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War wounds

A closer look at three costly—but pivotal—battles spanning U.S. history

American troops watch activity on Omaha Beach as their landing craft approaches the shore on D-Day Handout/Reuters/Landov

War wounds
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Three books tell the stories of three famous assaults—one that created America, one that preserved it, and one that freed a continent.

In Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution (Viking), Nathaniel Philbrick tells how militiamen carried their muskets to a 65-foot-high hill on the Charleston peninsula near Boston. They used pick axes and shovels to build a rough fort and placed hats filled with musket balls on the ground between their feet. When cannons on nearby ships blasted the redoubt, the colonials grabbed fistfuls of hay to plug the gaps.

Then the British climbed the hill, easy marks with their bright red coats. Colonial officers told their men to hold their fire and aim low. Whole lines fell, and others stepped over the “dead bodies as though they were logs of wood.” When waves of British finally reached the breastworks, provincial soldiers “grabbed the still-warm barrels of their muskets and began swinging them like clubs.” The British took the hill, but with half of their 2,290 soldiers killed or wounded, American general Nathanael Greene wrote, “I wish we could sell them another hill at the same price.”

That effort made colonials realize they were “fighting to create a new nation.” Eighty-eight years later that nation was torn in two. Trying to make the division permanent, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee told George Pickett to strike the Union enemy dug in more than 1,000 yards away across a Pennsylvania field. In Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (Knopf), Allen Guelzo tells how about 13,000 Confederate soldiers stepped out of the woods, their bayonets sparkling in the afternoon sun. The Confederates had little protection when the Union line opened up on them: Some 836 bullets pierced one 16-foot fence plank.

It took 19 minutes for the survivors to run that gauntlet and reach the Union side. Like their Bunker Hill predecessors, soldiers turned the barrels of their rifles into clubs—and the Union line held. When one retreating Confederate general was asked where his brigade went, he wordlessly pointed to the sky. “Not all the glory in the world can atone for the widows and orphans this day has made,” Pickett said about the charge that soon bore his name.

On a summer day 81 years later, more than 130,000 Allied soldiers boarded an armada of nearly 7,000 ships and headed across the English Channel to assault German-occupied Normandy. In Rick Atkinson’s The Guns at Last Light (Henry Holt), we learn that riflemen carried an average of 68.4 pounds on June 6, 1944. German machine gun fire riddled the beaches, and some GIs used corpses as steppingstones to navigate the 6.5 million planted mines. “Fire everywhere it seems,” one officer scrawled on an envelope. “Prayed several times.”

Much went wrong: Tanks designed to be seagoing with inflatable canvas skirts plopped in the rough waters and sank. One battalion lost 27 of 32 tanks to the ocean, entombing nine officers and 137 men before they fired a shot. But the GIs did not get pushed off the beach, thanks to stories like this veteran’s: “A guy in front of me got it through the throat. Another guy in front of me got it through the heart. I run on.” D-Day cost 8,230 U.S. casualties, but in less than three hours the Allies cracked Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the executive director of the World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.


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