During the beginning stages of the French and Indian War, the British Army led by General Edward Braddock and officers that included Thomas Gage and George Washington marched to modern-day Pittsburgh to drive the French out of Fort Duquesne. During the march, Gage’s Advance Guard failed to secure the high ground. As they marched towards Fort Duquesne, they stumbled upon French and Indian forces, who quickly took the high ground and leveraged it to drive Gage’s Advance Guard back towards the main army. In one became known as the Battle of the Monongahela, Braddock rushed his own army forward right into the retreating Advance Guard soldiers. Chaos ensued, and the French and Indians routed the British forces and killed Braddock. If lessons were learned in this battle, taking and holding the high ground seems to have been lost on some of them.
Almost twenty years later, during the beginning stages of the American Revolution, the City of Boston was under siege immediately following the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Both sides looked at the hills surrounding Boston and recognized the strategic importance of holding these hills as soon as possible. The Americans were quicker to get there, and under the direction of General William Prescott, 1200 men built a redoubt on Breeds Hill to defend against the inevitable counterattack by the British.
Old friend Thomas Gage, by now Military Governor of Massachusetts and perhaps not entirely remembering the lessons of the Battle of the Monongahela, ordered the British forces to attack Breeds Hill on June 17th, 1775. They were repulsed twice with significant casualties, particularly with their officers. It was during this battle that General Prescott told his American militia “Do not fire until you see the whites of their eyes” both for accuracy and because they were dangerously low on ammunition. In fact, the lack of ammunition is what ultimately led the British to take Breeds Hill on the third attempt. The Americans fled up and over adjacent Bunker Hill, and for some reason the event has forever been called the Battle of Bunker Hill. Nine months later, the British evacuated Boston when they looked up at Dorchester Heights and saw the cannon from Fort Ticonderoga pointing down at them, proving they recognized the value of the high ground.
The colonial American army seized Fort Ticonderoga by surprise and then had a year to fortify it before the British could amass an army, wait out winter, sail across the Atlantic and work their way down the St. Lawrence and Lake Champlain to meet them in battle. When the British arrived they completely bypassed the fort and took the high ground behind it. When the Americans holding the fort saw the cannon pointed down at them they knew the jig was up and evacuated the fort. With barely an exchange the British took Fort Ticonderoga in one day because they saw the high ground that the Americans thought was impossible to haul cannon onto and proved them wrong.
On July 2nd, 1863, the critical importance of holding the high ground was on display at Little Round Top in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment led by Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain repulsed repeated attacks by the confederate soldiers led by Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Like the Americans at Breeds Hill in 1775, the 20th Maine soldiers were running out of ammunition. Chamberlain, under orders to hold the line at any cost. If the confederates were to break through they could flank the Union forces and break the back of the entire Union army. Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge down the hill, surprising and then routing the confederates.
The high ground is advantageous, but it doesn’t guarantee those who hold it will win. What it does guarantee is that there will be a high cost for trying to take it from those who currently hold it. There’s a lot of talk about taking the moral high ground lately. Democrats point to Republicans and evangelicals and openly question them taking the moral high ground when they defend the President’s actions and statements. My BS detector tells me who holds the true high ground, but that could be bias. What’s apparent though is that continuously attacking those who sit on the high ground, whomever they may be, has a deep cost.