Top 5 Surprise Attacks in American History

As many of you know, this past Sunday marked the 73rd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Although Japan may have caught us with our pants down that fateful morning, over the course of our nation's military history, we've managed to launch several successful surprise attacks of our own. Submitted for your approval is the following list of top 5 instances when 'twas America that kicked some unexpected butt...

5. The Doolittle Raid

The months immediately following the disaster of Pearl Harbor remain among the bleakest in American memory. While the country reeled, FDR looked to send a message to the world that the United States would not be cowed by Japanese aggression. The Doolittle Raid was the result. 

On April 18th, 1942, sixteen B-25 medium bombers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle left the flight deck of the USS Hornet, an American carrier dangerously isolated deep in the western Pacific. Their target was the Japanese capital of Tokyo and their bombing raid was a success; the unprepared Japanese high command badly stung by such an insolent display of American defiance.

An American B-25 departs from the USS Hornet bound for Tokyo. 

The bomber crews knew that once their mission was complete there would be nowhere to land as they were operating so far within enemy territory. As a result, fifteen of the bomber crews would ditch over China while the last plane made its way into the Soviet Union - the vast majority of American airmen eventually finding safety.  

Although the bombing raid caused a relatively minor amount of physical damage, the psychological impact was huge - exponentially boosting American morale and piercing the myth of Japanese invincibility. What a bunch of cowboys these Americans are. 

4. MacArthur's Landing at Inchon

The year was 1950 and the Korean peninsula was overrun by the communist forces of the NKPA (North Korean People's Army). The opposing United Nation's force, under the U.S. led command of General Douglas MacArthur, sought to change the momentum with a bold stroke that would cut the North Korean enemy in two. Against the advice of his subordinates, MacArthur decided to land his forces at Inchon, halfway up the western coast of the peninsula and a prime position from which to divide his opponent's troops, then move inland and recapture the South Korean capital of Seoul.  

We shall land at Inchon, and I shall crush them.
— General Douglas MacArthur

American Marines scale the sea wall at Inchon ... OORAH!  

Dismissing concerns that the location was too risky, MacArthur's force executed an amphibious landing of unparalleled brilliance on September 15th that caught the North Korean defenders completely off guard. By the end of the month, Seoul was liberated and a decimated North Korean army was on the run. The grateful nation of South Korea would repay us over half a century later with the release of Gangnam Style.    

3. The Battle of San Jacinto

I know, I know - technically this wasn't an American surprise attack, as it was launched by Sam Houston's army during the war for Texan independence. I figured, however, since Houston's army was overwhelmingly populated by natural born Americans and since Texas would ultimately join the United States, I'd be on relatively safe ground with this one - unlike Santa Anna's hapless army. 

Sam Houston (center), forced to recline due a wounded ankle, receives a captured Santa Anna following the Battle of San Jacinto. 

On April 21st, 1836, after conducting a lengthy strategic retreat, Sam Houston's Texan army stopped running and delivered a smashing defeat to Antonio López de Santa Anna's Mexican force in a fight which lasted all of 20 minutes. Shouting 'Remember the Alamo!', 900 vengeful Texans emerged out of the grassy plain near the San Jacinto River and struck their still encamped enemy, immediately putting the woefully unprepared Mexican army to rout. Santa Anna would lose 1,360 men killed, wounded or captured (his entire force) as opposed to only 9 Texan casualties. Made a prisoner himself, the inept Mexican Generalissimo was afterward compelled by Houston to sign a treaty which effectively guaranteed independence for the renegade republic. Don't mess with Texas.   

2. The Battles Of Chancellorsville & Shiloh

Up next is a tie between a pair of Civil War battles which pitted Americans against one another.  

At Shiloh, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston's Army of the Mississippi poured out of the woods near Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River and caught Ulysses S. Grant's Union Army of the Tennessee completely unaware during the early morning hours of April 6th, 1862. Although Grant's army would recover and eventually prevail with the help of timely reinforcements, the battle's massive casualty toll came as a shock to the entire nation. 

The tenacious Union defense of 'The Hornet's Nest' helped save Grant's army from annihilation at Shiloh. 

The next year at Chancellorsville, (while outnumbered roughly 2 to 1) General Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson and General Robert E. Lee would mastermind perhaps the war's most daring assault as Jackson's entire corps would detach from Lee's main body, conduct a lengthy flank march and ultimately strike the exposed right of the Army of the Potomac under Joe Hooker. On the late afternoon of May 2nd, 1863, Jackson's undetected force of 28,000 men swarmed up and over the Union position just as the boys-in-blue were sitting down to supper, the Yankees destined to scatter like 'chaff before the wind'.   

1. The Battles of Trenton & Princeton

Immediately following America's Declaration of Independence in July of 1776, George Washington's Continental Army suffered a string a disastrous defeats as a seemingly irresistible British invasion force drove the ragged Patriots from New York City and pursued the disintegrating rebel army across New Jersey as the cold of winter descended. The fate of our young nation teetered on the precipice and Washington himself knew that without a victory before heading into winter encampment, the shrunken American army would evaporate completely and 'the glorious cause' would end in ignominious defeat. Writing to his brother, the man who would become known as 'the father of his country' darkly confided that, "The game is pretty near up...".

Having escaped into Pennsylvania, Washington looked back across the Delaware River into New Jersey and observed with interest a garrison of British controlled Hessian mercenaries taking up winter quarters in Trenton. In a desperate gamble to save both his army and the revolution for which they fought, Washington secretly crossed his men over the Delaware amidst a howling Christmas night blizzard, marched to Trenton under cover of darkness and struck the startled Hessian garrison shortly after dawn the following morning.  The victory was complete and over 900 Hessians were taken prisoner; the only American losses being two soldiers who froze to death while on the road. 

Washington's rag-tag army scores a decisive victory over the Hessian garrison at Trenton. 

The British looked to respond and a force of red coats under Lord Charles Cornwallis was dispatched to pin the Continentals against the river and destroy what remained of their army, but Washington would outfox his pursuers yet again. While a mere handful of men were left in Trenton to keep the camp fires deceptively blazing for the benefit of the nearby enemy, Washington stole away on yet another daring nighttime march and slipped into the British rear where he would defeat the stunned enemy garrison at Princeton, NJ on the morning of January 3rd, 1777.  

Although these twin victories did not win the revolution outright, they unquestionably prevented its collapse and saved the cause of American independence. A later British historian would aptly observe, 

It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world.
— Otto Trevelyan