What is an example of a historic military folly?

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bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The United States can certainly be accused of several examples of military folly during its history. The belief that the Vietnam War could be won is a prime example; the possible military intervention in Libya and Iran would certainly be two others. However, I will focus on two Civil War battles that should have been avoided: The Battles of Fredericksburg and Cold Harbor.

At Fredericksburg, the Union army was led by the indecisive General Ambrose Burnside. Burnside (who is best know for his long facial whiskers that later became known as "sideburns") made the unwise decision of attacking the Confederates' heavily fortified position on the hills outside Fredericksburg, Virginia in December 1862. Confederate commander Robert E. Lee was surprised to see Burnside strike his Army of Northern Virginia, well-prepared and waiting in their strongest defensive positions of the war. Burnsided repeatedly attacked the Confederates, many of whom were hidden behind a stone wall in front of a sunken road, four ranks deep--a perfect area to defend. Burnside's men made at least 14 individual charges on Marye's Heights, and each attack was repulsed easily by Gen. James Longstreet's corps. Union losses were more than 12,000 men--more than double the Confederate casualties. Burnside was removed from command of the Army of the Potomac shortly afterward.

Another unwarranted attack came at the Battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia in June 1863. After several unsuccessful attacks on the previous days, Generals U. S. Grant and George Meade decided to mass for one last frontal assault on June 3. The Confederates were in a position that was later called the

"most ingenious defensive configuration the war had yet witnessed." Barricades were erected of earth and logs. Artillery was posted with converging fields of fire on every avenue of approach, and stakes were driven into the ground to improve the accuracy of gunners' range estimates. A newspaper correspondent wrote that the works were, "Intricate, zig-zagged lines within lines, lines protecting flanks of lines, lines built to enfilade an opposing line, ... [It was] a maze and labyrinth of works within works."

Grant later admitted in his memoirs that the attack was a mistake, and the men advancing into the Confederate fire had seen the day before that their task was impossible. Many Union soldiers pinned their name and address inside their coats so their bodies could be identified and sent home afterward. The attack by three Union corps lasted less than two hours. Though outnumbered by 2-to-1, the Confederates inflicted nearly 7,000 casualties while losing only 1,500 men themselves.