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The death of Roman general Lucius Aemilius Paullus at the Battle of Cannae, 216 BC. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Outnumbered, Outgunned: How Underdogs Prevail

May 1, 2010

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Outnumbered King Henry V addresses his troops before the Battle of Agincourt. Julius Caesar

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Carthaginians vs. Romans at Cannae. English vs. French at Agincourt. Confederacy vs. Union at Chancellorsville. In Outnumbered, author Cormac O'Brien details 14 David-and-Goliath battles in which underdog forces overcame extraordinary odds to prevail against much stronger opponents. He shares three of those unlikely military upsets with NPR's Guy Raz.

Confederacy vs. Union, Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863

The Battle of Chancellorsville, a defining moment in the American Civil War, was the contest that put Confederate leader Robert E. Lee into the pantheon of great military generals. President Abraham Lincoln had just appointed Joseph Hooker, a young general, to command the Union forces of the Army of the Potomac.

Going into the battle, Hooker had everything going for him — he had 133,000 Union troops, while Lee had just 60,000. O'Brien says Hooker had a brilliant battle plan — but with one terrible flaw: "He sent almost all of his cavalry ahead to raid deep into Virginia," O'Brien explains, "so he didn't really have a very good reconnaissance force."

Lee, however, had Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, who sent his horsemen to reconnoiter Hooker's troops. Stuart provided Lee with valuable information about where the Union was positioned. Hooker also had some additional bad luck: his German troops rebelled, and he lost communication with one of his key officers, Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick.

At the end of the day, the Confederacy won at Chancellorsville because the South had a better military commander; O'Brien says this battle was Lee's finest hour.

"I think Chancellorsville is definitely a case where the South outgeneraled the North," O'Brien says. "Lee was a huge risk taker and at Chancellorsville he showed that in spades: He divided his army twice — in the face of overwhelmingly superior enemy numbers — and still dealt the north a crushing defeat."

English vs. French, Battle of Agincourt, 1415

The Battle of Agincourt took place on a single day: Oct. 25, 1415. In northern France, 6,000 English soldiers under the command of Henry V defeated 30,000 French troops.

"One of the advantages Henry had going for his Englishmen was that they were a cohesive unit." O'Brien explains. "They knew their business. Only 1,000 of them were armored men at arms or knights, and the other 5,000 were longbowmen. This is definitely a case where weaponry comes very much to the fore."

The French were much more numerous and had "a great deal of leadership but no direction," O'Brien says. The French plan was hatched "by committee" the morning of the battle and it was poorly executed.

Henry placed his longbowmen on the flanks. "Each archer had a stake that he drove into the ground before him, creating a kind of hedgehog of wooden stakes to defend themselves against oncoming cavalry," O'Brien explains. "And in the middle were Henry and his men at arms who received the attack of the French coming on — after being savaged on the flanks by the archers."

It didn't help the French that it had rained the night before. French troops had to slog across a "viscous, mud battlefield" before engaging with the English. The French fell into a "dense, very ineffectual formation that the English reduced almost at their leisure," O'Brien says. "It was a bloody, savage business and a very ugly day and it basically eviscerated the flower of French chivalry."

Romans vs. Gauls, Battle of Alesia, 52 BC

In September, 52 BC, Julius Caesar sealed his fate as a legendary military commander at the The Battle of Alesia — with an army of 50,000 Romans, Caesar defeated 200,000 Gauls in what is now modern-day Burgundy, France.

Caesar's troops surrounded Vercingetorix, a commander of the Gaul forces, on the hill-top fort at Alesia.

"Caesar sets up a ring of fortifications 11 miles long — a circuit entirely surrounding the plateau." O'Brien says. It was siege warfare — Caesar would starve the defenders out.

"This is a classic example of the Roman way of war," O'Brien explains, "Which involved spade work and wooden fortifications as much as swords or ballista."

Why Did They Win?

In these extremely unlikely victories, O'Brien says he has found some common themes.

"Cooler heads always prevail," O'Brien explains. "[These commanders] think their way out. They don't act rashly. ... There's a sort of level of concentration — almost a zen presence — among the commanders who are victorious in these battles."

But that doesn't mean they shy away from conflict, either. Leaders of smaller forces often acted assertively, meeting challenges head-on.

And don't forget hubris, O'Brien says: "There's also, on the other side, almost invariably a great deal of overconfidence which kills an army again and again and again."

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