241 B.C.: Roman triremes sink the Carthaginian fleet in the Battle of the Aegates Islands off the western tip of Sicily, bringing to an end the First Punic War.
1276: Augsburg is declared an Imperial Free City. It went on to become home to the Fugger banking empire and a significant mercantile and university industry. It is the only city in Germany to have its own legal holiday, celebrating the Peace of Augsburg on August 8th every year.
1496: With news of Christopher Columbus’ recent discoveries spreading throughout Europe, English King Henry VII issues a letter of patent to Venetian sea captain Giovanni Caboto, anglicized to John Cabot, authorizing him to explore unknown lands in the name of the Crown. Making three voyages westward from the northern latitudes of England, he is acknowledged as the first European to set foot on the North American continent since the Viking Lief Ericson nearly five hundred years earlier.
1512: Birth of Gerardus Mercator (d.1594), the Flemish cartographer best known for his development of a projection of the earth’s surface that allows for straight-line plotting of a rhumb line course across the oceans. It’s a real problem to try to accurately present a spherical surface on a flat sheet of paper, and the Mercator projection provided an effective solution that is still in use today.
1702: Birth of Anne Bonney (d. circa 1733) an Irish-American pirate. She served with Calico Jack.
1708: Britain’s Queen Anne withholds the Royal Assent for the Scottish Militia Bill, the last time a British monarch vetoes legislation. Coming less than a year after the 1707 Acts of Union with restive Scotland, one can understand her reluctance to sanction an independent armed force in the northern reaches of her realm.
1726: Birth of Admiral Richard Howe, brother of General Sir William Howe. The siblings commanded the British navy and army forces respectively during the opening hostilities of the American Revolution. Admiral Howe was nominally sympathetic to the American cause. When a peace initiative with the Continental Congress failed, he resigned his commission, but it was not accepted before the French Revolution broke out in 1789, and Howe was assigned to command the Channel Fleet. He led several notable victories against the French, but his greatest victory came at home, when he almost single-handedly ended the Great Mutiny in 1797. His swarthy complexion earned him the nickname of “Black Dick” Howe.
1770: In Boston, British troops fire on a group of protesters, killing five of them, including a young boy and a black freeman named Crispus Attackus. Of note during the subsequent trial was their defense lawyer, noted Bostonian John Adams, cousin of the rabble-rouser revolutionary instigator Samuel Adams and one of the leading lights of the soon-to-be widespread revolution against British rule in the American colonies. It didn’t take long for the event to be memorialized as the Boston Massacre, in the process becoming a cultural touch point for the larger revolutionary movement.
1841: The United States Supreme Court rules that the West Africans who mutinied and captured their ship Amistad were enslaved illegally. The case was a huge step forward for the abolitionist movement in the U.S.
1848: The United States Senate ratifies the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War in favor of the United States. The war had begun almost two years earlier, in May 1846, over a territorial dispute involving Texas. The treaty added an additional 525,000 square miles to United States territory, including the land that makes up all or parts of present-day Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Mexico also gave up all claims to Texas and recognized the Rio Grande as America’s southern boundary.
1862: The Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (ex- USS Merrimack) sorties from the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth and attacks the Union fleet blockading the mouth of the James River. Her first target is USS Cumberland, which she sinks by ramming. Virginia then attacks USS Congress, which puts up a stiff fight, damaging Virginia’s stack and two cannons, but without creating appreciable damage to her iron cladding. Congress’ captain intentionally runs the ship aground and surrenders. While offloading prisoners, a Union shore battery at Newport News Point suddenly opens fire on Virginia. In reply, Virginia fires red-hot shot into the stricken Congress, which explodes and burns to the waterline. As Virginia begins her transit back to Norfolk for battle damage repairs, she commences a third attack, this time against USS Minnesota, whose captain tried to escape but ran aground on a sandbank. Being late in the day, Virginia left her quarry for the night and continued down the Elizabeth River, with plans to complete the destruction of the Union fleet the next morning. Meanwhile, the newly-commissioned USS Monitor is enroute under tow from New York, and about to enter the Chesapeake at Cape Charles.
1862: Fresh from her shocking destruction of the Union blockading fleet off of Newport News Point, and with basic battle repairs made overnight, CSS Virginia this morning steams out of the Elizabeth River to finish the job on the remaining Union ships anchored off of Newport News. But unknown to the crew of Confederate ironclad, the even-more radical USS Monitor had already raised steam off of Fort Monroe and sortied to protect the damaged USS Minnesota and the rest of the Union fleet from their terrifying new nemesis. A gun battle raged between the two ironclads for four hours, with neither ship doing appreciable harm to the other. Late in the battle, Virginia scored a hit on Monitor’s pilot house, blinding her captain, Lieutenant John Worden. Command passed to his XO, Lieutenant Samuel Green, who turned the ship back to continue the fight. Virginia, for her part, was constrained by falling tide to break off her attack on Minnesota, and opted to return to Norfolk for rest and repairs. Monitor, under orders to protect Minnesota, did not pursue the Confederate ship. The battle, watched by thousands on the Hampton Roads shorelines, was the world’s first clash of iron-armored warships. It ended with neither ship decisively victorious. Neither ship engaged in combat again, although Virginia made several defiant sorties over the next few weeks in an attempt to lure Monitor into another fight. As Union forces advanced on Norfolk in May, 1862, the crew of Virginia stripped her of her cannons, ran her aground on the flats at Craney Island, and blew her to smithereens. USS Monitor sank off of Cape Hatteras the following December, enroute to further blockading duty in the Carolinas. Note: The remains of Monitor were discovered in 1973, and a recovery effort in the 1990s brought to the surface her turret, guns, engine components, propeller, anchor, and a number of smaller artifacts. The Mariner’s Museum in Newport News recently completed a display wing dedicated to the Monitor.
1876: Alexander Graham Bell makes the first telephone call on his new invention with those immortal words: “Mr. Watson, come here! I want to see you!” Watson responded, thus completing the first electrical transmission of two-way speech.
1888: First day of The Great White Hurricane, also known as the Great Blizzard of 1888. The storm eventually dumped between 40 and 50 inches of snow from the upper Chesapeake through the Canadian Maritime provinces. Forty knot winds whipped up drifts up to 50 feet deep, with numerous reports of three story houses becoming completely covered. Commerce was paralyzed for over a week and over 400 deaths are attributed to the storm, 200 in NYC alone. Minimum central pressure was 29.00 in.Hg or 982 mb.
1913: Death of the great abolitionist Harriet Tubman (b.1820), founder of the Underground Railroad, whose personal efforts freed more than 70 slaves from their servitude in thirteen separate expeditions. During the Civil War, Tubman served as a nurse and advisor to Union forces in South Carolina, and acted as a scout on the Combahee River Raid that freed over 700 slaves from their plantations. Her exploits before and during the war made her widely known in the press. In her later years she became deeply engaged in the women’s suffrage movement, working closely with Susan B. Anthony and other prominent leaders of the movement.
1916: Mexican leader Pancho Villa leads 500 caballeros on a raid into Columbus, New Mexico.
1934: Birth of Yuri Gagarin. In 1961, the Soviet cosmonaut became the first human to orbit our planet in the vacuum of space. He died under mysterious circumstances in 1968. The Soviet Union wouldn’t release information on his death.
1940: Birth of Chuck Norris.
1941: FDR signs into law the Lend-Lease program to start the process of shoring up Great Britain’s defenses in the face of relentless Nazi pressure. The act is not universally applauded within the United States.
1942: After two weeks of ignoring FDR’s direct presidential order, General Douglas MacArthur abandons Corregidor under the cover* of darkness, leaving command of the besieged U.S.and Philippine armies to Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright. The island fortress had been under essentially continuous Japanese artillery and aerial bombardment since December 29th, and Roosevelt reasoned that a living MacArthur would be more useful in leading the eventual re-conquest of the Philippines than a captured or killed MacArthur. On his arrival in Australia, MacArthur issued his most memorable promise: “People of the Philippines, I shall return.” Wainwright held out under increasingly dire conditions until surrendering the citadel on May 6th.
1953: Death of Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union.
1985: Accession of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Russian Communist Party.