267 AD: Traditional date of the martyrdom of Saint Barbara. Although her actual provenance was suspect enough to be removed in 1969 from roster of official Saints, she remains the Patron Saint of artillerymen, miners, explosive workers, and others whose jobs carry with it the risk of sudden and violent death.
771: Death of Carloman I (b.751), younger brother of Charlemagne, who held half of the Frankish kingdom on the death of their father. The brothers did not get along well, and when Carloman died- rather conveniently, but not the result of foul play– Charlemagne forcefully annexed the region to become the sole king of the Franks.
1492: Continuing his initial exploration of what he still thought were the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia, Christopher Columbus lands on the largest of the Windward Islands, which he names Hispaniola. In the subsequent colonial dash, the island was eventually split between Spain (Dominica (now Dominican Republic)) and France (Haiti). Over the course of the next ten years from this day, the Admiral of the Ocean Seas made three more voyages of discovery throughout the Caribbean basin and along the coast of Central America. His reputation was tarnished by administrative abuses committed in his name by the Spanish colonial authorities in Santo Domingo, of whom he was Governor of the Indies. That said, Columbus remains in my mind one of the greatest seamen of all time: a man whose vision, leadership, audacity and religious faith pointed the way to a fundamental re-ordering of how Europeans viewed the world.
1660: An actual woman- identity ambiguous between Margaret Hughes or Anne Marshall- appears on stage for the first time, in the role of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello. Women’s roles before this date were played by men, in order to protect real women’s virtue. Both women continued their stage careers for several decades.
1703: The Great Storm. A powerful extra-tropical cyclone lashes the south of England for three days, toppling thousands of chimneys in London, peeling the lead-shingled roof off of Westminster Abbey, tearing scores of ships from their moorings and onto the rocks of the lee shore, where they and their crews were destroyed by the pounding surf, suffering a loss of over 1,500 seamen. One Royal Navy flagship, HMS Association, broke free at Harwich, on the east coast north of London, and was driven by the wind and wave across the North Sea all the way to Gothenburg, Sweden, before the crew could control the ship enough to turn around and make their way back to England. Over 4,000 trees were downed in the New Forest. The original Eddystone Lighthouse was swept from its treacherous rocks, killing all six in residence, including its builder, Henry Winstanley, who intentionally made a trip out to the light the day prior in order to confirm its strength during a storm.
1755: Birth of the great American portrait artist Gilbert Stuart (d.1828), best known for his unfinished portrait of George Washington, an image that is the central focus of the dollar bill, and one he copied for sale over a hundred times.
1768: Publication in Edinburgh of the first edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, a systematic attempt to categorize and explain in English the world’s catalog of knowledge. It was published in Edinburgh “By a Society of Gentlemen in Scotland” and not in London, is a strong indicator of the strength of the Scottish Enlightenment, the intellectual underpinnings of which played such a huge role in the founding of the American republic.
1775: The 25 year old bookseller, and recently commissioned Colonel in the Continental Army, Henry Knox arrives at Fort Ticonderoga to begin transporting its captured artillery to support General George Washington’s forces arrayed around Boston. Knox’s keen intellect and organizational skills accomplished this strategically crucial mission through the dead of a New England winter, arriving within a short ride of Washington’s camp on January 25th. The Knox Expedition is also widely known as “The Noble Train of Artillery.” The estimable Wikipedia quotes historian Victor Brooks, who called the operation, “one of the most stupendous feats of logistics” in the entire Revolutionary War.
1776: The College of William and Mary, the first college fraternity is chartered: Phi Beta Kappa.
1783: With the Revolutionary War successfully concluded, General George Washington bids farewell to his military staff at New York City’s Fraunces Tavern.
1787: The sovereign state of Delaware ratifies the new Constitution of the United States of America, the first of the Several States to do so.
1790: The United States Congress moves the capital of the country from New York City to Philadelphia.
1815: Death of Michel Ney, Marshall of France (b.1769), one of the brightest of Napoleon’s team of brilliant subordinate commanders, whose loyalty to France and its leadership not only drove him to his greatest battlefield victories, but also to his final political defeat and execution. Of Napoleon’s multiple victories across the continent, Ney is always in the thick of it. As a measure of France’s perpetual war with the other countries of Europe: Ney fought in 36 major named battles across six “Coalition” wars, the Peninsular War in Spain and the invasion of Russia. It was Ney who led the massive but ultimately unsuccessful cavalry charges at Waterloo against Wellington’s infantry squares, actually having five horses killed from under him. After Napoleon’s final exile to St. Helena, Ney was arrested and charged with high treason. Although his lawyer tried to prove Ney was actually a Prussian by birth, Ney interrupted and sealed his fate by declaiming, “I am French, and I will remain French.” Wikipedia notes that at his execution, he refused to wear a blindfold, and was permitted to give the order to fire, saying: “Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her … Soldiers, fire!” They obeyed the great General’s order…one last time.
1829: British Governor-General of India, Lord William Benetick issues an edict that all who abet suttee will be guilty of Culpable Homicide. British administrators in India were disgusted and vexed by the seemingly intractable practice of new widows being burned alive on their husband’s funeral pyre. Nearly thirty years later, General Charles Napier, serving as Commander-in-Chief India, was quoted with a thought that should remain front and center when arguments move towards multi-culturalism and political correctness: “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”
1831: Former President John Quincy Adams takes his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, as the delegate from Massachusetts, serving seventeen years in 8 consecutive terms. FYI- in 1847 Adams met Abraham Lincoln when he came to the House for his sole term in Congress; he thus can be considered “the sole major figure in American history to have personally known [both] the Founders and Abraham Lincoln.”
1857: Birth of Josef Teodor Konrad Natecz Koreniowski (d.1924), the Polish mariner better known by his English pen name, Joseph Conrad. Even with English as his second language, Conrad’s finely crafted prose is widely acknowledged among the best of the late 19th and early 20th Century. His novels plumb the depths of the human spirit, casting his characters within the venue of a sea voyage or river exploration that leads to ultimate truth. His long professional association with the sea, including duties as a captain, gave him an unparalleled eye for detail, and his own restless spirit, torn between his native Poland and his adopted Great Britain, sought meaning and truth from much of the ugly realities of life at sea. Some of his work included Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness; the latter provided the basic story line for the anti-war film, Apocalypse Now.
1862: Just outside the little farming community of Prairie Grove, Arkansas, a substantial force of over 9,000 Union soldiers under the command of Brigadier General James Blunt squared off against some 11,000 Confederates under Major General Thomas Hindman in a short, sharp battle that saw the combined use of very accurate Union artillery fire against specific Confederate artillery batteries, followed by an infantry attack that was met by Confederate cavalry on one side and charging Rebel infantry on two other sides. The Federals retreated back towards their lines, where Union artillery was re-loaded with canister shot that devastated the Confederates. By nightfall, Union reinforcements began to arrive, and Hindman, recognizing his depleted ammunition supplies and exhausted troops could not withstand another similar day of battle, withdrew what remained of his forces towards Van Buren, Arkansas, essentially opening the door for the ultimate Union occupation and control of northwest Arkansas. Casualty count was 1,200 Union, 1,300 Confederate. With essentially no change in the opening positions, the battle was technically a draw, but in reality was a strategic victory for the Union. FYI- Prairie Grove is just a short drive from where I did some private Learjet flying out of Springdale, AR. The battlefield is very nicely preserved and easily walkable. It surprised me to find such a significant Civil War site so far from what we traditionally consider the center of the action here in the mid-Atlantic region. But control of this part of Arkansas played a crucial role in stabilizing the Western Theater of operations.
1865: The legislature of the former Confederate State of Georgia votes to approve the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, providing the final ratification of the end of slavery in the Supreme Law of the Land. The State of Kentucky voted for ratification in 1976. The State of Mississippi approved it in 1995, but didn’t formally notify the Office of Federal Register until February, 2013.
1869: Jesse James robs his first bank, a branch in Gallatin, Missouri.
1872: Around 600 nautical miles west of Portugal, the British merchantman Dei Gratia discovered the brigantine Mary Celeste abandoned, drifting under shortened sail, with no sign of a struggle on board or any damage beyond slightly torn and weathered sails. The ship’s longboat was also missing, and three barrels of its cargo of denatured alcohol were broken open. The ship’s log remained aboard, although the ship’s papers were gone. A prize crew sailed her to Gibraltar, where an Admiralty court tried to make sense of the mystery of her abandonment and the proper disposition of the vessel after her discovery. The story captured the public’s imagination; stories of ghost ships proliferated, including a famous version by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who intentionally mis-spelled her name as Marie Celeste, and added some delicious details, like finding the table still set and food on the plates. The ship continued in service for the next 13 years under 17 different owners, and ended up wrecked on a reef near Port-au-Prince, most likely as part of an insurance fraud scheme.
1904: President Theodore Roosevelt issues what he calls a “corollary” to the Monroe doctrine, stating that it was the policy of the United States to affirmatively intervene in the affairs of Latin American governments if they show themselves incapable or unstable in their governance. The policy underlay the next three decades of U.S. military intervention in the multiple “banana wars” throughout the Caribbean and Central America.
1912: Birth of Medal of Honor and Navy Cross awardee, Greg “Pappy” Boyington (d.1988), Marine Corps aviator and skipper of the famous Black Sheep squadron that chewed up Japanese forces throughout the Pacific theater in World War II. He recorded 26 confirmed kills before being shot down himself, spending the final 20 months of the war in Japanese POW camps.
1912: The German Imperial War Council meets informally to talk through the tense military and diplomatic situation growing in Europe. Tensions were high over both the Balkans and ever-expanding “protectorate” –style colonialism along the North African coast, and Russia’s buildup of its “Great Military Program,” to say nothing of Britain’s overt concerns about Germany’s expanding High Seas Fleet and its traditional insistence on maintaining a balance of power on the Continent. Participants at this meeting included the Kaiser himself, his chiefs of the Army and Navy, and senior diplomats. The issue was the eventuality of war, and how to manage it to the advantage of Imperial Germany.
1914: In a naval action far from the primary theater of the Great War, the Royal Navy tracks down and destroys a German cruiser fleet that was in position to make a raid on British supply depot at Port Stanley in the Falklands. Despite near-parity of the opposing forces, casualties in the Battle of the Falkland Islands were amazingly lopsided, with nearly 1,900 German sailors killed, 215 captured and four warships and two transports sent to the bottom. The Royal Navy suffered 10 killed and 19 wounded with otherwise minor damage to their ships.
1917: In Halifax, Nova Scotia, a French ammunition ship, SS Mont-Blanc, suffers a slow-speed collision with an empty Norwegian freighter, SS Imo, and catches fire. The crew is unable to contain the blaze, and they abandon ship, leaving the ship to drift toward the Richmond district of the city. Twenty minutes later, the cargo detonates and completely flattens everything within a half mile of the ship, and creates havoc throughout the rest of the city. The explosion remains the largest non-nuclear detonation in history, estimated at 2.6 kilotons of TNT. Over 2000 Halifax residents die in the blast and its immediate aftermath.
1918: President Woodrow Wilson departs by ship to participate in the Versailles Conference, becoming the first President to travel to Europe while in office.
1921: The government of the United Kingdom and representatives of the nascent Republic of Ireland sign an agreement establishing the Irish Free State as a self-governing state within the British Commonwealth of Nations, and ending the shockingly vicious civil war that wracked the island for the last five years. The pact gives the counties of Ulster the right to opt out of the agreement, a right they immediately exercised in order to remain part of the United Kingdom.
1922: The Irish Free State is formally established per the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of the year prior. No surprise, the counties of Ulster re-affirmed their legal option to not be a part of the Irish state.
1933: Utah becomes the 33rd of the Several States to ratify the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed the 18th Amendment. You’ll recall that the 18th was the Progressive Movement’s push to make the United States a more moral nation by prohibiting the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. Its enforcing mechanism, the Volsted Act, had the immediate effect of creating an overwhelming new criminal class: anyone in the country who wanted a drink and did something to get it. More to the point, it exacerbated the power and reach of the actual criminal element: organized crime thrived in the environment and corruption of government officials went rampant.
1941: The Empire of Japan, intent on consolidating its hegemony over the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, launches an attack on the United States Navy’s Pacific Fleet moored in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Despite disparate indications that something was afoot, the attack comes as a complete surprise, and obliterates the main striking force of the Navy in a single stroke.
1941: President Roosevelt – “Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, Members of the Senate, and of the House of Representatives: Yesterday, December 7th, 1941- a date that will live in infamy- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
1945: A U.S. Navy formation of five TBM Avenger torpedo bombers, known by their callsign as Flight 19, vanishes without a trace on a routine navigation training mission flown from Naval Air Station Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Later in the day, one of the PBM-5 patrol aircraft sent up to search for the missing crews explodes in mid-air, killing all 13 on board, adding to the 14 lost from the TBM flight. The mystery of the TBM’s disappearance has never been conclusively solved, although transcribed radio transmissions from the doomed flight suggest that soon after becoming lost, the flight lead mistakenly identified an island in the Bahamas chain as one in the Florida Keys, and made a decision to fly the formation northeasterly in order to find the Florida mainland. If you’re familiar with your geography, you’ll recognize that a northeasterly course from the Bahamas will take you into the central Atlantic and the Bermuda Triangle. Several attempts in recent years to find the lost flight have, in fact, recovered scores of crashed TBMs and other aircraft on Florida’s continental shelf, but none of them match the serial numbers of the five TBMs.
1949: As the Chinese Civil War collapses under pressure from the communists of Mao Tse-Tung, the Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-Sheck abandons Nanjing and sets up its “provisional capital” in Taipei, on the Chinese island of Taiwan. 73 years later, they’re still there: They still claim to be the legitimate government of China, and the United States still promises to assist in the defense of the island in the event of an invasion by mainland forces.
1955: Death of the shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Honus Wagner (b.1874), one of the first five players to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, along with Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. He is also the featured player on the most valuable baseball card of all time, currently valued around $2.8 million.
1964: 800 protesters from the Berkeley Free Speech Movement are arrested on Sproul Plaza and the Administration Building at UC Berkeley, where they occupied the building and staged a “sit-in” to protest the UC Chancellors’ decision to limit protests on campus.
1972: Apollo 17 launches from the Kennedy Space Center. After cancellation of Apollo 18 for budgetary reasons, this flight becomes the United States’ final manned mission to the moon. NASA’s science community made a powerful and successful effort to re-arrange the crew flight assignments so that an actual geologist would make the trip to the moon’s surface, rather than another pilot trained in geology. Accordingly, the final crew became Flight Commander Gene Cernan, Command Module Pilot Ron Evans, and Lunar Module Pilot (and geologist) Harrison Schmidt. The planned landing area in the Tarus-Littrow Valley and the use of the lunar rover vehicle promised to return a wide variety of lunar rock and soil samples.
1980: Death of former Beatle John Lennon (b.1940), gunned down by a “fan” on the sidewalk in front of his apartment in NYC.
2016: Death John Glenn (b.1921), Marine fighter pilot, test pilot, American astronaut, long-serving U.S. Senator from the State of Ohio.