We Should Have Lost: the Battle of Trenton in December 1776. By that point in the Revolutionary War, George Washington's rag-tag army was heavy on rag and low on just about everything else—including food, shoes, and sleep. Meanwhile, 1,400 of Britain's Hessian mercenaries were doing pretty well for themselves, partying with American loyalists in New Jersey where they were plied with booze and food.
And yet we won? Lucky for the Americans, Hessian colonel Johann Rall was sort of the Paris Hilton of German mercenaries. Spreading some yuletide cheer at a local Christmas night shindig, Rall got so engrossed in a card game that when a local farmer showed up with urgent news, Rall just had him leave a note. Six hours later, Washington and 2,400 of his starved, ill-equipped troops did the unthinkable—they launched a successful attack against the Hessians, even though their gunpowder was too wet to work. Instead, many of them simply used their muskets as clubs. The hungover (and surprised) Hessians were overwhelmed, and Rall was fatally shot. As the doctors cut away his clothing to treat his wounds, they found crumpled in his pocket the note he'd received (and apparently never read) the night before. It was a warning that George Washington was about to attack.
This summer, we'll be re-running parts of "The 20 Greatest Mistaikes in History," Maggie Koerth-Baker's cover story from March-April 2007. For other installments, click here.