Facts About Wars We Learned In 2021 That Made Us Say, 'Really?'

Voting Rules
Vote up the wartime facts that are new to you.

War. War never changes. At least that's what Ron Perlman says in the opening cinematic to the classic video game Fallout. Actually, however, war changes a lot - but two things seem to be unchanging: its fundamental unpleasantness, and humanity's enduring fascination with all aspects of it.

Given that people have been doing it for thousands of years, plenty of war facts elude even the most dedicated student. Here are some that we first encountered, or first examined in detail, in 2021. Vote up the ones that left you feeling a bit more knowledgeable about humanity's most unfortunate pastime.

  • One Person's Ancestor Was A Cherokee Confederate Who Warned His Wife Away From Conflict
    Photo: New York: The Review of Reviews Co. / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    208 VOTES

    One Person's Ancestor Was A Cherokee Confederate Who Warned His Wife Away From Conflict

    From Redditor u/AmericanHistoryXX:

    [H]ands down the best... ancestor story goes to a Cherokee friend of mine.

    His ancestors were Cherokee Confederates, and this one in particular was a well-known person, an officer, a longtime friend of [Cherokee leader] Stand Watie. They'd even served as defense [counsel] together in the first murder trial in Cherokee history.

    He knew that a battle was going to be fought on his property, so the night before... he swam across the local river, warned his wife to get out... then went to rejoin his unit. She left... [H]e died; the house was burned; she never made it back to rebuild everything.

    A few years ago, though, his cousin went to the site of that house with a metal detector. He found the spoons she had buried that night to prevent them from being stolen.

    Read more Civil War ancestors' tales here.

    208 votes
  • A Key Step Toward Emancipation Was Achieved By A Civil War General Using A Legalistic Trick
    Photo: Mathew Benjamin Brady / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    164 VOTES

    A Key Step Toward Emancipation Was Achieved By A Civil War General Using A Legalistic Trick

    After the firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, President Abraham Lincoln labored for a while under the misapprehension that secession was merely the work of an elite Southern cabal, and that most Confederate citizens would willingly return to the fold if given the chance. Additionally, Lincoln was determined to keep the slaveholding border states (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware) loyal to the Union.

    So for the first 18 months of the conflict, he was at pains to make it understood that his aim was to restore the Union - no more, no less. Freeing enslaved people didn't come into it. Indeed, when Gen. John C. Frémont issued a local emancipation proclamation in Missouri in August 1861, Lincoln, appalled, quickly revoked it. (Lincoln also doubted if he had any constitutional authority to emancipate enslaved people anyway.)

    Under these conditions, Union commanders were initially encouraged to be as gentle as possible with Southerners and their property. No official policy existed regarding escaped enslaved people, so commanders were left to their own discretion - and some chose to actually return escapees to Southern slaveholders.

    It was against this backdrop, in May 1861, that Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler was placed in command of the Department of Virginia. He occupied Fort Monroe, VA, to prevent its falling into Confederate hands. On May 23, three escaped enslaved people - Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend - approached Fort Monroe seeking asylum. Butler decided to let them stay, and put them to work helping the quartermaster's department.

    When the local Confederate commander, Col. Charles Mallory, sent an officer under flag of truce requesting the three men be returned per the Fugitive Slave Act, Butler replied, "I mean to take Virginia at her word, as declared in the ordinance of secession. I am under no constitutional obligations to a foreign country, which Virginia now claims to be."

    It was an ingenious solution, and perhaps one only a trained lawyer could have come up with. Mallory's representative went back empty-handed. Because Butler compared the three men in his charge to "contraband of war" - that is, property seized from the enemy to inhibit their ability to make war - escaped enslaved people were referred to thenceforth as "contrabands."

    On May 27, The New York Times wrote, "Gen. Butler appears to be turning his legal education, to good account, in the construction of the law in reference to articles that are contraband... We think the people of [Virginia] will find the general a match for them in more ways than one."

    Read more about Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler here.

    164 votes
  • Some Survivors From The 'Charge Of The Light Brigade' Were Photographed Afterward
    Photo: Roger Fenton / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    155 VOTES

    Some Survivors From The 'Charge Of The Light Brigade' Were Photographed Afterward

    The charge of the British Cavalry's Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 was immortalized in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's famous poem, and because of that, it is probably the best-remembered engagement of the Crimean War - at least in the Anglophone world.

    The charge has become synonymous with doomed courage - soldiers bravely riding out to meet their fate even if the officers have gambled their lives on a desperate or misbegotten enterprise. Even so, plenty of the cavalrymen survived the charge. Some were captured on film not long afterward by the British photographer Roger Fenton, who pioneered war photojournalism with his extensive documentation of the Crimean conflict.

    See more surprisingly early war photos here.

    155 votes
  • Lemuel Rodney Custis, Last Member Of The Original Class Of Tuskegee Airmen, Died In 2005
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    148 VOTES

    Lemuel Rodney Custis, Last Member Of The Original Class Of Tuskegee Airmen, Died In 2005

    Born in 1915, Lemuel Rodney Custis (at left in the photo) became the first Black police officer in Hartford, CT, in 1939. A graduate of Howard University, he was soon part of the initial class of Black pilot trainees in Tuskegee, AL.

    It's not clear if Custis was drafted or enlisted on his own, but on March 7, 1942, he and four other Black men graduated from the program. Alongside Charles De Bow, Benjamin O. Davis, George Roberts, and Mac Ross, Custis flew nearly 100 combat operations during World War II. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, later taught at Tuskegee University, and - after leaving active military service - returned to Connecticut.

    As the last member of that first class of Tuskegee Airmen, Custis passed on February 24, 2005. He was described as "a good person, an outstanding person who was not vindictive or mean, and never talked bad about anyone," by his neighbor Sheila Beeson.

    To the Tuskegee Airmen who followed in his footsteps, Custis was, as retired Lt. Col. Lee A. Archer, Jr. put it: "[A] gentleman... for the first time in my life, there was someone I could emulate... My goal was to be like him."

    See more last survivors from major historical conflicts here.

    148 votes
  • In 272 BCE, Sparta Defended Itself Without An Army
    Photo: François Topino-Lebrun / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    132 VOTES

    In 272 BCE, Sparta Defended Itself Without An Army

    Famously, the Spartans didn’t build walls to protect their city. As the Spartan Lycurgus once noted, a city is better protected with "brave men and not by bricks." The maxim served Sparta well enough during its heyday as the main player in the Peloponnesian League, but the city's run at the top of the Greek world would prove to be short-lived.

    An earthquake and a long and destructive conflict with Athens drained crucial Spartan manpower, paving the way for the northern kingdom of Macedonia to become the region's dominant power.

    By 272 BCE, Sparta was long past its prime. But the diminishing city-state still had some fight left in it. With the army campaigning in Crete and only a few men left in the city, Sparta looked ripe for plunder. Pyrrhus of Epirus, still smarting from a costly expedition in Italy, decided to take advantage of the situation and led his army to the seemingly undefended city.

    The Spartan women refused to evacuate and abandon the city, and instead took to aiding what little garrison there was left to defend their home. They helped dig a trench and supported the heavily outnumbered defenders. Over two days, the inexperienced Spartan warriors and a handful of allies from neighboring states held off the forces of Pyrrhus and forced him to turn back when fresh forces from Macedonia arrived.

    See more unexpected victories from fallen powers here.

    132 votes
  • Mongols Defeated Hungarian Forces At The Battle Of Mohi
    Photo: Széchényi National Library, Budapest / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    90 VOTES

    Mongols Defeated Hungarian Forces At The Battle Of Mohi

    Who: The Mongol Empire vs. the Kingdom of Hungary

    Where: On the Mohi Plain near the Sajo River in southwestern Hungary

    Details: When the Mongol army, led by Batu Khan and Subotai (a warrior and military strategist), arrived at the Mohi Plain, it was part of the larger Mongolian effort to capture Hungarian lands. As the Mongols successfully defeated Polish forces at Liegnitz, King Bela IV of Hungary gathered his forces at the city of Pest. He had about 70,000 men when he advanced toward the Mohi Plain.

    The Mongols used combined cavalry, infantry, and siege tactics when they attacked Hungarian forces the morning of April 11, 1241. By essentially encircling the Hungarians, Batu and Subotai caused panic among their enemy's ranks. When the Mongols set up a mock path of retreat for the Hungarians, they used the ruse to decimate their opponent. By midday, the Mongols eliminated 40,000 to 60,000 of the Hungarian forces.

    Outcome: The loss was devastating for Hungary, essentially destroying its military and wiping out a large amount of the population. It looked as though Eastern Europe was poised to be overrun by the Mongols. As they set their sights on Vienna, however, the death of Ogodei, Genghis Khan's successor, meant both Subotai and Batu shifted their attention elsewhere.

    This traditional understanding of why the Mongols suddenly changed course has been challenged by research that indicates the Mongols may have left due to "reduced pastureland and decreased mobility... hampering the military effectiveness of the Mongol cavalry."

    See more medieval battles that more people ought to know about here.

    90 votes