Sieges that Changed History

Sieges; battles for strategically important locations, are among the most important conflicts in history.

Unfortunately, historians and writers often ignore the importance of sieges. We ignore sieges because they are often boring. Soldiers sitting out the enemy; digging trenches, or pounding away at walls with artillery, is not as exciting as a cavalry charge or a commando raid. Yet sieges often determine the course of history.

The Union won the American Civil War, at the siege of Vicksburg, for instance. To explain Ulysses S. Grant cut the Confederacy off from the West; and help from the French Army in Mexico, by capturing the town of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

In addition, Grant seized control of the Mississippi River which allowed the Union to move vast amounts of supplies and huge armies into the heart of the Confederacy. It was the Confederacy’s inability to hold the strategic location at Vicksburg that led to defeat.

Therefore, sieges can shape history. So I recount the story of three sieges that changed the course of civilization below.

The Arab Sieges of Constantinople

The Byzantine Military Blogspot notes “The First Arab Siege of Constantinople (674-678 A.D.) is perhaps the single most important military action in the history of Western Civilization.”

To explain, had the Umayyad Caliphate (Arab Empire) won either of the two Arab Sieges of Constantinople, Europe, Russia, and America would probably be Moslem today. In the 7th and 8th Centuries A.D. the city of Constantinople was the only thing standing between the Arabs and Europe.

Constantinople was the capitol of the Eastern Roman; or Byzantine, Empire, which had lost most of its territory to the Arabs. In the century after the Prophet Mohamed’s ministry, the Arabs conquered all the Middle East, Asia Minor, and North Africa.

By 674 A.D., the Umayyad armies and fleets were at the walls of Constantinople. Ultimately, the city’s massive walls proved too thick for the Arabs to penetrate.

Meanwhile, the Byzantines used their secret weapon Greek Fire; a kind of ancient napalm, to burn the Umayyad fleets. Without naval support the  Umayyads had to withdraw.

The Second Arab Siege of Constantinople

Forty years later in 717, the Umayyads came back for the Second Arab Siege of Constantinople (717-718 A.D.). Once again, the Byzantines destroyed the Arab fleet with Greek Fire.

With no Arab navy blockading the city, the Byzantines were free to ship in large amounts of food. Meanwhile, famine and a tough winter crippled the Umayyad Army.

In 718, the Byzantines destroyed two more Arab fleets, while their allies the Bulgars attacked the Umayyad rear. Facing certain destruction, the Umayyads withdrew. However, most of the Arab sailors never made it home, the Byzantines and natural disasters destroyed most of their fleet as it fled Constantinople.

The Umayyad losses in 718 were so great, the Arabs never tried to conquer Constantinople again. Instead, it took until 1453 for another Islamic people; the Ottoman Turks, conquered the city and put the sorry remains of the Byzantine Empire out of its misery.

Had the Umayyads captured Constantinople it is likely there would be no Orthodox Christianity today. To explain, the Orthodox Church was the creation of the Byzantine Empire. Therefore, by Arab failures in the 7th and 8th centuries shaped Russia and Eastern Europe’s culture.

Moreover, Islamic armies did not advance into central Europe until the 15th Century. By then, the European states were strong enough to resist the Turkish advance. In the 7th and 8th Centuries, Europe was in the Dark Ages and only one European state; Byzantium, could resist the Umayyads’ military might.

Therefore, Greek Fire kept Europe Christian; and ensured the rise of a separate European civilization that was very different from the Middle Eastern culture. We can trace the beginning of the vast differences between “Christian Europe” and the “Islamic Middle East;” that still divide our world today, partially to the two Arab Sieges of Constantinople.

The Siege of Louisbourg (8 June to 26 July 1758)

The Siege of Louisbourg is the most important battle in American history – most Americans have never heard of. Essentially, Canada became British (and later Canadian); and most of the United States is American today, because of the Siege of Louisbourg.

Louisbourg was a French fortress on St. Breton Island that controlled the entrance to the St. Lawrence River. As long as the French held Louisbourg they could resupply their New France colony and armies in Canada.

During the French & Indian War (1754-1763), the British and their American allies fought to drive the French out of North America. In 1754, the French, not the British controlled most of North America.

For instance, the French controlled all of Eastern Canada, south of Hudson’s Bay, the Ohio Valley, the Mississippi Valley, and the Great Plains in 1754. In contrast, the American colonists controlled only the territory between the Allegheny Mountains and the Atlantic.

As long as the French held Louisbourg, they and their Native American allies could keep the British and Americans bottled up on the Atlantic Seaboard. Consequently, the British launched a massive effort to capture Louisbourg.

The first attack in 1757 failed. In 1758 Major General Jeffery Amherst and Admiral Edward Boscawen launched a massive amphibious attack on Louisbourg. After several weeks of fighting, Amherst’s army took Louisbourg.

A little over a year later on 13 September 1759, British General James Wolfe’s forces captured the most important French stronghold on North America: Quebec. However, the war itself dragged on for another four years until they signed a peace treaty in 1763.

British victory at Louisbourg cleared the way for American conquest of North America. By conquering the so-called New France, the British eliminated the one source of European military aid and arms Native Americans had. Unlike the Americans, the French colonialists worked closely with Native Americans, sort of respected their cultures, and provided them with effective military help.

With New France gone, there was nothing to stop American settlers from overrunning most of the continent, which they did. In addition, the Siege of Louisbourg helped trigger the American Revolution and the creation of the United States.

To explain, one reason the colonists revolted in 1776, was British efforts to block settlement West of the Alleghenies. The British wanted to leave the territory west of the Alleghenies in Native American hands because they had a lucrative fur trade with the Natives. Americans, including a young militia officer named George Washington, however wanted the aboriginals’ lands.

Therefore, most North Americans speak English not French today because of the Siege of Louisbourg. Thus, Louisbourg is one of the most important battles in American history. Without the British victory at Louisbourg, America could be a very different place today.

Despite its significance the Siege of Louisbourg was unnecessary. Bizarrely, British and American colonial forces captured Louisbourg in 1745. However, the British gave Louisbourg back to the French in 1748 in exchange for the city of Madras in India.

Sieges can change history so we need to examine them. These often boring battles are among the most important military actions.