There’s no better feeling than being victorious after a long struggle of, say, battling. Not unless, of course, it’s a pyrrhic kind of victory— the sort that comes at a great cost that you’ll wonder if it’s even worth it in the first place.

Pyrrhus viewing the Roman encampment. Illustration in Abbott’s History of Pyrrhus, 1901 edition. (Jacob Abbott, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The term started with no one but the original winner-loser, King Pyrrhus of Epirus, who famously won several battles against Rome and Carthage in 281 BC . At the Battle of Ausculum in 279 BC, Pyrrhus fought the Romans to a standstill and held the battlefield at dusk when the Romans retreated. He killed twice as many Romans as he had lost himself, but his losses included some of his very best captains and best troops which he could not replace being so far from home. Surveying the dead and dying on the field and being congratulated on his victory by his officers, Pyrrhus was said to reply, “Another such victory and we shall be utterly ruined.”

The Battle of Malplaquet

Usually, kings dying without an heir would create a struggle for succession by relatives of their own family, as was the case when King Charles II of Spain died childless in 1700. In one of the bloodiest battles of the 18th century, the Battle of Malplaquet was fought between a French army led by Duke Villars with his army of 90,000  and the Grand Alliance forces of Dutch, Austrian, Prussian, and British soldiers under the Duke of Marlborough. The French, slightly outnumbered, planned accordingly by setting up obstacles and digging fortifications and invited the Allied forces to die trying to breach them. After seven hours, the French decided to retreat but did so with their army intact.  The Allies, however, who technically won the battle, suffered the loss of over 21,000 men, compared to the French, who only had 12,000  dead. Marlborough was widely criticized back in England for the number of casualties and at the end of 1711, he was replaced by the Tory Duke of Ormonde.

The Battle of the Chancellorsville

Confederate dead behind the stone wall of Marye’s Heights, Virginia, killed during the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, which was in the eastern portion of the May 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville. (National Archives at College Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

This battle was fought from April 30 to May 6, 1863, near the village of Chancellorsville. The fight was between the Union Army of the Potomac under General Joseph Hooker and General Robert Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  Lee was greatly outnumbered, but he knew the ground he was fighting on very well, and while Hooker’s huge army lumbered towards him, Lee divided his forces with just 15,000 holding off Hooker’s advance while 30,000 rebel troops march at night around the Union army to hit the on the right flank and rear the next morning.  In the end, Lee’s audacity and willingness to take big risks resulted in his victory over a Union army nearly twice as big as the Army of Northern Virginia. This did not come without great cost, he suffered heavy casualties of around 13,000 men, while inflicted more than 17,000 on the Union.  Among Lee’s losses was his best General, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who was hit by friendly fire and died after surgeons amputated his left arm.