1483: Birth of Augustinian monk Martin Luther (d.1546), in Eislieben, Saxony.
1519: Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez enters the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexico City), where the King Montezuma greets him with gold and precious stones, on the belief that Cortez is an emissary of the feathered god Quetzalcoatl, if not the god himself. Not wishing to disabuse Montezuma of this belief, Cortez ensconces himself and his small army in strategic locations throughout the capital, and in due time forces Montezuma to pledge allegiance to Spanish King Charles V. Interestingly, Cortez’ conquest of Mexico, which began in April, was part of a competitive spat between himself and the Governor of Cuba, Diego Velazquez, with whose sister-in-law Cortez had “a romantic interest.” We won’t go into all the details about the other “related” expedition that followed Cortez into Mexico, because Cortez gained the big prize and started sending Aztec gold and silver back to Spain, forever securing his place in history.
1533: Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizzaro and his army arrive in the Inca Empire. As with his more famous (in the U.S.) compadre Hernando Cortez (DLH 11/8), he is not scouring the Andean empire for its archeological treasures per se, but for its incredible treasures, period. The Incas are particularly rich in silver, and the quantity of plunder that makes its way back to enrich the coffers of Spain also sets in motion an inflationary spiral that nearly wrecks the economies of Europe.
1656: Birth of English astronomer and mathematician Edmond Halley (d.1740), whose most public success was the correct calculation of the orbital period of the comet that now bears his name. Perhaps of more importance, however, was his discovery and careful survey of magnetic deviation in compasses, which he documented in the first publication of isogonic lines across the Atlantic Ocean.
1719: Birth of Leopold Mozart (d.1787), father and “Chief Agent” of his child prodigy son, Wolfgang Amadeus. The 1984 movie Amadeus portrays the relationship between father and son as the crucial subtext of the professional competition between Mozart and Antonio Salieri in the Hapsburg court.
1731: Birth of American astronomer, surveyor, and almanac writer, Benjamin Banneker (b.1806). Banneker’s astronomical skills were critical inputs in setting the original boundary stones for the new federal District of Columbia. He subsequently contracted to write a six-year series of highly acclaimed almanacs, which ended up being published in twenty eight editions across five of the Several States.
1775: Possibly recognizing, and therefore exploiting the core values of his constituency, Samuel Nicholas begins recruiting for the newly authorized corps of naval infantry in a Philadelphia bar, the popular Tun Tavern. His marching orders from Congress read as follows:
“That two battalions of Marines be raised consisting of one Colonel, two Lieutenant-Colonels, two Majors, and other officers, as usual in other regiments; that they consist of an equal number of Privates with other battalions; that particular care be taken that no persons be appointed to offices, or enlisted into said battalions, but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve by sea when required; that they be enlisted and commissioned to serve for and during the present war with Great Britain and the Colonies, unless dismissed by order of Congress; that they be distinguished by the names of the First and Second Battalion of Marines.” Nicholas is one of the two majors mentioned, and is today considered the first Commandant of the Marine Corps. Three USN ships have been named after him.
1775: American Revolutionary hero and Colonel of New Hampshire’s Green Mountain Boys, Ethan Allen leads a night attack against Montreal. Unfortunately for Allen, not only did the commander of the British garrison get early word of the attack, but half of the American force fails to cross the St. Lawrence River in execution of their plan. Outnumbered, out-gunned, and out-foxed, Allen was compelled to surrender, remaining imprisoned through 1778.
1793: Working from the notion that man’s reason is the measure of all things, and in reaction to centuries of sometimes capricious authority from the Roman Catholic Church, the French Revolutionary government begins a systematic legislative attempt to de-Christianize the country. They intend to replace it with what supporters un-ashamedly call the Cult of Reason, and begin their program by encouraging mobs to strip from public display all crosses or Christian iconography, including on gravesites; to seize all plate and precious stones from cathedrals and churches and to loudly proclaim the triumph of Reason in all things. As a symbol of what people should emulate, the cult’s leaders introduced on this day The Goddess of Reason, not as an icon to worship- heaven forbid!- but as the ideal to which everyone should strive. Anyone with a scrap of moral intuition would realize this plan was doomed to abuses and eventual failure, but they went ahead with it anyway. After a year of “scandalous* scenes” and “wild masquerades”, Citizen Maximilien Robespierre ordered the Cult of Reason shut down, and founded, without any sense of irony, the Cult of the Supreme Being, to tame some of the excesses by acknowledging the existence of some kind of a god, whose primary role was to guide mankind to virtue through reason. The revolutionary “government” kept adjusting its spiritual goals, leading only to further confusion and anger. Finally, in 1801, the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte put an end to the foolishness with an executive decree outlawing the cults and restoring the legal authority of the Catholic Church. I’m afraid this little paragraph does not do full justice to the astonishing arrogance of the intellectual classes during this period, who kept coming up with better and better ideas to create a perfect society, all of which led to greater and greater tyranny over mind and soul, and with the rise of Napoleon, the body politic as well.
1851: Publication of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick.
1861: USS San Jacinto, under the command of Captain Charles Wilkes, USN, intercepts and boards the British mail packet Trent, two of whose passengers are Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell, who were enroute to Great Britain to press the case for British recognition and assistance to the Confederacy. Wilkes took the two Southerners as contraband of war and allowed Trent to continue on its journey. Arriving here in Hampton Roads on the 15th of November, Wilkes telegraphed his capture to Washington, and then continued to Boston where he turned the diplomats over to Fort Warren, a prison for captured Confederates. The entire episode stoked high emotions on all three sides of the issue, with charges of perfidy, treason, violations of honour, piracy, etc, etc, thrown around with abandon. The diplomatic row that ensued between Great Britain and the United States teetered on the brink of open war, but as tensions unwound, it did not translate into overt British support for the Southern states. The event is known as either The Trent Affair, or the Mason-Slidell Affair.
1862: Acting in his legal capacity of Commander and Chief, but ‘way out of his depth as a military commander, President Lincoln personally approves General Ambrose Burnside’s plans to capture Richmond; in particular, Burnside’s line of attack across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg.
1864: After evacuating all the civilians who will leave the city, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman orders all government and war-related buildings in Atlanta to be burned to the ground. From this day he sets in motion his March to the Sea, ordering his army’s supply trains and casualties to return to Tennessee, while his now-lightened forces will forage across a wide swath of Georgia and South Carolina in a vivid demonstration of the Union’s reach and power. Before setting out, he notified the War Department that he would no longer be sending telegraphic updates on his campaign: “I expect the Richmond papers will keep you fully informed.”
1866: Birth of Sun Yat Sen (d.1925), Chinese revolutionary whose pursuit of “nationalism, democracy, and the people’s livelihood” led to the final overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912. He is one of the few post-dynastic Chinese who remains not only respected but revered on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. His chief protégé, Chiang Kai Shek carried his legacy into the 1970s. Both the Nationalists and Communists claim him as the founder of the modern Chinese state.
1871: Welsh journalist and adventurer Henry Morgan Stanley, after a major trek through the jungles of Tanganyika, finds the missing Scottish missionary, Dr. David Livingstone, greeting him with “Doctor Livingstone, I presume.” After the meeting, Stanley’s continued trek to the west coast of Africa via the Congo River provided the basis for Belgian King Leopold II’s claim on the entire Congo basin, and became the inspiration for Joseph Conrad’s bleak novel, Heart of Darkness.
1910: Aviation pioneer Eugene Ely makes the first takeoff of an aeroplane from a ship, launching off of a specially constructed wooden platform over the forward turrets of USS Birmingham (CL-2) right here in Hampton Roads, in the anchorage just off of the Hampton Bar. The natural tension between aviators and ship drivers was made manifest from this very beginning event, with Ely wanting to delay his launch to wait for better weather conditions (i.e., more natural wind and better visibility over the anchored ship) and the Captain impatient to get underway on time to get on with his other missions. Without mutual consultation, both parties finally decided to press on with what they needed to do: Ely fired up his flying machine, much to the consternation of the Officer of the Deck, who had already ordered up steam and the anchor raised. Realizing he had to launch right now or lose the opportunity, Ely ordered the wheel chocks pulled as he wound up the engine to full power. The plane powered down the slightly inclined ramp, continuing down and bouncing off the water as it gathered airspeed, breaking off one of its wheels in the process. Ely continued to fly the plane and recovered in the large meadow just south of Willoughby Spit, an area now known as Chambers Field. Ely’s demonstration captured the imagination of naval leadership, and he reprised the feat with a second test two months later aboard the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania (ACR-4) anchored in San Francisco Bay, with the added twist of making the first landing aboard a ship, before turning it around on the deck and taking off again.
1918: After four years of unremitting death and destruction, and a scale of warfare never before seen, Imperial Germany signs an armistice with the Allied powers, ordering the fighting to stop on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year. Although it was technically neither a capitulation nor a surrender, Germany was clearly facing an increasingly bleak prospect toward anything resembling renewed success in combat. Further, the suddenly headless Imperial government, facing a legitimate political crisis in the homeland and uncertain of the continued loyalty of its troops in the trenches, chose to stop the shooting on the condition that its soldiers could simply return home. The Allies agreed, and the formal documentation was signed in a railroad car in the French forest region of Compiegne. Suddenly, the Great War was over. The Germans climbed out of their trenches and walked east; the French climbed out and walked west, the British climbed out and walked north to the Channel ports, and almost immediately, the diplomats went to work to put together the terms of the peace to follow. Very little ground changed hands along the Western Front to justify the unspeakable carnage that proceeded the armistice; France got back the provinces of Alsace and Lorainne, Germany proper lost nothing east of the Rhine, Italy took some of Austria’s southern provinces. If you’ve been following the Great War through these DLH posting, you probably recognize that this war, out of all the centuries of warfare that stained the continent of Europe, this war uniquely shattered an entire generation of the three most populous nations of Europe; it destroyed the bonds of trust between the people and their governments, it destroyed the very societies that launched the war itself, it destroyed three historic empires and set in motion the unraveling of the two victorious ones; it triggered a revolution that destroyed one of Europe’s oldest monarchies, and it created the rationalization for an entirely new class social engineering and ideological violence whose effects linger to this day. And from the personal perspective, it transformed the nature of warfare from the already brutal drama of human combat into a machine that simply consumed everything that crossed its path. And in the end, it solved nothing: when the terms of the Treaty of Versailles were released in 1919, the great French Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch spoke with eerie prescience: “This is not a peace. This is a twenty year armistice.”
1923: Former German Corporal Adolf Hitler attempts an overthrow of the German government with his band of socialist thugs. Working from their headquarters in a Munich ale house, the Beer Hall Putsch gets off to a shocking start when the conspirators actually capture the city government and then issue a call for a general uprising across Germany. The only rising that happens is when the army arrives to capture the instigators. Hitler and several others are locked up for five years in Landsberg prison, where he writes his magnum opus, Mein Kampf.
1940: The Royal Navy executes the first aircraft carrier strike in history, an attack on the Italian fleet anchored at Taranto, using as its main battery the already obsolete Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber.
1940: The Coventry Blitz– over 500 Luftwaffe sorties throughout the night pulverize the ancient factory town of Coventry, including its famous Cathedral.
1942: Opening of Operation TORCH, the Allied invasion of North Africa. The attack answered- in part- the Soviet Union’s insistent and persistent demands for a second front to relieve pressure from the relentless German onslaught on Russia. The landings also answered the question over whether the Vichy French forces in Morocco and Algeria would forcibly oppose the arrival of British, American and Free French armies. There was some level of fighting, but by the close of day on the 9th, all of Morocco and Algeria surrendered to the Allies. In furious response to their erstwhile French ally, Germany and Italy forcibly occupied the heretofore otherwise untouched regions of Vichy France. The Allies then consolidated their forces and began a drive toward Tunisia to meet the German armies who held the remaining coastline of North Africa.
1944: After thirteen attempts over the preceding five years, British forces finally sink the German battleship Tirpitz, anchored in a Norwegian fjord. The ship was sister to the Bismarck, and was expected to perform the same commerce raiding mission, but it only engaged in a single offensive combat action, a shore bombardment. After the loss of the Bismarck, Hitler lost faith in the surface navy and confined the ship to the safety of occupied Norway’s fjords. Even though it rarely moved, the ship remained a force in being that demanded a significant portion of the Royal Navy be dedicated to keeping it blocked in the fjords or, in the event of a breakout, taking her under fire and sending her to the bottom. As the war played out, Tirpitz took multiple hits over the years from a variety of bombs, torpedoes and mines, but was always repaired, moved, and re-camouflaged, necessitating another round of reconnaissance and subsequent attacks. The strike that finally put her under came from 24 Avro Lancaster bombers flying from a base in Scotland. The ship capsized but stayed afloat long enough for rescuers to cut out and save 80 of the 1000 men trapped in the hull.
1969: Launch of Apollo 12, with astronauts Pete Conrad, Richard Gordon and Alan Bean. The Saturn V rocket was hit by lightning during the ascent phase, tripping a circuit breaker and leaving the command module without power for a short time.
1975: The 729-foot long Great Lakes freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald sinks in a violent storm on Lake Superior, taking all 29 crew to a watery grave.
1981: Space Shuttle Columbia launches on STS-2, its second mission and the first time a man-rated spacecraft is used twice. The ship went on to fly a total of 28 missions, logging 300 days in orbit, 4808 orbits, before disintegrating on re-entry, February 1, 2003.
1990: Newly reunited Germany signs a treaty with Poland confirming the post-WW2 Oder-Neisse Line as the permanent border between the two countries. If you look at the little map below, the colored areas are the pre-1939 borders of Germany (complete with the infamous Danzig Corridor from Versailles. At both the Yalta Conference in February of 1945 and the subsequent Potsdam Conference in July-August, the postwar borders of Germany were the main points of contention. The Soviet Union, already occupying all of eastern and central Europe, laid down non-negotiable demands on the subject. When pressed on where they wanted the future Polish borders, their answer was simple: “As far to the west as possible” according to Nikita Khrushchev.