What’s the Most Badass Moment in American History?

The 20th Maine's charge on Little Round Top

The 20th Maine's charge on Little Round Top


By Daniel Ford

I just finished Michael Shaara’s classic Civil War novel The Killer Angels. It includes three of the best lines about warfare I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot of books about warfare):

“Like a shot into a rotten leg, a wet thick leg. All a man is: wet leg of blood.”
“He passed a hospital wagon, saw mounded limbs glowing whitely in the dark, a pile of legs, another of arms. It looked like masses of fat white spiders.”
“He moved as if his body was filled with cold cement that was slowly hardening, and yet there was something inside bright and hot and fearful, as if something somewhere could break at any moment, as if a rock in his chest teetering and could come crashing down.” I had the same thought after reading each line: Hand Michael Shaara all the Pulitzers forever (the book indeed won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975).

It’s impossible to pick my favorite moment from the book, but it’s easy to choose the most badass.

Colonel Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine is defending Little Round Top at the end of the Union’s left flank during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. He’s facing yet another Confederate attempt to take the hill. His men are running out of ammunition. He’s been ordered to hold the ground at all cost and to not retreat under any circumstances.

Chamberlain orders his man to fix bayonets and to charge down the hill. They do in smashing fashion. A Confederate regiment is in full flight (a rare sight for a Union man) and Chamberlain’s men end up taking more than 100 Rebel prisoners.

Fix bayonets! Charge!

I maintain that this was the most badass moment in American history. The stakes couldn’t be higher, a professor by trade made the decision to attack an opposing regiment with not much more than steel and fists, and the victory poked a hole in the belief that General Robert E. Lee’s men army was invincible (which would be laid to rest forever the following day during Pickett’s Charge).

However, being the amateur historian that I am, I realize something this subjective deserves closer examination. So I picked out nine other badass moments from American history we can all debate. You can add to the list in our comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.

10. Chief Joseph Surrenders

It’s never easy admitting defeat, especially if you know the worst is yet to come. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians surrendered to U.S. forces on Oct 5, 1877. His speech on the occasion is worth printing in full. It’s a badass moment after a lifetime of sorrow and before a lifetime of it left to endure:

“Tell General Howard that I know his heart. What he told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead, Tu-hul-hil-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who now say yes or no. He who led the young men [Joseph's brother Alikut] is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people—some of them have run away to the hills and have no blankets and no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs, my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more against the white man.”

9. George Washington Crossing the Delaware

George Washington got his ass kicked in New York City by the British. He couldn’t run out of Manhattan fast enough. Washington’s career up to this point included a lot of bad ideas followed by retreating (minus kicking the British out of Boston which wouldn’t have happened without the cannons Henry Knox lugged all the way from Fort Ticonderoga).

But his crossing of the Delaware on a cold Christmas night in 1776 was a thing of beauty. He took the Hessians by surprise and won a decisive victory at Trenton (Check out David Hackett Fischer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Crossing if you want an expert take on the event). The win boosted morale in the Continental Army (and Congress) and solidified Washington’s standing as commander-in-chief.

It would be eight long years before Washington opened up a big can of whoop ass at Yorktown, but this badass moment gave life to a revolutionary flame short on oxygen.

8. Women Get the Right to Vote

In 1920! Come on, guys, really? It took us this long to figure this shit out? Women getting the right to vote: badass. The fact it took so long: chicken shit stupid.

7. Lewis and Clark Expedition

The men on Lewis and Clark’s expedition to chart the Louisiana Purchase (which whiny Thomas Jefferson bought begrudgingly despite the no-brainer offer from the French) were consuming 6,000 calories a day (much of it from raw meat) at one point. You know why? They were walking across the United States. I remember how great it was seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time. I can’t imagine how it must of felt being the first Americans to see it. Lewis eventually went a little crazy and may or may not have shot himself in 1809.

6. Moon Landing

Um, we landed on the moon first. Do I need to explain to you why this is badass? Suck it Russia. USA! USA! USA!

5. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation

My buddy Scott criticizes Abraham Lincoln for suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War. Well, he also signed into law a little something called the Emancipation Proclamation. Following George McClellan’s lukewarm victory at the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln declared, “that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious Southern States "are, and henceforward shall be free." Yes, it was only meant to be a war measure; yes, it left slavery untouched in the border states; and yes, it exempted certain areas in the Confederacy that had come under Union control. However, the proclamation gave added purpose to what the fighting men were bleeding and dying for, and gave the North a powerful railing cry against their Southern counterparts. A Union victory would mean emancipation be cemented into the nation’s laws. Lincoln was betting victory, his Presidency, and the fate of the nation on his belief that slavery needed to end. He was right. It’s a shame Andrew Johnson wasn’t nearly the badass Lincoln might have been during Reconstruction.

4. Killing Osama Bin Laden

I watched the Twin Towers collapse on 9/11 my senior year in high school.

However, I did so several hours after the event. I went through my first two periods of the day not knowing that the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor had occurred shortly after I got off the bus that morning.

On May 2, 2011 nearly 10 years later, the killing of Osama bin Laden shook the country in much the same way. The man responsible for cratering lower Manhattan and our nation’s heart was finally brought to justice and many of us once again found ourselves huddled around the television screen. One of the most stirring tweets came from Seattle’s King 5 TV reporter Jim Forman. He happened to be on a flight with a 9/11 widow who broke down and cried when she heard the news. Forman tweeted that the entire cabin comforted her. I don’t know where we’re headed, but I can at take solace in the fact that many of us will be headed there together.

The moment—captured expertly in the film Zero Dark Thirty—marked the blurred line conclusion to an era and allowed those of not watching Fox News to take stock and really think about what the War on Terror has meant to our nation’s legacy. It wasn’t so much a victory, but something that had to be done and we did it. And our armed forces did it exceptionally well.

President Obama's mic drop and then long walk away from the camera certainly adds to badassery of the moment.

3. The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence is essentially a laundry list of reasons why King George III is a douche. However, it also laid the foundation for the modern definition of freedom. I’m not a big Thomas Jefferson fan, but he really nailed this document (much like he nailed all his female slaves he never freed…sorry, I can’t resist). Rich, entitled, land-owning WASPs our Founding Fathers may have been, but this document serves as a testament to what was possible when they laid their prejudices aside and reached for the stars.

2. The Civil Rights Movement

It’s impossible to choose just one moment from the Civil Rights Movement. So I’m not going to. I recently read Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963 to get a better handle on an era I didn’t know much about. The book hit me like a fist to the face. If you can’t find anything inspirational or deeply American about the events of Rose Parks’ refusal to give up her seat, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, or the Freedom Rides then I don’t want to know you. The book could get bogged down a bit when describing Martin Luther King’s political infighting, but the pages dealing with the events above vibrated with heat and electricity. Last year, I also read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration and Eric Foner’s Reconstruction, which made Branch’s work all the more visceral. Hundreds of years is a long time to wait for anything—especially freedom—which makes the Civil Rights Movement all the more heartbreaking, angry, passionate, and, of course, badass.

1. 20th Maine Bayonet Charge on Little Round Top

Fix bayonets! Charge!

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