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In studying the campaigns of American generals such as Nathaniel Greene in various campaigns, George McClellan at Antietam,* George Meade at Gettysburg, and others, I was struck by the reluctance of them (and others) to follow up battles where they did major damage to their enemies, because of their own losses,even though a "second round" might have destroyed the enemy army, winning the war "right away." (The other side is weaker, so losing "half your army" does not mean losing the war.)

The probable exception to the rule that I can think of is Ulysses S. Grant,.

A Pyrrhic victory was defined by a winning general, Pyrrhus, who said something like, "if I win a another battle like the last one, I will lose the war, because my army would be destroyed." The converse of that would be something like "If I fight another battle like the last one, and lose half my army, I will win the war because the enemy will be totally destroyed."

Apart from Grant (and possibly his protege, William T. Sherman), are there any generals in history who made such a claim and went on to win a war in this way? Grant's behavior was so atypical that I was wondering which, if any other generals, at any time, was willing to take such a position.

*Example: At Antietam, an 87,000 man Union army lost 12,000 men against 10,000 from a 38,000 man Confederate army. If you "multiplied" those casualties by 3.8, the Confederates would have lost all 38,000, and the Union would have lost 46,000, a little more than "half" their army of 87,000. That's what I meant by "gambling half the army." That would have been a better result than having the war last two and a half more years.

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    Can you define 'ASAP'? – Lars Bosteen Jun 18 at 0:45
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    Yes, we have ASAP in British too. I was just wondering what period of time you were considering. – Lars Bosteen Jun 18 at 1:06
  • @LarsBosteen:"As soon as possible." The idea is that the stronger side is willing to gamble "half the army" to win the war "now," rather than "two years from now," at much greater cost. Example: At Antietam, an 87,000 man Union army lost 12,000 men against 10,000 for a 38,000 man Confederate army. If you "multiplied" those casualties by 3.8, the Confederates would have lost all 38,000, and the Union would have lost 46,000, a little more than half of 87,000,. So which historical generals at any time were willing to do this? Grant probably, McClellan, certainly not. – Tom Au Jun 18 at 1:11
  • Yes, I see what you're getting at. Lee's 2nd invasion of the north might have qualified as the North seeking peace would have been considered a victory by the South, though I'm not aware of Lee having made any statements about losing half his army (and of course he lost at Gettysburg). – Lars Bosteen Jun 18 at 1:19
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Yes; frequently. Perhaps even as the norm, and certainly in every battle of annihilation (or nearly so) where one side had the option, but declined, of retreating prior to engagement.

Examples:

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  • Interesting examples, Not all responsive (that's my fault because the question was unclear). The issue was, who had the intestinal fortitude to fight a second battle immediately after taking "sickening" losses in a bloody first battle. I don't know of a "first battle" for Nelson and Villaneuva, or Ali Pasha. I'll give you Xerxes at Salamis because Thermopylae was exactly the kind of bloody first battle that I was looking for. I don't know of a first battle for Darius the Great. Caesar and Vercingetorix might be the "classic" case. – Tom Au Jun 18 at 17:31
  • I don't consider Napoleon at Ligny-Waterloo to be a case, because that was "planned," but you reminded me that Blucher, on the other side, was a fine example."The badly wounded 72-year-old Marshal Blucher insisted on leading the remnants of his defeated army to Waterloo to reinforce Wellington, over the objections of the much-younger Gneisenau." – Tom Au Jun 18 at 17:37
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    @TomAu: I can only answer the question you ask - not the question you meant to ask. The onus is on OP to ask the correct question. Napoleon threw everything including the Guard into the fray on June 18 because he had no tomorrow without a win - that is an archetypical answer to the question actually posed. – Pieter Geerkens Jun 18 at 17:39
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    I edited my question for clarity, taking the blame for the earlier confusion, and you may edit the answer if you wish, based on the new information. I already upvoted your answer for "effort," and a good revision would be a favorite for an acceptance. – Tom Au Jun 18 at 17:43

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