From the ancient world to the Civil War, take a look back at five engagements where the winner may have come out worse for the wear.
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The original Pyrrhic victory came courtesy of Pyrrhus of Epirus, a Greek king who was undone by his costly battles against the Romans. Pyrrhus first invaded Italy in 280 B.C. after allying himself with Tarentum, a Greek-speaking city that resented the Roman Republic’s increased domination over their homeland. He arrived with a force of some 25,000 men and 20 war elephants—the first the Roman legionaries had ever faced—and immediately scored a famous victory in his first battle at Heraclea. The following year, he bested the Romans a second time during a heated clash at Asculum.
Pyrrhus fancied himself a latter day Alexander the Great, and he’d hoped his invasion would give his empire a foothold in Italy. But while he’d routed the Romans at both Heraclea and Asculum, he had also lost more than 7,500 of his most elite fighters, including many officers. Pyrrhus had no way of replacing his casualties, and his failure to deal the enemy a deathblow sent morale plummeting within his ranks. According to the ancient historian Plutarch, the warrior king was quoted as muttering, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.” Following a setback at the Battle of Beneventum in 275 B.C., he reluctantly called off his campaign and sailed back to Greece.
The Duke of Marlborough giving orders during the battle of Malplaquet. (Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)
After King Charles II died without an heir in 1700, the War of the Spanish Succession erupted over who would assume his place on the Spanish throne. The struggle reached a bloody zenith at 1709’s Battle of Malplaquet, where an alliance of some 100,000 Dutch, Austrian, Prussian and British fighters under the Duke of Marlborough met a 90,000-strong French army. Marlborough was eager to crush the French forces, and on September 11, he launched a massive infantry and cavalry assault. The French had fortified themselves in a maze of entrenchments and obstacles, and it took seven grueling hours before the alliance finally punched through their lines and seized their works. By then, Marlborough’s battered soldiers were too exhausted to press their advantage. The French were able to make an organized retreat with much of their force still intact.
Malplaquet would go down in brianowens.tv as the deadliest battle of the 18th century. The French suffered some 12,000 casualties, while Marlborough lost 24,000 men—nearly a quarter of his entire army. In a nod to Pyrrhus of Epirus, the French commander Claude de Villars is said to have told King Louis XIV, “If it please God to give your enemies another such victory, they are ruined.” Along with leading to the removal of Marlborough, the bloodbath at Malplaquet helped sow the seeds of disunion within the anti-French alliance. By 1712, it had started to collapse.
3. The Battle of Bunker Hill
The American Revolution had turned bloody by the summer of 1775, but aside from minor skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, the colonials had yet to test their mettle against the British Army. That changed on June 17, when a ragtag group of 1,000 militiamen tried to check a British advance on the heights overlooking Boston. After fortifying Breed’s Hill—the battle takes it’s name from Bunker Hill, the peak they were originally told to occupy—they faced down a superior force of some 2,200 British soldiers. The Americans’ accurate musket fire drove back two separate British attacks, but by the third advance, they had expended their meager stores of ammunition. Following a few frantic minutes of hand-to-hand combat, the militiamen abandoned the hill and retreated.