War isn’t just violent, it’s confusing. So much so that soldiers of the same army somtimes end up firing upon one another. Friendly fire in American history dates back to the American Revolution, when it ruined the plans of General George Washington. For hundreds of years, across several wars, friendly fire has killed countless US troops, including officers and generals. No branch of the military has been immune to the problem.
In fact, as wars have grown to be less about sides with uniforms and more about taking down hidden insurgent groups, friendly fire incidents have become a common occurrence. The fog of war has always been present, but when your enemy doesn’t want to be seen, that fog grows thick. So, check out 16 incidents of friendly fire from American military history below and remember that no plan survives contact with the enemy.
George Washington badly needed a victory after the British captured Philadelphia on September 26, 1777. Luckily, the opposing British general divided his army, giving Washington small targets from which to choose. Washington devised a surprise attack in conjunction with generals John Sullivan and Nathanael Greene. A dense fog descended on the battlefield, which helped Washington surprise the British, but also delayed Greene's entrance. With their vision obscured, Greene's troops mistook Sullivan's men for the British and fired at them. The attack quickly unraveled and Washington was forced to retreat.
One of the biggest engagements of the Revolutionary War's southern campaign, the Battle of Guilford Courthouse took place on March 15, 1781. Major General Nathanael Greene's militia and Continental soldiers were defending against a much smaller, veteran British force led by Lord Charles Cornwallis. The American militia was ordered to fire twice, then retreat into the woods, leading to a British advance. As the battle escalated, smoke from cannon and musket fire obscured the view for everyone, leading to a deluge of friendly fire in the British ranks.
Amidst the calamity and lack of visibility, Greene ordered retreat, giving the British victory. Despite their victory, the British lost more than 25% of its troops in the battle, many to friendly fire, marking a successful engagement for the Americans, even in defeat.
One of the most important engagements of the Civil War, the Battle of Chancellorsville was waged from April 30 to May 6, 1863. Joseph Hooker led a 133,000-man army against Robert E. Lee’s 60,000 Virginians. Vastly outnumbered, Lee divided his forces into fourths, one of which was commanded by Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who oversaw a raid on the Union’s right flank. Hooker was surprised by the atypical tactic, resulting in victory for Lee. However, Jackson was killed by friendly fire during the battle, when a group of Confederate soldiers mistook his returning reconnaissance mission for Union cavalry.
The Battle of the Wilderness was the first engagement in the Overland Campaign of the Civil War. Union General Ulysses S. Grant led an army on a flanking maneuver to surprise Robert E. Lee. Lee turned into Grant and engaged him. Though the fight was fierce and bloody, Grant was determined to break through Lee’s lines. During the melee, Lee’s top lieutenant, James Longstreet, was accidentally shot by a Confederate soldier. Longstreet survived, and the Confederates held against Grant’s attack.