1287: A dyke ruptures on the North Sea approaches near Texel, creating a flood that completely submerges the marshes and lakes of the north-central Netherlands. Friesland province is particularly hard hit, with scores of towns and cities demolished, and over 50,000 deaths punctuating the dramatic destruction. The inundation is so vast that an entirely new body of water takes shape, the Zuiderzee, that itself shapes the growth of Amsterdam, formerly a small inland town on a bend in the Amstel River. The Saint Lucia Flood still lives in the collective memory of our Dutch friends, who are never far from the water that can destroy them again.
1466: Death of the great Renaissance sculptor, Donatello (b.1386). He was one of the earliest of the Renaissance masters to embrace and perfect a free-form naturalism in his statuary, and is also noted for his effective use of visual rhythm and perspective in his bas-relief works.
1476: Death of the Bohemian prince Vlad III (b.1431), known more often by his nickname, “The Impaler” than for the virtues of his governance. Here’s a little tidbit: he actually was known as “Dracula,” meaning “son of the dragon,” in reference to his father’s position in the Christian Order of the Dragon. The order took root to protect Europe’s Christian populations during the period of the Ottoman conquest into Eastern Europe, and like father, like son, he took his role seriously, hence the moniker. He was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s gothic novel Dracula (1897).
1485: Birth of Catherine of Aragon (d.1536), best known as queen consort to England’s Henry VIII, but also widely regarded by contemporaries as a keen intellect and powerful voice for the education of women. She also became the first female Ambassador in history, acting as such for her father, Ferdinand II, at the English Court when his Ambassador died in office. Catherine retains a high level of sympathy among those who are attuned to England’s monarchical ebbs and flows.
1497: Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama leads his small fleet of exploration around the Cape of Good Hope, becoming the first European to sail into the Indian Ocean. The fleet eventually makes its way to India’s west coast, and back again to Portugal, providing that country with a secure route to the riches of the Spice Trade without having to traverse either the pirate-infested Mediterranean or the corruption and danger of the overland crossing through Arabia. De Gama’s opening creates a generation-long trade monopoly which makes Portugal rich. His systematic exploration and the immediate economic consequences of his work make him widely regarded as one of the greatest captains of the great age of exploration.
1503: Birth of Nostradamus (d.1566), the French apothecary named Michel de Nostredame, whose medical training led to further studies of astrology and eventually the occult. He began writing a series of quatrains that he billed as predictions, collected and published in an annual almanac under the Latinized version of his French name.
1545: Opening prayers at the Council of Trent, called by Pope Paul III in response to the very real and increasingly virulent calls for administrative and spiritual reform within the Roman Catholic Church. The proximate trigger for the Council was the steady growth of the Protestant Reformation, which expanded dramatically after the 1517 publication of Luther’s 95 Theses. The political and spiritual arguments of the Reformation forced the Roman Curia to confront and answer a number of serious and sometimes threatening criticisms to its hitherto iron-clad rule over European Christianity. The Council lasted for 18 years, and created new administrative controls over the Church, and more importantly, confirmed and clarified Roman Catholicism’s core beliefs and traditions. The Council’s edicts remained essentially untouched until the First Vatican Council in 1870, and with modifications only at the margins, they remain central to Roman Catholic teachings to this day.
1577: Nearly a month after seeking shelter in Cornwall from battering storms, Sir Francis Drake sets out again from Plymouth with a fleet of four ships on a voyage of plunder, exploration, discovery and mapping that would eventually take them completely around the globe.
1653: Four years after executing King Charles I and declaring England a Commonwealth, the British Parliament formally invests General Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector of the Realm. The Parliament was ready to crown him king, but having used his army to defeat a king, and the Parliament to justify his executing a king, he prudently believed that his assuming a new kingship for himself would be a step too far. He did, however, designate his son, Richard, as heir to the Protectorate.
1724: Birth of Samuel Hood (d.1816), one of the great English admirals from the age of fighting sail, with a sterling 55 year career at sea. He is probably best remembered as Horatio Nelson’s mentor, beginning from the time when Nelson was a young frigate commander in the Caribbean in 1782. We also remember him having been part, under Admiral Thomas Graves, of the Battle of the Virginia Capes.
1745: Birth of John Jay (d.1829), first Chief Justice of the United State Supreme Court.
1770: Birth (baptism) of German composer, Ludwig van Beethoven (d.1827).
1773: After months of frustration and anger over Parliament’s insistence on their need and their right to tax** the American colonies, a group of between 30 to 130 (the count varies with the telling) Sons of Liberty, in Boston, under the leadership of Samuel Adams, adjourn from a raucous meeting in Faneuil Hall, don elaborate disguises as Mohawk Indians and proceed down to Griffin’s Wharf, where lay the embargoed tea ships, Dartmouth, Eleanor and Beaver. The tax on tea, known as the Townshend Duty, created similar standoffs in New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, but in those colonies, the governors yielded to force majeure inherent in the Sons of Liberty’s latent violence, and ordered the tea ships back to England. In Boston, though, the governor was determined to not yield to what he considered an unruly and unreasonable mob.
1775: Birth of Royal Navy sea-dog Thomas Cochrane (d.1860), one of the final generation of naval officers who served in the Age of Fighting Sail straddling the turn of the 19th Century. Cochrane held command of three RN ships during Great Britain’s nearly continuous wars with France, where he ranged up and down the French coast wreaking havoc with unwavering dignity and professionalism. Aficionados and scholars who study C.S. Forrester’s Horatio Hornblower series and Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series know that Cochrane was the primary model for their composite maritime literary heroes.
1775: Birth of Jane Austin (d.1817).
1777: A year into his role as Commissioner for the United States, Benjamin Franklin successfully persuades the kingdom of France to recognize the United States of America as an independent nation. We’d like to believe that the French took the step because of the virtues and righteousness of the American’s fight for liberty, but more likely is that Franklin helped them understand that supporting the new States would be like a sharp stick in the eye of John Bull. It was an effective move, and the eventual participation of France as an active belligerent against Great Britain provided the crucial military leverage that led to the British surrender at Yorktown.
1790: Discovery of the Aztec Calendar Stone. The stone was discovered during excavations while renovating the cathedral in Mexico City. Its age is ambiguous, as is its purpose, although the best guesses orient it toward a religio-calendar-epoch kind of use.
1791: The Virginia General Assembly ratifies the Bill of Rights, providing the ¾ majority of the Several States, thus making the first ten Amendments part of the Supreme Law of the Land.
1799: Death of George Washington (b.1732).
1806: Birth of Stand Waite (d.1871), tribal Chief of the Cherokee nation in Georgia, colonel of Confederate cavalry during the Civil War, and the only Indian to be made general officer on either side of the war. Waite’s forces remained effective and active in Arkansas and east Texas throughout the war. With his surrender after a battle in the Indian Territory in late June 1865, he became the last Confederate ‘land’ leader to surrender his forces to the Union. Captain James Waddell of CSS Alabama bears the honor of being the last-last Confederate to surrender, and he did it with the British, not the hated Yankees.
1811: First shakes of two out of four massive earthquakes that rattle the center of the continent at New Madrid, Missouri. The New Madrid fault re-routed rivers and moved mountains.
1832: Birth of Gustav Eiffel (d.1923), the great French engineer best known for his namesake tower. That 1889 structure publicly culminated an engineering career that had already made him famous for his innovative use of relatively light gauge iron in trusses and construction, including designing the trusses such that they were integral to the “look” of the structures, rather than remaining invisible as supporting elements. Eiffel’s extensive studies of wind loading on fixed structures brought him into the Statue of Liberty project, providing crucial design criteria for the interior framework supporting the copper-sheeted exterior. He also designed a family of transportable pre-fabricated bridge trusses for use in remote areas, with sizes ranging from footbridges to railroads trestles. Eiffel’s post-structural engineering career focused on aerodynamics and meteorology, for which he was awarded the Smithsonian’s Langley medal for his wind-tunnel work of the forces of lift and drag. One of the true Greats of the industrial age.
1861: Death of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coberg & Gotha (b.1819), consort of Britain’s Queen Victoria, from cancer at age 42. The shock of his death plunged the Queen into a paroxysm of grief that very nearly caused a constitutional crisis.
1862: Major General Ulysses S. Grant issues General Order No. 11, ordering the expulsion of all Jews in the Tennessee military district. Grant signs off on an egregiously discriminatory order in a fit of pique over black market trading in cotton. The order generates immediate backlash throughout the country, quickly reaching the ear of President Lincoln, who orders the Order be rescinded. Grant, suitably chastened, canceled the Order on January 17th, claiming it was written by a subordinate, and signed without close reading in the haste of combat operations. The issue arose when Grant ran for the presidency in 1868, but because of its brief life, and Grant’s towering reputation as the victor of the War Between the States, the Order became nothing more than a footnote in history.
1864: Two weeks after his stunning defeat at the Battle of Franklin, Confederate General John Bell Hood positions himself for an even more futile engagement against Nashville itself. The two-day Battle of Nashville opens this day after Hood sent two of his crucial units out from their dug-in positions onto raids designed to draw Union forces out from the robust defenses they built around Nashville over the course of the last two years. Union Major General George Thomas bides his time, and on this day sorties from his redoubts to shatter Hood’s Army of Tennessee in a multi-pronged, multi-phased hammer blow against Hood’s depleted forces, eliminating it as an effective fighting force. Hood and the remains of his army skulked back to Tupelo, Mississippi, where he resigned his commission in January, 1865.
1862: The Union gunship USS Cairo, operating in a mine-clearing operation on the Yazoo River just upstream from Vicksburg, Mississippi, is struck by two electrically detonated mines and sinks in thirty feet of muddy water. Although there are two huge holes in the bow, the entire crew escapes, and within a few years the ship is completely silted in and forgotten. Re-discovered in 1958, she is finally raised and put on display on the Mississippi shoreline near Vicksburg.
1862: Demonstrating the essence of his phenomenal lack of imagination, General Ambrose Burnside orders the Union Army of the Potomac to cross the Rappahannock River at the Battle of Fredericksburg and make a frontal assault across a mile of open ground against elevated and fortified Confederate positions on Marye’s Heights just south of town. When darkness fell, the Confederate positions were un-moved, and the field below the heights was littered with Union dead and wounded, punctuated by the groans of the latter, writhing in agony throughout the cold winter night. The Union slaughter is the most lopsided in the entire course of the war, 12,653 (1,284 killed) to the Confederate 5,377 (608 killed). Richmond papers are jubilant. Washington DC is wracked with disgust at both Burnside and Lincoln. Burnside is cashiered from command a month later, but he will return to command two more times during the war.
1867: Birth of Amy Carmichael (d.1951), British missionary to India, who sacrificed everything to live out a life of Christian-inspired caring for the destitute of that benighted country.
1890: Death of Sitting Bull (b.1831), key leader of the Lakota Sioux coalition that destroyed the US 7th Cavalry at the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn.
1901: British inventor Guglielmo Marconi, working from a receiving station on Signal Hill in Saint Johns, Newfoundland, positively receives the first trans-Atlantic radio signal, broadcast from a sister station in southern England. The experiment was not an unqualified success, however, and it took years of continuous technical improvements, patent fights and corporate battles with undersea cable operators before the wireless became the critical communications tool we know today. Marconi won the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on harnessing the electromagnetic spectrum for radio.
1903: First attempt by the Wright Brothers to get their powered airplane off the ground. Wilbur Wright won the honor of the coin toss, but failed to get airborne when his machine caught a gust of wind and dug the wingtip into the sand, forcing repairs that ended flying attempts for the next couple days.
1903: After repairing the damage from Wilbur Wright’s failed flight attempt a couple days back, younger brother Orville climbs into the machine, fires up the engine, and with his brother running alongside stabilizing the starboard wingtip, accelerates to a point that he can lift the airplane off the ground under its own power and fly it under control for 120 feet and into history. The pair ended up making four flights this day, the longest being the fourth- 59 seconds of controlled flight over a distance of 852 feet.
1907: The Great White Fleet, 16 U.S. battleships, along with their escorts and supply ships, depart this day from Naval Station Norfolk on a planned cruise around the world. President Theodore Roosevelt orders the deployment as a demonstration of the United States’ new status as a world naval power, and to emphasize the point, all of the hulls are painted a gleaming white, so that no one will miss their size or import. One of the apocryphal stories that go along with the sailing is that Congress was ill-disposed to spend the money for such a massive public relations undertaking, and only authorized half of the amount Roosevelt requested. The President ordered the fleet to proceed to Japan, and to wait there for Congress to fund their way back to the States.
1914: German battleships bombard English seaports of Hartlepool and Scarborough.
1914: At anchor, trying to ride out a ferocious Atlantic storm, the giant seven-masted schooner Thomas W. Lawson founders on the rocks near Bishop’s Rocks Lighthouse off the coast of Cornwall, and sinks with the loss of fifteen of the seventeen hands on board. The ship was the last commercial sailing ship to be built without auxiliary engine power, and although she hypothetically should have been capable of solid sailing performance, she was widely considered a “pig” or a “bathtub:” under-powered and over-weight. In the pictures below you can see the dramatic difference in her empty and loaded displacement; not unlike what we see today with tankers, but much more critical, performance wise, for a sailing vessel.
1914: The Serbian army re-captures Belgrade from the “invading” Austro-Hungarian army. You’ll note the “scare quotes” here, indicating that from the Austrian perspective, their army’s presence in Belgrade could just as easily be seen as a policing effort inside the legitimate empire of the Dual Monarchy.
1917: A week after the meeting between Imperial German government and the revolutionary Bolshevik government of Russia, a formal armistice is announced between the two powers. The cease-fire will eventually lead to Russia accepting the separate Treaty of Brest-Litovsk next March.
1925: Birth of the versatile song-and-dance man and comedian, Dick Van Dyke.
1937: Japanese warplanes bomb and strafe the American gunboat USS Panay, sending her to the bottom of the Yangtze River in China at Nanking. Three US sailors died and 45 were wounded in the attack. Although the Japanese government apologized and paid indemnity, the incident did nothing to improve US-Japanese relations during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The Panay was part of the US Asiatic Squadron that was on patrol along the Chinese coast and up the major rivers to protect American lives and interests.
1937: Japanese forces finally expel the defending Chinese army from the port city of Nanking, and immediately commence an massive destruction over the next week that reduces the city and its population to mere subsistence. The terror quickly became known as The Rape of Nanking, and was one of the particular causes of the increasing friction between the Japanese Empire and the United States.
1939: The army of Finland defeats the Soviet Red Army at the Battle of Tolvajarvi, part of the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union, fought on the fringes of the larger European war.
1939: Premier screening of Gone With the Wind, at the Loews Grand Theater in Atlanta.
1941: Cascading war declarations continue as a direct result of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor last week. Today: The United Kingdom declares war on Bulgaria; Hungary and Romania declare war on the United States; India declares war on Japan. It is now a world war de jure and de facto.
1941: Continuing the “civilized” world’s descent into World War, Hungary and Romania declare war on the United States.
1944: Death of Big Band leader and notable trombonist, Glenn Miller (b.1904), lost over the English Channel while enroute to a concert for U.S. troops fighting their way across France.
1944: The German Whermacht opens up a 90 minute artillery barrage across an 80 mile front on the western edges of the Ardennes Forest against a thinly manned sector of the Allied front. Allied leadership anticipates this artillery assault as part of a tactical retrograde holding action, but the German army follows the barrage with a massive attack by seven armored and 13 infantry divisions, confronting 6 American infantry divisions that were knocked on their heels into a fighting retreat towards the Belgian city of Bastogne. The sudden and dramatic change in the lines of contact quickly yields the nickname Battle of the Bulge, as the Allies transition their up-to-now unstoppable juggernaut into a desperate defense and re-alignment of forces in order to break the German advances before they completely penetrate the Allied line.
1945: General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, acting as the head of the occupation of Japan, formally orders the abolition of Shinto as the state religion of Japan. You’ll recall that part of this declaration necessitated the Emperor publicly renouncing his status as a deity. The famous picture of MacArthur & Hirohito standing side by side was specifically orchestrated by MacArthur to demonstrate his professional contempt for the old concept of the Emperor, all the while recognizing Hirohito’s crucial symbolic role in leading the shattered nation into the American-dominated future.
1965: Launch of Gemini 6A with Wally Schirra and Thomas Stafford. After four orbits, they perform an in-flight rendezvous with the previously-launched Gemini 7, with Frank Borman and James Lovell, proving the validity of orbital rendezvous, a technique critical for the future lunar missions of the Apollo program.
1969: The Kecksburg UFO incident: On this day, the USAF “officially” closes the book on Project Blue Book, a study of UFO sightings and what they could possibly be. I want to believe.