1215: King John- a.k.a., the execrable Prince John whom Robin Hood harassed to distraction and who finally assumed the throne of England after the death of his popular brother Richard Lionheart- signs the Magna Carta on Runnymede plain. The 64-article “Great Charter” is the first royal acknowledgement that the king is subject to the rule of law rather than divine right. It laid the foundation for the revolution in civil governance that gave us English Common Law and eventually the Constitution of the United States. Four copies of the original are extant: one at Salisbury Cathedral (I saw it there in March, 2006 (it is a beautifully crafted page (in Latin (of course)))), two at the British Museum and one roaming around the world through various museums.
1389: Battle of Kosovo, in which a Serb nationalist army under the command of Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic fights an Ottoman Turk army under Sultan Murad I. The battle was fought on Kosovo Field just outside of present day Pristina, and was a bloodbath for both sides. The Ottomans secured a nominal victory on the field, having not only killed tens of thousands of soldiers, but also the Serbs’ leadership cadre as well. Owing to the Ottoman’s massive manpower reserves back in the empire, they were able to force Serbia into submission as a tribute-paying principality. For the Serbs this battle represented all that was good in the Serbian character- the bravery and sacrifice (and simmering resentment)- and it remains a cultural touchstone to this day, most notably when President Slobodan Milosevic invoked it in a speech during the Kosovo War in 1998.
1579: English explorer Sir Francis Drake lands somewhere on the northwest coast of North America and claims it for England in the name of Queen Elizabeth I, naming it Nova Albion. As a graduate of Sir Francis Drake High School in Marin County, California, and having seen the famous “plate of brass” making the claim, I was fully convinced that the landing place was just over the ridgeline to the west of us at Point Reyes, a peninsula of chalky cliffs that resembles a miniature Dover. The sheltered waters are even called Drake’s Bay. So that had to be it, right? Maybe not: Drake’s royal mission was not only to harass the Spanish in the Pacific basin, but also it was also to search out the western entrance to the (in)famous Northwest Passage. To that end, Drake’s coastal discoveries north of Spanish settlements were very much strategic state secrets to the British crown. Drake may, in fact, have worked his way far into Alaska’s inland passage and then back down the coast, where he eventually put into what we now know as Whale Cove on the central coast of Oregon.
1723: Birth of Adam Smith (d.1790), one of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, best known for his theories on the free market and the “invisible hand” that allows a market to establish a natural price that provides a reasonable return on land, labor and capital. His magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations (1776), expands on the theme, including the dangers inherent in any concentration of wealth or power that distorts natural market effects.
1752: Philadelphia printer, inventor, philosopher and political gadfly Benjamin Franklin conducts his famous kite-flying-in-a-thunderstorm experiment, proving that lightning is electricity.
1775: Battle of Bunker Hill. Less than a week after British General Gage locks down Boston under martial law, a militia force of some 1,200 Minutemen under the command of William Prescott work their way under cover of darkness to set up redoubts on Breed’s and Bunker Hill, which dominate Charlestown’s landward approaches to occupied Boston. By daylight the fortifications are seen by the British, and they mount an assault to clear the hills. Twice, however, the assaults fail with high British casualties, the American troops exhorted to “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” Late in the day, as the colonials run out of ammunition, the third British attack finally takes the ground, but the colonial force withdraws in good order to fight another day. The British commander General Clinton, writing in his diary notes, “A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.” American casualties included the death of Dr. Joseph Warren, one of the founders of the Sons of Liberty and Chief Executive of the Massachusetts Revolutionary Government.
1775: Virginia militia Colonel George Washington accepts a commission to lead the fledgling Continental Army.
1777: Congress adopts the Stars and Stripes as the official flag of the United States of America.
1789: Eight weeks (since 29th April) after being set adrift in a 23 foot open launch with 18 loyal crew from HMS Bounty, Captain William Bligh lands on the Dutch East Indies island of Timor. The crew’s transit between the site of the mutiny and Timor was an extraordinary feat of survival and navigation, with Bligh using only his pocket watch and a sextant- no charts or compass- across 3600 miles of the South Pacific. The only casualty on the voyage was crewman John Norton, who was stoned to death by natives during a brief provisioning stop on the island of Tofua.
1811: Birth of Harriet Beecher Stowe (d.1896). When President Abraham Lincoln met the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” at a White House reception he is reported to have said, “So, you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!”
1812: The War of 1812– Under increasing pressure created by Parliament’s trade restrictions against Napoleonic France, Royal Navy impressments of American seamen, and British agitation of Indian tribes in the old Northwest Territories, Congress declares war on the United Kingdom. The two year long war was mostly fought at sea, with periodic sharp skirmishes along the frontier with Canada and in the Ohio River watershed. Britain made several strong raids into the former colonies, including an attack on Washington, DC that forced President Madison* to flee the White House within the sound of the advancing British guns. The British sacked and burned both the White House and the Capitol before withdrawing back to their ships. For Great Britain, faced concurrently with essentially a catastrophic world war against Napoleon, this war with a former colony remained something of a side-show. From the American perspective though, it became a matter of life and death. It brought out the best in the American fighting spirit, including: the successful defense of Fort McHenry in Baltimore that inspired our National Anthem, Colonel Andrew Jackson’s successful defense of New Orleans late in the war, and significant individual defeats of Royal Navy ships by the new heavily-gunned American frigates Constitution, Congress, and United States, in addition to the smaller Essex. Constitution, in particular, distinguished herself with stunning defeats of HMS Java and HMS Guerrierre, earning the nickname “Old Ironsides” in the process. The RN followed these losses with a decree that the three American heavy frigates could only be engaged by a ship of the line, or with squadron-level numbers of smaller ships. The war ended with the Treaty of Ghent, that essentially returned territorial changes (primarily in Canada) to status quo ante, and did not address the trade and impressments issues, since they were mooted by the end of the fighting with France.
1815: Battle of Waterloo. Two days after the battles of Quatre Bras and Ligny, Napoleon Bonaparte continues on his northward march toward Brussels. His approach is halted, however, just outside the town of Waterloo, where the Duke of Wellington has arrayed a significant blocking force of artillery and massed infantry in defilade behind a low ridgeline south of town, straddling the main road. The defensive arrangement forces Napoleon into a predictable and narrowing line of approach, which Wellington exploits with well-directed artillery and flanking attacks on both sides of the French army. Late in the afternoon Napoleon orders what should be the piece de resistance– a massed cavalry charge to overwhelm the Allied artillery. One observer reported that the horses were so tightly packed across the field that the ones in the center could not touch the ground. Wellington, for his part, countered by bringing out from defilade his crack infantry troops, which he formed up into squares, bayonets fixed outward in three ranks. With cavalry restricted to close-range sabers, and the natural refusal of horses to press into frieze of bayonets, the British infantry methodically from inside the squares shot the circling horses and riders until the attack completely collapsed. As the remaining cavalry withdrew, Napoleon ordered his crack Imperial Guard into the fray. As the French approached the now-exhausted squares across a mile of muddy battlefield, and with the approaching Prussian army of von Blucher in sight on his far left, Wellington unleashed a fresh division of infantry again out of defilade in a bayonet charge that shattered the Imperial Guard and triggered a general rout of the entire French army. Recognizing a major defeat, and with only his personal guards in company, Napoleon leaves the battlefield to return to Paris.
1815: Battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras, both fought on this day, setting the stage for Napoleon Bonaparte’s final defeat at Waterloo. Ligny was a small town on the right of the French advance northward into Belgium; the sharp, house-to-house fighting there saw the tactical defeat and withdrawal of von Blucher’s Prussian army, and was Napoleon’s final victory in battle. Napoleon’s left was ordered to capture the nearby crossroads at Quatre Bras, but they were held off by the western coalition forces under the Duke of Wellington who, after confirming the French withdrawal from the battlefield late in the afternoon, executed a strategic re-positioning of his army northward to a low ridgeline just south of the town of Waterloo. Although Napoleon’s grand strategy was designed around keeping Wellington and von Blucher’s forces separated, they in fact maintained active communications despite the increasing distances between them during their withdrawal and repositioning on the 17th.
1829: Birth of Geronimo, the Apache warrior and medicine man, who fought both US and Mexican expansion into tribal lands from 1858 until his capture in 1886. He was renowned for his close calls and narrow escapes, the most famous of which came in the Robledo Mountains of New Mexico. Under hot pursuit by the US Army, Geronimo and his followers ducked into a cave; US soldiers set up a perimeter to catch them, but they never came back out. After several days Geronimo was spotted nearby, but the second exit from the cave was never found. After his capture, Geronimo was shuffled between Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Mount Vernon Barracks in Alabama, and finally Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he died in 1909
1830: The French Republic invades Algeria.
1864(a): With both armies having made strategic movements away from the battlefield of Cold Harbor, Union guns open fire on the crucial Confederate transportation junction of Petersburg, Virginia. Lee’s army throws up breastworks and entrenchments that will eventually stretch for miles around the eastern edges of the city as the siege deepens.
1864(b): Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorizes a national cemetery on 200 acres of Robert E. Lee’s Arlington plantation. One of the early burials of Union soldiers takes place in a mass grave in the garden very near the residence itself.
1916: Death of German fighter ace and innovator Max Immelmann (b.1890). The aerobatic maneuver that bears his name is a 180 degree change of direction, done vertically. It is basically half of a loop, and was particularly useful during the early years of air combat, when the pilots were still learning to understand the dynamics of three-dimensional combat.
1922: President Warren Harding becomes the first president to have his voice broadcast over radio.
1926: Death of American impressionist painter Mary Cassat (b.1843), best known for her evocative depictions of children and their mothers.
1930: President Herbert Hoover signs into law the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, ostensibly designed to protect American jobs and support economic growth. How’d it work out?
1932: The Bonus March-The group of unemployed WWI vets who have been congregating on the mudflats of Anacostia, gather today en masse on the steps of the Capitol as the Senate votes on a measure advancing the pay date of their Army bonuses. Although reasonable order is maintained, it is becoming clear that the Bonus March is turning into a Bonus Army, and that tensions will only continue to rise as the summer heats up.
1940(a): General Charles du Gaulle broadcasts from London a radio address called L’Appel du 18 Juin, in which he declared that even though the Germans had signed an armistice with the French “Vichy” government of Marshall Petain, the war for France was not yet over and would continue as an underground resistance movement. The speech heralded the beginning of the French Resistance, which played a huge role in easing the preparations for the Normandy landings, among other anti-German works. It also made du Gaulle the presumed and de facto leader of any postwar French republic.
1940(b): Reeling at the collapse of France to the Germans, and with the reckoning of the Dunkirk evacuation in hand, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gives his famous “Finest Hour” speech to the House of Commons. This is the third of the trilogy of defiant speeches over the course of the last month which would define both his Prime Ministership and the strategic vision of the British Empire. The first was, “I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears and sweat…” on 13th May; the second, “We shall fight them on the beaches…” on 4th June as the German juggernaut cornered the Allied forces against the North Sea.
1944: United States Marines land on the South Pacific island of Saipan in Operation Forager. Despite intense naval gunfire support at near point-blank range, Japanese defensive preparation of the landing zone allowed for quick recovery from the barrage, and created devastating accuracy from their defending artillery as the AMTRACS swam ashore. Over half the Marine amphibious tractors are destroyed in the first wave of the assault, and it takes the Marines over three days to expand their toehold beyond the surf zone. The three-week operation finally achieved Saipan’s eventual capture at cost to the Marine Corps of 16,525 casualties, including 3,426 dead. It became the first operational B-29 base in the Pacific theater.
1958: Death of Imre Nagy (b.1896), former communist Prime Minister of Hungary, whose reforms in 1954-56 led to his forced ouster by the Hungarian Communist Party. A broad cross-section of Hungarian society rose up in revolt, with riots and burnings across the country demanding Nagy’s return to power and removal of the Communist Party from the country. The Soviet Union responded with an invasion of 200,000 soldiers and 2,500 tanks, crushing the uprising and killing thousands. Nagy was captured and imprisoned by the now-reinforced hard liners, who convicted him of treason and hanged him by the neck until dead on this day. As the communist empire collapsed in 1990-91, Nagy was reburied with full state honors in a funeral attended by over 100,000.
1961: President John F. Kennedy authorizes the expansion of the U.S. Assistance Mission to Vietnam, from 900 to 3200 advisors.
1963: Russian skydiver Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space, making a 71 hour, 48 orbit journey in a Voshkod capsule. She remained the only woman cosmonaut or astronaut until the 1980s, with the launch of American Mission Specialist Sally Ride in 1983.
1972: Under the leadership of President Nixon’s re-election chairman G. Gordon Liddy and CIA operative E. Howard Hunt, five men break into the Watergate apartment complex to bug the phone lines of the Democratic National Committee and steal McGovern campaign documents.
1977: Death of German-American rocket engineer and NASA visionary Wernher von Braun (b.1912). Von Braun led the brain trust of captured Nazi engineers who brought V-2 technology to the United States. He also lead the conceptual design work for the multi-stage rocket, which allowed for much higher payloads and altitudes than “conventional” single-stage rockets. He was the chief architect of the massive Saturn V that launched the Apollo program to the moon and back.
1982: After six weeks of defeats at the hand of the British army, marines and navy, the Argentine garrison at Port Stanley, Falklands Islands, surrenders and a general cease fire is declared. On the Argentine mainland, General Galieri is deposed from the presidency and serves three years in prison for military incompetence. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stands for re-election in the spring of 1983 and wins in a landslide.
1985: Petty Officer Second Class Robert Stethem, USN, is murdered by Shi’ite terrorists aboard the hijacked TWA flight 847, his beaten and shot body dumped onto the tarmac at Beirut International Airport. In 1994 the Navy honored his memory by commissioning a ship bearing his name, USS Stethem (DDG-63).