122AD: Roman Emperor Hadrian begins construction of a massive wall across the borderlands between present-day Scotland and England.
1297: A Scottish army under the command of William Wallace defeats a numerically superior English army at the Battle of Sterling Bridge. In a dramatic case of using terrain for tactical advantage, the Scots established themselves on relatively high ground overlooking a narrow bridge over the River Forth, whose road was flanked on both sides by nearly impassable, boggy ground. Exercising exceptional discipline, the Scots held back their attack until about half of the English vanguard of knights and heavy infantry, with some cavalry, crossed the bridge (often only one or two wide due to its narrowness), and began to re-form for battle. Wallace then hurled his outnumbered Scots against the still-disorganized English, immediately capturing the bridge and thus cutting the enemy into two trapped elements. Without organization, without leadership, and without an escape route, the English were completely routed by the fiery Scottish partisans. Over half of the English infantry were killed outright, and while an unknown number of Scots perished, it was rightly celebrated as a resounding victory. It was also notable regarding the ability of the lightly armed Scots to overcome- by tactics and motivation- superior weights of numbers and armament of the English force.
1569: Death of the Flemish painter Peter Bruegel the Elder (b.1525), whose work is some of the most interesting you’ll ever see, particularly from this time period. Wikipedia describes his impact this way: “His earthy, unsentimental but vivid depiction of the rituals of village life—including agriculture, hunts, meals, festivals, dances, and games—are unique windows on a vanished folk culture and a prime source of iconographic evidence about both physical and social aspects of 16th century life.” The details he included in many of his works are a hoot, like the jolly drunk from The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559).
1608: John Smith is elected Council President of the Jamestown colony. After the disastrous “starving time” winter of 1607-08, Smith set out on an extensive exploration of the Chesapeake Bay, where he found not only good hunting and fishing grounds, but also extensive trading relationships with many of the Indian tribes who lived and farmed nearby. On his accession to the Council, Smith was adamant that everyone must work- even the “gentlemen”- or they would not eat. His leadership set the colony on the direct path to sustainability and growth.
1609: Continuing his northerly exploration of the New World coastline, English explorer Henry Hudson, working for the Dutch East India Company, discovers the island of Manhattan.
1715: Death of French Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Perignon (b.1638), widely credited with inventing the process of producing sparkling wines in the Champagne province of France.
1752: The British Empire adopts the Gregorian Calendar as its standard, replacing the historic Julian Calendar. This act has the unusual effect of causing eleven days to vanish into thin air. In early American texts and many other documents referencing the 18th century, you will see the annotation “O.S.” which designates the date as using the “Old Style” calendar. Thomas Jefferson’s birth date is shown on his grave site as April 2, 1743 (O.S.), but if you look in most biographies, they show it as April 13th.
1754: Birth of William Bligh (d.1817), Royal Navy sailing master under the tutelage of the great Captain James Cook; later commissioned Lieutenant and Commanding Lieutenant in command of HMS Bounty during her ill-fated 1789 voyage to the South Pacific. Bligh was an irascible leader who made up for his deficiencies of personality by the exercise of extraordinary seamanship capabilities.
In April of this year, he made a 3600 mile post-mutiny journey in an open boat with himself and 18 loyal crew, only one of whom did not survive the six-week transit to Timor. After being exonerated by Court Martial, Bligh was promoted to Post Captain and went on to 10 individual ship commands and two turns as Commodore, retiring as Vice Admiral of the Blue in 1814.
1777: Battle of Brandywine– The Continental Army, under the command of George Washington, sets up a defense of Philadelphia along several fords of Brandywine creek, about 50 miles SW of the city. It looks like a strong defensive position against the recently landed forces of British General Lord William Howe, who transported his army by ship around the Eastern Shore in an attempt to make a less direct approach to the American capital than a frontal assault across the Delaware River. After analyzing Washington’s dispositions, Howe ordered his Hessian General Wilhelm von Knyphauesen to create a demonstration across the entirety of Washington’s front. Howe, meanwhile, leads his 15,000 Redcoats wide around Washington’s right and attacks the American’s completely exposed flank. Quick responses by three American divisions prevented it from becoming a complete disaster, but by the end of the day, the Continentals were a shattered force that could not hold the field. The decisive British victory meant the road to Philadelphia was wide open, and after a few days of desultory moves and counter-moves by the armies, the Continental Congress abandoned its capital, and Lord Howe continued his march northward to occupy the city.
1792: With both the French King and Queen now in prison, and the French Revolutionary government plodding along, a group of thieves break into the Garde-Meuble (the Royal Storehouse) and steal the crown jewels, including the famous 69-carat French Blue, a.k.a. the Hope Diamond. Although most of the other jewels were recovered, the French Blue was not. It vanishes from history until 1812 when a substantially smaller (45.5 carat) version surfaces in a London shop. Currently in the Smithsonian. According to Wikipedia, it is the second-most viewed object of art in the world, after the Mona Lisa.
1813: American sea-dog Oliver Hazard Perry confronts and defeats a superior British naval squadron in the Battle of Lake Erie. He scratched out a victory message to General William Henry Harrison that was very brief: “Dear General: We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop. Yours with great respect and esteem, O.H. Perry”.
1814: Georgetown lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key, held overnight as a prisoner aboard HMS Tonnant in Baltimore Harbor, observes the all-night British bombardment of Fort McHenry. Not knowing the outcome of the American defense from the British assault, he waits on deck, and as the dawn breaks, the 15-star flag of the United States remains aloft over the fort. He scratches down a few notes, and after returning home, completes a four-stanza poem called The Defense of Fort McHenry, set to the tune of a popular English drinking song. It eventually became known as the Star Spangled Banner, the American national anthem.
1816: Birth of Carl Zeiss (d.1888), who pioneered and perfected the art of wide-aperture lens making. His name still graces the best German optical instruments and equipment.
1818: Birth of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (d.1910).
1850: California, flush with fresh gold from the Sierra Nevada, is admitted as the 31st state of the Union.
1851: Birth of U.S. Army physician and biologist Walter Reed (d.1902), whose research and identification of tropical diseases, particularly mosquito-borne Yellow Fever, permitted substantial control of the disease and allowed the U.S. to continue work on the Panama Canal.
1862: Union Corporal Barton W. Mitchell of the 27th Indiana Volunteers, picking through debris in a recently abandoned Confederate encampment, finds three cigars wrapped in a sheet of paper. Unrolling it, he reads Special Order 191, from General Robert E. Lee, detailing for his Corps commanders their routes and objectives in the opening phases of the Maryland campaign. The order quickly makes its way into the hands of Union General George McClellan, who exclaims, “Now I know what to do!” He adds, “Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.” The intelligence gained from the order proves crucial in setting up the coming confrontation between the armies near Sharpsburg, Maryland.
1901: Death of French post-impressionist painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (b.1864).
1901: Death of President William McKinley (b.1843), felled by an assassin’s bullet
1914: Two months into the Great War, with the German juggernaut threatening the environs of Paris itself, the Allied armies of France and Great Britain launch a massive counter-attack at the Marne River on the 5th of September that knocks the over-extended Germans into their own series of massive retreats. The week-long battle is known as the Battle of the Marne, or more popularly as the Miracle on the Marne, as it reversed for the first time the deadly efficiency of the Von Schlieffen Plan. On this day, a week into advance, the morning fog burned off to find the advancing Allies lightly dug in on exposed ground near the Aisne River, with the Germans occupying well-defended heights above. The First Battle of Aisne that opened this day raged for nearly two weeks, with neither side gaining an advantage, and both sides digging ever deeper into defensive trenches. By the 28th it was clear that the period of rapid movement of the Schlieffen plan, and the tactical flexibility of careful retreats and counter-attacks by the Allies, was permanently stalled. Both sides suddenly shifted their objectives toward attempts to outflank the other, which led to a period known as the Race to the Sea, which by November resulted in a continuous line of defensive trenches running from the Belgium’s North Sea coast all the way to the Swiss border, a line that would move little over the course of the next four years.
1917: The Russian parliament officially declares itself a republic.
1922: First formal day governance in the British Mandate of Palestine. This particular offshoot of the Versailles Treaty had the full blessing of the “international community” through the auspices of the League of Nations.
1929: Birth of the great American golfer Arnold Palmer (d.2016).
1936: Birth of Yankee slugger Roger Maris (d.1985), who didn’t make many friends when he smacked his 61st home run in the 1961 season.
1948: Margaret Chase Smith is elected Senator from Maine, becoming the first woman to be both Representative and Senator.
1956: Introduction of the first computer disc storage system, IBM’s RAMAC 305.
1976: Death of Chinese Communist Leader Mao Tse Tung.
2001: The September 11 attacks, commonly known as 9/11, were four coordinated suicide terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaeda against the United States in 2001. That morning, 19 terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners scheduled to travel from the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions of the East Coast to California. The hijackers crashed the first two planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, two of the world’s five tallest buildings at the time, and aimed the next two flights toward targets in or near Washington, D.C., in an attack on the nation’s capital. The third team succeeded in crashing into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense in Arlington County, Virginia, while the fourth plane crashed in rural Pennsylvania following a passenger revolt. The attacks killed nearly 3,000 and instigated the multi-decade global war on terror.
The first impact was that of American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan at 8:46 a.m. Sixteen minutes later, at 9:03, the World Trade Center’s South Tower was hit by United Airlines Flight 175. Both 110-story skyscrapers collapsed within an hour and forty-one minutes, bringing about the destruction of the remaining five structures in the WTC complex, as well as damaging or destroying various other buildings surrounding the towers. A third flight, American Airlines Flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., causing a partial collapse. The fourth and final flight, United Airlines Flight 93, flew in the direction of the capital. Alerted to the previous attacks, the passengers retaliated in an attempt to take control of the aircraft, forcing the hijackers to crash the plane in a Stonycreek Township field, near Shanksville, at 10:03 a.m. Investigators determined that Flight 93’s target was either the United States Capitol or the White House.