490BC: Athenian Hoplite warriors, using a highly developed phalanx formation, defeat the Persian army at the Battle of Marathon. The battle decisively halted the hitherto-inexorable advance of Darius I and his Persian army into the Doric peninsula, and brought an exceptional measure of confidence to the nascent city-state of Athens, which had long been under the shadow of the more militant Sparta. The rise of the Athenian Empire of the Classical period is dated from this victory. NOTE on tactics: the Athenian phalanx consisted of armored soldiers (bronze helmets & breastplate) lined up with overlapping shields providing a solid wall of protection against arrows, with offensive weaponry consisting of long-shafted iron spears thrust out from behind the shields. As the phalanx advanced, it was virtually unstoppable by anything except another phalanx; in many respects it was the “heavy armor” of the day. At Marathon, 9-10,000 Athenians, reinforced with a thousand Plataens, faced a Persian army of nearly 100,000 light infantry, including nearly 1,000 cavalry and 600 ships. For five days the Athenian force blocked the two exits from the Marathon plain, ostensibly waiting for the arrival of reinforcements from Sparta. But when it became clear that the Persians were about to move against them, the phalanxes formed up at night and moved first. As they began their attack, the Hoplites fended off the fusillades of Persian archery, and as the distance continued to close, the Athenians broke into a run while maintaining formation. The phalanx crushed the defending lines of Persian infantry, beginning with the wings and moving toward the center, causing complete pandemonium and destroying Darius’ ability to re-organize his force. At the end of the day, over 6,400 Persians lay dead on the battlefield, at the cost of 192 Hoplites. Darius withdrew back into Anatolia, and Persia did not make another foray into the region for over ten years.
122AD: Roman Emperor Hadrian begins construction of a massive wall across the borderlands between present-day Scotland and England.
1254: Birth of Venetian explorer Marco Polo (d.1324).
1608: Just a little ways up-river from here, 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.
1812: A week after his victory over the Russian army at Borodino Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grande Armee enter Moscow and take possession of the Kremlin.
1812: A day after Napoleon’s entry into Moscow, a series of fires begin just after midnight, spreading and building into a three day firestorm that consumes nearly ¾ of the mostly wooden city. The French evacuate until the fire is contained, but remain in occupation of the Russian capital.
1813: American Oliver Hazard Perry confronts and defeats a superior British naval squadron in the Battle of Lake Erie. As I noted on the occasion of his death he scratched out a victory message to General William Henry Harrison that was deliciously 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”
1818: Birth of Richard Gatling (d.1903), American firearms inventor, whose namesake gun I was privileged to shoot in both the A-7 and F-18.
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.
1862: As part of the plan exposed by Robert E. Lee’s “lost dispatch” a Confederate detachment under Stonewall Jackson captures the town of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, snagging with it a huge number of U.S. forces (12,419 Federals), the largest ever capture of American soldiers until the Japanese overwhelmed Bataan in 1942.
1875: Birth of James C. Penny (d.1971), who opened his first dry-goods store in Kemmerer, Wyoming, in 1902. In 1940, visiting one of his stores in Iowa, he trained a young employee named Sam Walton how to tie a package with a minimal amount of ribbon.
1891: Birth of Karl Donitz (d.1980), German submariner and intellect behind the highly effective “Wolfpack” strategy in World War II. Donitz had the dubious distinction of being named in Hitler’s will as his successor as head of the Third Reich. As such, he issued the surrender order to the German armed forces after a week in office, carefully working the timing of the event so that the bulk of the German armed forces would fall under the control of the Western Allies instead of the Soviet Union.
1903: Birth of Claudette Colbert (d.1996), one of the most bankable stars of the 1930s and 40s.
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. 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.
1916: After two and a half months of unrelenting combat in the Battle of the Somme British forces introduce the “tank” to the battlefield. The machine is impervious to barbed wire and rifle & machine gun fire, but is very slow moving (3 mph) and notoriously unreliable. That being said, it does the job of creating a clear path for supporting infantry to break through German defenses in several portions of the battle line.
1919: A disgruntled and discharged Corporal Adolf Hitler of the Imperial German Army, joins the German Workers Party.
1919: Congress officially authorizes U.S. veterans of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), fresh from their victorious return from the Great War, to incorporate The American Legion as a veterans support group under Title 36 U.S.C.
1929: Birth of the great American golfer Arnold Palmer (d.2016).
1835: HMS Beagle arrives in the Galapagos Islands with naturalist Charles Darwin aboard.
1938: Six months after the Austrian anschluss, and after six months of nationalist agitation, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler uses the language of Versailles in an incendiary speech demanding “self-determination” and “autonomy” for the German speaking population of the Sudetenland, a narrow two-part enclave of ethnic Germans inside the borders of the new Republic of Czechoslovakia. The Czech government responds by reinforcing its Bohemian border with Germany & Austria, but it is clear that a crisis is afoot.
1940: The most active day of the Battle of Britain– the first day of Germany’s final “decisive” air assault on England.
1945: Opening assault in the brutal Battle of Pelileu in the South Pacific.
1948: Margaret Chase Smith is elected Senator from Maine, becoming the first woman to be both Representative and Senator.
1948: The North American Aviation F-86 Sabrejet sets a world speed record of 671 mph. The design, particularly the swept-back wings, was derived from captured German aerodynamic research dating from 1940.
1950: After nearly four months of catastrophic defeats and retreats at the hands of communist North Korea’s juggernaut, and with the entirety of his active forces engaged holding onto the Pusan perimeter by their fingernails, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur orders up his final reserves (1st Marine Division and Army 7th Infantry Division) to make an amphibious landing at Inchon, Korea, the west coast port city just a few miles from the conquered capital city of Seoul, and hundreds of miles behind the North Korean front to the south. The invasion, timed to arrive between thirty foot (true) tide cycles and covering three separated landing areas, caught the NORKS completely unawares and overwhelmed by the naval and military power suddenly thrust into the strategic heart of the peninsula. The attack broke the back of North Korean logistics support to their overstretched and exhausted forces battling at Pusan, and within weeks the UN forces began rounding up over 135,000 NORK prisoners, followed by dramatically launching into a counter-attack that pushed the communist armies all the way back the border with China on the Yalu river.
MacArthur’s strategic sense and gambler’s timing overcame strong opposition from USN and Army leadership and gave the UN (make no mistake, it was overwhelmingly a US battle) forces a military and moral victory at the point when it appeared all was lost. After this day, it was not.
1956: Introduction of the first computer disc storage system, IBM’s RAMAC 305.
1967: Under the terms of UN General Assembly Resolution 2070, the residents of the Gibraltar Peninsula conduct a plebiscite on whether or not to abrogate the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) and return to Spanish sovereignty. I’m sure the genius politicians* in the UN and Spain were shocked at the outcome: on this day, the British subjects of the British colony of Gibraltar vote to remain British subjects. 44 souls of the electorate (0.36%) voted in favor of the return, while 12,138 (99.19%) voted against; (55 ballots (.45%) were spoiled and not counted).
1970: Jordan’s King Hussein declares martial law in response to an attempted fedeyeen coup against his Hashemite throne. The conspirators, organized around Yassir Arafat’s Fatah movement, vow revenge over their failure and form a new militant group known as Black September Organization in memory of this day. Two years later, the Black September kidnapped and assassinated eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich, ensuring that the terms “Palestinian” and “terrorist” would be forever linked.
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