. Stone and brick buildings were supplemented by wooden palisade walls. It was a pitiful fortification to stand against the nearly 2,000 men that Santa Anna brought to attack it.

The Texans attempted to surrender on terms, that would have guaranteed their safety but Santa Ana rejected their offer and demanded that they surrender unconditionally. A siege ensued with a steady bombardment of the 3-acre Alamo complex. After a few days of siege with few casualties, Santa Anna received several hundred additional troops and decided on an all-out assault. Some Texans were able to flee, but many stayed to defend the Alamo.


The Alamo complex was really not intended to survive a large assault, especially with only a few hundred defenders.
The Alamo complex was really not intended to survive a large assault, especially with only a few hundred defenders.

The Mexicans staged an early morning assault and killed some sleeping Texan sentries before an alarm was sounded. The defenders were quick to respond and focused their counterattack before the Mexicans could get out of their dense marching column. The Texans had cannons but lacked the anti-infantry canister shot. They solved this by loading cannons with nails, door hinges, and whatever metal they could find. This hastily assembled shot was amazingly effective and cannon volleys tore through the relatively inexperienced Mexican army before they could effectively respond.

The sheer number of attackers were eventually able to scale the walls, but the defenders were prepared for this. They had carved gun ports in the walls of the buildings and kept up a stout defense. The last of the Texans were finally killed in a room-by-room fight  that often involved hand-to-hand combat. Almost all of the 200-250 Texans were killed or later executed, but the Mexican army lost as many as 600 men in the assault.

The fall of the Alamo was a major rally point and major motivator for the later Texan defeat of Santa Anna
The fall of the Alamo was a major rally point and major motivator for the later Texan defeat of Santa Anna

The execution of the prisoners and tales of the valiant last stand at the Alamo rallied other Texans to join the fight and soon Santa Anna was attacked by a large, though still smaller, force at the battle of San Jacinto. Here the “remembrance” of the Alamo gave the Texans the  motivation to overwhelm the larger Mexican army and captured Santa Anna, forcing a peace that would lead to the independence of Texas.

1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

Most historians accept the idea that the civil war was almost destined to be won by the Union, simply due to the vast reserves of manpower and production capabilities.This was the case and especially so after Robert E. Lee’s Pyrrhic victory over general Hooker’s larger Union army.

General Hooker had planned a wide encirclement of Lee’s much smaller army of about 60,000 men, attacking at Fredericksburg, while sending a large force several miles West to attack from Chancellorsville. Lee, facing a Union army of approximately 130,000 men, boldly decided to divide his forces. He had a holding force at Fredericksburg while he took the bulk of his army to attack Hooker’s force at Chancellorsville.

Hooker had a sizeable advantage in manpower but decided to become defensive once his forces began to engage the confederates. Lee had proven to be a dangerous foe, so Hooker may have thought he was playing it safe, but, in reality, he handed Lee the initiative.

Lee decided to divide his forces yet again and sent his most trusted officer, general “Stonewall” Jackson, on a wide, hidden march to attack Hooker’s flank on the second day of battle. Jackson marched over ten miles, and when he noticed that he was still not in the ideal position he wisely went an extra few miles and launched a devastating attack into the Union flank that was only halted when night fell.

The wounding of Stonewall Jackson, a terrible loss for the Confederates.
The wounding of Stonewall Jackson pictured on the right, a terrible loss for the Confederates.

It is here that the battle became truly costly for the confederates. The victorious Jackson was returning to his lines when he was mistaken for Union cavalry and shot three times. He would die from his wounds a little over a week later.

Despite Jackson falling, Lee still had control of the battle. He kept the pressure on the much larger Union army under Hooker and effectively used his forces to counterattack the Union forces who had finally pushed through at Fredericksburg.

just this map overview of the tail end of the battle is an impressive showing of Lee's impressive victory, but it came at too high of a cost.
just this map overview of the tail end of the battle is an impressive showing of Lee’s impressive victory, but it came at too high of a cost. By Hal Jespersen – CC BY 3.0

The battle was an amazing tactical victory for Lee as he would eventually force the 130,000 strong Union army to retreat, inflicting 17,000 casualties. Lee’s army, however, lost 13,000 men. This was a greater percentage of their force than the Union force lost and an amount that would be difficult to replace, especially considering that many of the casualties were very experienced soldiers. Jackson’s death would be detrimental to the Confederate cause. Lee was to have said that Jackson’s death was like “losing my right arm”, and Jackson’s presence would be sorely missed at the decisive battle of Gettysburg. Lee’s victory was one the Confederates could scarcely afford and the losses his forces sustained could not be made good.

History offers many example of similar victories such as the Battle of Borodino, Chancellorsville and the Alamo. They were only victories in name and in the longer term they cost the winners so much that they ultimately lost the campaign or war.

William Mclaughlin

William Mclaughlin is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE