Less than two months after the July 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence, General George Washington’s Continental Army was in a fight for its life. The Patriots had failed to check a British amphibious attack on Long Island, and following a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Brooklyn, some 9,000 Americans were pinned against the East River. While British General Sir William Howe settled in for a siege, Washington ordered his men to round up all the flat-bottomed boats they could find. As drenching rains fell on the night of August 29, he used his hastily assembled flotilla to silently ferry unit after unit across the river to the safety of Manhattan. The regiment of Massachusetts fishermen that manned the boats used rags to muffle the sound of their oars, and campfires were left burning to deceive the British.
Many Continentals had still yet to be evacuated from Brooklyn by sunrise, but luckily for Washington, a dense fog rolled in and masked the final stages of the withdrawal. By the time the British finally realized what was happening, all 9,000 colonists had slipped away along with most of their equipment and artillery. “In the history of warfare I do not recollect a more fortunate retreat,” Continental officer Benjamin Tallmadge later wrote.
The March of the Ten Thousand
The Ten Thousand were a band of Greek mercenaries hired by the Persian prince Cyrus the Younger to wage a civil war against his brother, King Artaxerxes II. The soldiers of fortune arrived near modern-day Baghdad in 401 B.C. and fought valiantly at the Battle of Cunaxa, but after Cyrus was killed, they were left stranded on enemy turf. The historian and soldier Xenophon later described their flight to safety in his legendary work “Anabasis.” Rather than turning on one another or surrendering, the gang of toughs elected new leaders and began an epic fighting retreat out of Persia, often doing battle by day and traveling by night. The 1,500-mile journey pitted them against bands of hostile natives and a bitterly cold winter, but after nine months of running they finally sighted the Black Sea to celebratory cries of “Thalatta! Thalatta!” (“The sea! The sea!”) Amazingly, more than three-quarters of the original mercenary army later returned home to Greece.
The Allied evacuation of Gallipoli
In April 1915, British, French, Australian and New Zealand forces launched an amphibious invasion of the Ottoman Empire via the Gallipoli Peninsula. Their landings were met with fierce resistance from Gallipoli’s Turkish defenders, and most of the Allied troops were unable to advance more than a few hundred yards past their beachheads. The campaign soon settled into a trench warfare stalemate. By the time the Allies finally began an evacuation in December 1915, they had suffered over 200,000 casualties.
The Gallipoli invasion had been one of World War I’s great blunders, but the retreat was a stroke of genius. As part of a multi-phase operation, troops were quietly ferried off the beaches right under the Turks’ noses. Extra tents and cooking fires were used to give the impression of larger numbers, and empty equipment boxes were left on the beach to convince the enemy that nothing had been removed. Near the end of the evacuation, some soldiers even covered their getaway with so-called “drip guns”—phantom rifles rigged with strings and water weights to make them fire automatically. The subterfuge worked to perfection. Despite early predictions that a retreat would cost them half their troops, the Allies escaped Gallipoli with only a handful of casualties.
The flight of the Nez Perce
In 1877, the United States government seized the ancestral lands of the Nez Perce Indians and ordered them to move to a reservation in Idaho. A band led by the charismatic Chief Joseph reluctantly complied, but after a group of disgruntled warriors killed several white settlers, the tribe found itself at war with the U.S. Army. What followed was one of the greatest fighting retreats in military history. Hoping to find sanctuary in Canada, the Nez Perce led their pursuers on a 1,400-mile chase across Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Despite numbering just 700—only around 200 of whom were warriors—they outmaneuvered or defeated some 2,000 U.S. cavalrymen in multiple battles and skirmishes. General William Tecumseh Sherman later noted that the Indians “fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines and field fortifications.” Finally, after 15 weeks on the run, the Nez Perce were cornered after October 1877’s Battle of Bear Paw and forcibly moved to a reservation. They were just 40 miles from the Canadian border. “My heart is sick and sad,” Chief Joseph said in a famous surrender speech. “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
The Dunkirk evacuation
World War II’s “Miracle of Dunkirk” began on May 27, 1940, when the first of some 338,000 British, French and Belgian troops were evacuated from the French coast. The Allies had retreated to the sea a few days earlier after failing to block Germany’s blitzkrieg invasion of France and the Low Countries. They were cornered and facing imminent destruction, but when Adolf Hitler unwisely halted his Panzer tanks’ advance, the British Expeditionary Force was able to fortify the port of Dunkirk and initiate a frantic retreat codenamed “Operation Dynamo.”
As the Royal Air Force dueled with the Luftwaffe in the skies overhead, the British Admiralty cobbled together a fleet of over 900 Navy ships, merchant vessels, ferries, and paddle steamers and began transporting soldiers to the English mainland under heavy fire. Scores of civilians also chipped in by piloting fishing boats and pleasure craft across the heavily mined English Channel. The British initially feared it would only be possible to retrieve 45,000 men over the course of 48 hours, but the ragtag armada eventually spent nine days executing the largest sea evacuation in history. Allied losses were still sobering—many ships were sunk and some 40,000 men were left behind and captured—but those that escaped later played a crucial role in the continued fight against Nazi Germany.
The U.N. retreat from Chosin Reservoir
“Retreat, hell! We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction.” That was how Major General Oliver P. Smith supposedly described the Korean War’s Battle of Chosin Reservoir, where a United Nations detachment made a 78-mile fighting withdrawal along a muddy mountain corridor. The force of U.S. Marines, Army troops and British Royal Marines had been ambushed and surrounded in late-November 1950 by a much larger Chinese army. Led by Smith’s 1st Marine Division, the allies broke out of the enemy encirclement and began a two-week trek to the seaport of Hungnam. Along with enduring arctic conditions—temperatures dropped to 34 degrees below zero—they also battled the Chinese at places like Hell Fire Valley and Funchilin Pass, where combat engineers famously assembled an airdropped bridge after the original one was destroyed. The veterans of the “frozen Chosin” later reached the evacuation point at Hungnam in mid-December. By then, the retreating U.N. army had suffered 17,000 casualties compared to a staggering 60,000 for the Chinese.
Mao Zedong’s “Long March”
The Chinese Communist Party owes its early survival to a retreat. The exodus began in October 1934, when the First Red Army became trapped at its base in Jiangxi Province by Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek. Once the situation grew desperate, future party leader Mao Zedong and some 86,000 other Communists broke out of the encirclement and fled west. The early stages of their retreat were dogged by Nationalist ground attacks and bombings. Nearly half the Red Army was anhhililated in a matter of weeks, but the survivors continued the flight for a full year, braving starvation, disease and perilous mountain crossings before finally arriving at new headquarters in the northern province of Shaanxi. Mao elbowed his way into power during the journey, and he later used the legend of the “Long March” to cement his position and recruit scores of Chinese to the Communist cause. Historians still debate certain aspects of the ordeal, but there’s no doubt it was brutal. According to some estimates, nine out of every 10 people who began the retreat perished along the way.