69 A.D.: Roman General Vespian, one of the key captains of the Roman invasion and subjugation of Britain, and later the head of the Legions that crushed the First Jewish Rebellion, arrives in Rome to begin a political campaign that will culminate in him being declared Emperor.
1192: On his way home to England after concluding the Third Crusade, Richard I Coeur de Lion, is captured and held prisoner by Leopold V of Austria, on the pretext of some slight to the banner of Austria during the Crusade’s siege of Acre. Leopold demanded a literal King’s Ransom from England before he would set him free. After two years of crushing taxation and confiscations back in the Auld Sod, Richard’s kingdom successfully delivered the required 150,000 marks (~57,000 actual pounds of silver), and Richard continued home to put the usurper Prince John back in his box.
1606: A band of English entrepreneurs, organized by Captain John Smith and the Virginia Company of London, set sail this date aboard three small ships, Susan Constant, Discovery and Godspeed, with the little flotilla under the overall command of Captain Christopher Newport of the Susan Constant. Due to the Trade Winds the course that outbound ships make from England is southerly before turning west, so the North Atlantic winter would be mitigated somewhat by a transit in more southerly latitudes. The departure, while in winter, is well after the hurricane season, of which sailors to the New World were keenly aware. The voyage actually did take five months, including stops in the Caribbean.
1642: Dutch explorer Abel Tasman becomes the first European to set foot in New Zealand. Tasmania is his namesake.
1770: Birth- that is, the baptism, of the great German composer, Ludwig van Beethoven (d.1827).
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 nationThe eventual participation of France as an active belligerent against Great Britain provided the crucial military leverage that led to the British surrender at Yorktown.
1777: After a year of partial victories and major retreats against the Regulars of the British army, General George Washington orders the Continental Army into winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
1783: General George Washington resigns his commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, an act that stunned the aristocracy of Europe, and caused none other than King George III to declare him “the greatest character of the age” because of it. The event was memorialized by a massive portrait by the great John Trumbull, which now hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
1790: Discovery of the Aztec Calendar Stone. The incredibly detailed 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.
1793: A Royal Navy raid on the French port of Toulon captures a 5th rate ship of the line named La Lutine. She is commissioned into the RN as HMS Lutine, and serves in that Service until 1799, when she’s lost during a storm in the heavily shoaled waters off the Dutch island of Texel. She was loaded with “considerable capital” in the form of gold, silver, and thousands of Spanish coins, to the tune of about 20,000,000 Dutch Guilders (2007 value: about 81,176,969 pounds sterling). There have been half a dozen salvage attempts when new storms uncover the old wreckage, and a reported 87,000 pounds sterling was recovered in 1876. Subsequent efforts have been spotty. It’s still out there. Her bell is prominently displayed in Lloyds of London.
1807: At the request of President Thomas Jefferson, Congress passes the Embargo Act, cutting off all American trade with both Great Britain and France. The act grew out of increasing American exasperation over ship seizures committed by both sides of the renewed Napoleonic wars. Jefferson’s explicit goal was to conduct “economic warfare” with the two European superpowers as punishment for both countries considering American ships and cargoes as contraband of war, rather than neutral trade. Britain, in particular, took not only ships, but American seamen as well, impressing them (i.e., legally kidnapping them) into the chronically under-manned Royal Navy. The Act did its work to halt American shipping in its tracks, which by extension caused Southern agriculture to rot for lack of European markets, for Northern manufactured goods to gather dust in warehouses, for thousands of ships to be laid up without maintenance, for American companies to go bankrupt, and for a crippling recession to set in across all the States. British and French shippers immediately took up the slack on formerly American trading routes, particularly through the Caribbean and South American markets, and got rich. Black marketeering through Canada became endemic, and widespread disgust at the Federal government’s high-handedness led to massive resistance, particularly from the business interests in New England. The Act was repealed two years later, but by then the damage was done to the credibility of Jefferson’s ideal of limited government versus his doctrinaire big government approach to enforcing a decidedly intellectual solution to the economic depredations of the French and English. Even after repeal, the issues on both sides of the Atlantic continued to fester, leading to yet another embargo attempt in 1812, and eventually, war with England.
1808: Ludwig von Beethoven personally conducts the premiers of his 5th and 6th Symphonies, in addition to playing the piano for the premier of his 4th Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasy.
1828: South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun publishes a tightly reasoned broadside titled, “South Carolina Exposition and Protest,” explicitly outlining the principle of nullification of federal law within State borders if the State finds the law unconstitutional. The proximate fight this time was over a particularly onerous tariff that affected primarily the southern trade in cotton and tobacco, and to a certain extent the exports of New England as well. But the fight over the tariff exposed a deep sectional divide between north and south, and between strong federal power and strong State power, with nullification as the central constitutional issue. The fight would play itself out repeatedly over the course of a generation, gathering in intensity when coupled with the moral absolutism of the mid-century abolitionist movement. It a key element in the War Between the States–they found their first overt causus belli during this 1828 Nullification Crisis.
1856: Birth of Frank B. Kellogg (d.1937), U.S. Representative and Senator from Minnesota, and later Secretary of State for Presidents Coolidge and Hoover. He was the namesake negotiator for the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which outlaws war as an instrument of national policy, and for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929. The treaty remains in effect to this day.
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 the 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: Birth of Harvey Firestone (d.1938), founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company.
1864: Five weeks after taking his leave from the smoldering ruins of Atlanta, Union General William T. Sherman telegraphs President Lincoln with the news of his capture of the port of Savannah, Georgia. “I beg to present to you a Christmas gift the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.” Lincoln accepted the gift.
1892: Opening night for Tchaikovsky’s glorious Nutcracker suite.
1901: Birth of American physicist Robert Van de Graaff (d.1967), best known for designing and building high voltage DC generators that bear his name.
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. 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.
1906: Birth of the third First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Leonoid Brezhnev (d.1982), who really looked the part. Brezhnev’s name became attached to the communist doctrine that said, essentially, that any gains in expanding the space (both political and geographic) of the communist party were permanent, and will be defended by military force. His crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 underlined that fact.
1913: President Woodrow Wilson signs into law the Federal Reserve Act, which establishes the Federal Reserve, creating a U.S. Central bank. The “long title” of the law, helpfully included with the Wikipedia entry, reads: “An Act to provide for the establishment of Federal reserve banks, to furnish an elastic currency, to afford means of rediscounting commercial paper, to establish a more effective supervision of banking in the United States, and for other purposes.”
1916: After eleven months of unrelenting artillery barrages, sniper fire, and fruitless attacks and counter-attacks across mere yards of torn up ground, the German Army makes a strategic retreat back to the heavily reinforced trenches from whence it began the Verdun offensive back in February. German General Erich von Falkenhayn claims he had achieved his objective of “bleeding the French white,” and French General Philippe Petain claims he had succeeded in preventing a German breakthrough into the interior of France: “Ils ne passeront pas!” (‘They shall not pass’ was his battle cry). At their farthest advance, the German army moved a little over a mile across the Muse River toward the city of Verdun, capturing several strategic forts in the French defensive line. With the French counter-offensive in the late summer, the line and the forts returned to French control, culminating in the final shots of the battle this day. I have walked the Verdun battlefield, and it is shocking beyond belief, with crater upon crater pocking the landscape as far as you can see, and a labyrinth of trenches and hard points still slashing through the tortured earth. As occurred in the mud of Flanders, bodies of dead soldiers remained where they fell, eventually churned and mixed into the soil** as the artillery shells continued their deadly rain without letup. The battle of Verdun became a grinder, where freshly trained regiments were sent into the trenches to relieve units who had been under fire, and whose casualty rates reduced them to 10-15% within weeks or less. Some numbers to ponder: French casualties around 542,000 (over 162,308 killed); German casualties 434,000 (over 100,000 killed). French artillery numbered 2,708 tubes, firing over 16,000,000 shells into the German lines; the Germans claimed over 21,000,000 shells into the French.
1924: Adolf Hitler is released from Landsberg Prison, where he spent a year creating his magnum opus, “Mein Kampf.”
1938: In South Africa, discovery and documentation of the first “modern” coelacanth, a fossil fish long believed to be extinct. It wasn’t, and isn’t still. The story of its re-discovery is a terrific fish tale, blending the somewhat obscure disciplines of paleontology and ichthyology.
1941: A group of American Army, Marine and Navy pilots form a fighter squadron to assist Chinese resistance against the continuing Japanese onslaught of that country. The American Volunteer Group led by the irascible Colonel Claire Chennault, flies the P-40 aircraft, decorated with the famous shark’s teeth, and immediately establish a shockingly effective record of kills against the Japanese.
1944: A week into the German onslaught through the Ardennes Forest, which created a huge salient splitting the Allied drive toward Germany, the local Wehrmacht commander sends a team under the white flag to dictate surrender terms to the completely surrounded American force defending Bastogne. The American commanding general, Anthony McAuliffe, gave the German delegation a memorable sendoff: after hearing their terms, he looked them in the eye, snarled “Nuts!” and walked away from the astonished Nazis.
1946: Opening night for the Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life.
1964: First test flight of the SR-71. The Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird” is a long-range, high-altitude, Mach 3+ strategic reconnaissance aircraft developed and manufactured by the American aerospace company Lockheed Corporation. It was operated by the United States Air Force (USAF) and NASA.
1969: The USAF “officially” closes the book on Project Blue Book, a study of UFO sightings and what they could possibly be. Don’t listen to them. I Want to Believe.
1970: The north tower of the World Trade Center is topped off at 1,368 feet, making it the tallest building in the world.
1989: American forces launch Operation Just Cause, an invasion of Panama, to overthrow the drug kingpin and nominal dictator, Manuel Noriega, who is captured and whisked off to Florida for trial and imprisonment. Interesting operation, and I’d bet a few of you in our little group had something to do with it. One little vignette concerns the naming of the operation: the computer that usually came up with operational names came up with “Blue Spoon” this time around, but the staff officers working on it hated the name, and made a stink with the Brass to change it. After repeated frustrations, someone was finally pinned down to answer the question about why the name change; after some squirming, he blurted out “Just because…” and it stuck.
1986: In an ircraft designed and built by his brother Burt, pilot Dick Rutan and co-pilot Jeanna Yeager land their flying machine at Edwards AFB, completing an un-refueled circumnavigation of the world over the course of 9 days, 3 minutes and 44 seconds. Total distance traveled (after their 14,500 foot takeoff roll (yes)) was 26,366 statute miles, breaking the previous record set by a B-52 in 1962.
1989: Surrounded by joyously chanting and singing Germans from both sides of the Wall, the Brandenburg Gate re-opens to two-way travel in Berlin, effectively ending the division of East and West Germany.
2001: Self-identified Islamic jihadist Richard Reed, tries to ignite his explosive-filled shoes on American Airlines Flight 63 over the mid-Atlantic between Paris and Miami. Alert passengers wrestle him to the deck and subdue him. He is convicted of eight criminal counts of terrorism, attempted murder and will remain in in the Colorado supermax prison until he dies. You still need to take off our shoes to satisfy the TSA that you’re not trying to duplicate Reed’s attempt.