Today we continue our crusade to convince the world that most of the truly important events in history happened due to some kind of ridiculous accident.
It should be no surprise that some of the best examples of this have occurred during wartime. War, after all, combines mankind's most lofty ambitions with its deepest stupidity. That means that some of the most crucial moments in warfare have played out like ridiculous slapstick.
Thomas Paine described December 1776 in his poorly-Xeroxed The American Crisis as "times that try men's souls" for a reason: It was the single suckiest month in the single shittiest year in American memory.
"It is a dark time for the Rebellion ..." - Thomas Paine
By Christmas Eve 1776, the city of New York had fallen, the Continental Congress had fled Philadelphia and General George Washington's ragtag Continental Army had just barely survived the single most hellish commute in New Jersey history. The rebellion was off to such a disastrous start that, hell, even the Canadians were schooling the U.S. in warfare.
Fortunately, we all know that Washington was able to stave off defeat by heroically crossing the Delaware to win key victories at Trenton and Princeton. The Colonies would live to see the new year.
"Wool stockings and typhus for everyone!"
Of course, for every heroic Hail Mary play, there's a defense that has screwed the pooch. What was regarded as a miracle for the Colonies was a disaster for the British.
What ruined it: A poker game.
While Washington's heroic crossing of the Delaware may be firmly implanted into the American psyche, the truth is actually a whole lot stupider than what we were taught in history class. It turns out a loyalist spy named Moses Doan observed Washington along the Delaware on Christmas Eve, along with what he described as "a boatload of soldiers." He immediately notified Col. Johann Rall of the Hessians about the impending attack but was turned away because the colonel was engaged in a heated game of chess -- or, depending on who you ask, a poker game.
Since the colonel had no wish to be disturbed, Doan left him with a note that read: "Washington is coming on you down the river, he will be here afore long." Rall, still deeply engrossed in his game, stuffed the note into his pocket without giving it a thought.
"I had a pair of threes. You never back down on a pair of threes."
Sure enough, Johann Rall was found dead the next morning, his little "Washington is coming on you down the river" note still unopened in his pocket.
... And that's why America exists.
Had things been different:
If the British had been ready for Washington's surprise attack, everything changes. Washington could have been killed or captured as he made his way across the Delaware, along with Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, James Monroe and a handful of other Founding Fathers who were freezing their balls off as well that worst Christmas ever.
"I swear to God, if there isn't a Kinect under the tree I am going to scream."
Also, to make matters worse, the timing of Washington's victories at Trenton and Princeton was just the buzzer beater the nation needed to keep the Revolution together. Had Washington failed at either battle, which is an occasional subject for scholars, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware "would have surrendered almost immediately." America would have just settled for forever being one more British colony.
For a brief period in the Middle Ages, perhaps best described as "all of it," the city of Constantinople was one of the biggest deals on the planet, back when it was the citadel to the Eastern Roman Empire. The city survived barbarians and Attila the Hun, withstood siege after siege from Arabs, Bulgarians and Russians, and outlasted its Western Roman counterparts for a solid 1,000 years. When the city fell in 1204, they took it right back and held it for two centuries more.
And then ...
What ruined it: Some jackass who forgot to lock the door.
Shit got real for Constantinople -- and the entire Christian world -- in the form of Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire. Equipped with the best soldiers and technologies 1453 had to offer, Mehmed II rolled into town that April with as many as 200,000 troops, over 100 ships and some huge, huge cannons to crack through the city's legendary walls.
The Medieval Death Star.
For the next two months, shit went down like Disc 2 of the Kingdom of Heaven director's cut, but withstanding sieges was what Constantinople was best at, despite being hopelessly outnumbered. That's how you survive for 10 centuries.
But fortune smiled on Mehmed II on May 29, 1453, in the form of human stupidity: Some jackass had forgotten to lock Constantinople's Kerkoporta gate during the siege. No treason, no bribery; it was 100 percent accidental, "Pobody's Nerfect" territory.
As the Ottomans raised their flags over the Kerkoporta gate, the city fell into panic, and its defenses collapsed. The city was pillaged, its inhabitants massacred and enslaved, and Emperor Constantine XI killed. Thus passed the Byzantine Empire, the period known as the Middle Ages, and, at long last, the Roman Empire ... thanks to this unknown medieval fucktard.
S.P.Q.R. (27 B.C. - 1453 A.D.)
Had things been different:
Although the Byzantines had clearly been taking a nosedive for some time, there's no reason to suggest that Constantinople could not have withstood Mehmed II. Sieges in general are expensive as hell and absolutely terrible for armies, and Mehmed's own Grand Vizier Candarli Halil Pasha protested the invasion from the beginning out of fear of crusades and/or Dracula.
Had the Kerkoporta gate actually been locked or at least gone unnoticed long enough for Mehmed to call it quits, there's a good chance this would have meant no Ottoman conquest of the Balkans, no "Istanbul," no Hagia Sophia mosque...
... and about 400 years of completely rewritten Russian history. After all, it was Russia's Ivan III who married Constantine XI's niece right before Constantinople fell. This lucky break is why Moscow to this day considers itself the Third Rome, right down to the seven hills. Why the hell else do you think they called themselves czars? For their health?
Hell no ...
One cannot underscore how enormous Hannibal's crossing of the Alps during the Second Punic War was for the ancient world. As far as Rome was concerned, crossing the Alps was damn near impossible. Today it would be like China launching an attack on Los Angeles by tunneling through the goddamned Earth. That is how outside the box Hannibal of Carthage liked to think.
Once Hannibal finally made it across the mountains, his campaign through Italy would become remembered as one of the most perfectly executed military operations in history. His victory at Cannae remains the archetype for military pwn3ge to this day, and his tactics were so revolutionary that the Romans had no choice but to study him all they could. It is for this reason that Hannibal has been called "the father of strategy."
Just seeing him was a war crime.
It's probably a testament to the man's genius that he tattooed his wang across the face of history in what was ultimately a losing effort. He gave the Roman Empire the fight of its life for sixteen insane years, but at the end of the day, Rome was standing, and they'd picked up a bunch of pretty sweet tricks.
What ruined it: A cane.
As we mentioned, Hannibal chose to sneak his army into Italy using the single most treacherous route on the planet, and crossing the Alps with fucking elephants ended up killing more of his men than the Romans ever did. Part of this was due to the Alps being coated with snow on snow, and rest of it because of a certain pass Hannibal took his men and beasts through called Certain Death.
There is an episode in the Roman epic poem Punica which details this odyssey where Hannibal tried to demonstrate to his men that a certain cliff was safe to pass along. He chose to do this by ramming his cane into the snow. This in turn triggered an avalanche, which wiped out one- to two-thirds of his invasion force, killing 18,000 of his 38,000 men, 2,000 of his 8,000 horses and a shitton of his precious pachyderms.
For a brief moment in Italy, it was literally raining elephants.
According to the story, he lost nearly one-half of his infantry and one-fourth of his cavalry before he was even ready to start getting his hands dirty. Since Hannibal happened to be one of the greatest generals who ever lived, he was able to work with a -67 percent handicap to give Rome hell for 16 years, but that brings us to one of history's great "What If's."
War was a lot more fun back before pants became standard issue.
Had things been different:
There is no doubt in the world that Hannibal would have conquered Rome, since the only thing holding him back was losing a big chunk of his army while coming over. Carthage would have completely supplanted Rome in history, and just about everything in the Western World, from its laws to its art and architecture to its genetic makeup, would probably look a lot more, um ... Tunisian?