History Genius Ways Army Commanders Have Ended Sieges Throughout History  

Morgan Deane
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Historical sieges can last a vary long time. Both the defender and the attacker adopt various siege tactics trying to find the best way to end the siege.  As long as an army defending a castle or position has supplies, they can last for a very long time. This leads many armies holding a siege to come up with clever ways to get inside. 

Some of the longest sieges in history were ended pretty quickly thanks to fast thinking. Others dragged on for years and only ended after thousands of people died. Keep reading below to see some of the crazy ways to end sieges armies and commanders have used in the past. 

Empty Threats Lead to a Clever and Ruthless Trap

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Empress Matilda and King Stephen lived in 12th century England and were both related to Henry I. When Henry died, Matilda and Stephen dragged the country into a civil war as they vied for the crown. Some local noblemen, like John Marshal, found it difficult to stay on the right and winning side of the conflict. This is how Marshal found one of his castles under siege. King Stephen had captured Marshal's son and threatened to kill him if Marshal didn't give up the castle. The King threatened at various times to launch his son into the castle using a catapult, but reportedly couldn't follow through with the plan because of the sweet precociousness of the child, William Marshal.

At a later siege, John Marshal invited these enemies to peace discussions under a sacred flag of truth. The gate through which they entered had both an outer gate and inner gate leading to the courtyard. After his enemies cleared the first gate, Marshal closed it behind them. His men suddenly flooded the room and killed the trapped men. Killing under a sacred banner didn't exactly help Marshal's reputation, but the necessities of military warfare justified just about any maneuver. Or maybe John Marshal was just crazy enough to win a siege. 

Break in Via the Toilets

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Even toilets had a role in the end of sieges. The Medieval castle had many strengths that made them natural political, military, and administrative centers. They were usually on high ground, built with stone - and on stone - to prevent fire attacks and underground sapping. And moats prevented siege engines from getting close enough to break down doors or breach walls. With all that protection, castles still had to get rid of a lot of human waste. Outside of the small, private chamber for the castle lord and his family, the common toilet was a small room on the edge of the battlements. It jutted out from the castle, and had a hole that let the fecal matter drop into a moat or cesspool. 

This gave the attacking army a small hole (pun intended) through which they could infiltrate a castle. In some sieges, an enemy commander might choose an intrepid climber to try and squeeze through the opening. And in some cases, the plan worked - a small group could infiltrate a castle in the dead of night and open the gates for their fellow soldiers. 

A Mound of Bones and a Butchered Brother

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The Mongols and their horseback-riding warriors swept across the steppes of Asia and Europe and conquered more of the ancient world than any other civilization. But they were also capable of holding long sieges against their enemies. For example, when invading South China, they relied heavily upon siege warfare. The siege of the Xiangyang and Fanchang were an epic contest that lasted years during the late 13th century. And the eventual fall of these cities would seal the fate of the Southern Song Empire. These were pivotal cities with a strong defensive position in the Han River valley - Xiangyang was surrounded by mountains on three sides, and a river on the fourth. Fanchang connected to its sister city with a bridge and also used the river for natural defense.

During the siege, the Mongols employed Muslim engineers to create massive trebuchets. They used the trebuchets to launch large stones at Chinese forces, but the Chinese had set up large nets to prevent the boulders from causing too much damage. The Mongols then employed their large fleet to prevent the Chinese from getting supplies via the river. Through many battles, the Mongols managed to destroy the bridge that linked Xiangyang to Fanchang. Their cavalry force and navy defeated multiple relief efforts sent by the Song Dynasty. Finally, after much bloodshed, the Mongols conquered the more exposed city of Fanchang. The Mongols piled the corpses of the defeated - almost 10,000 people - way up high and left them in full view of the remaining defenders in Xiangyang. The Mongols most prominently displayed the body of Fanchang's garrison commander.

Like much of Chinese history, a small number of military families supplied much of the senior Chinese leadership, which meant the dead commander’s brother was left defending the city of Xiangyang. While the strong leaders were inured to many hardships, the military families had many disagreements and had become alienated from the court. Moreover, the Mongols had effectively destroyed almost every relief force, so by 1273, no reinforcements had arrived. The prominent display of dead bodies combined with the alienation from the court, took the air out of the defenses and the final land assault by Mongol troops broke through Xiangyang's defenses. 

Blowing It, or Blowing It? The Battle of the Crater

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By 1864, Civil War Southern General Robert E. Lee had won a string of victories, but several important defeats had left him in a besieged position south of Richmond, VA. Much like their medieval counterparts, the Union soldiers tried to end the siege by blowing a hole in the confederate line. They lobbed cannon fire at the enemy and the resulting explosion crippled the confederate line. The Confederates were so stunned it took them 15 minutes to even react. 

But, the Union failed to properly act on their new-found advantage. They had careful plans, but the presence of black soldiers leading the exploitation force led to some behind-the-scenes posturing that undermined the attack. General Meade ordered the assault commander, Gen. Burnside, not to use black soldiers. This was explained as a way to avoid undue casualties that would make it seem like they put the expendable soldiers in front, or the racist belief that black soldiers weren’t up to the task. The soldiers sent in to replace the vanguard ended up going into the blast crater instead of around it and were easily contained by enemy fire. This was nearly a siege done right, but the Union generals blew it big time.