This day in history, October 19th:
202 B.C.: At the Battle of Zama, in the Tunisian territory of Carthage, Roman General Scipio Africanus engages with and decisively defeats the great Carthaginian General Hannibal Barca, who, for the last 16 years, had occupied and systematically raided Roman colonies in the Iberian Peninsula, and after his dramatic crossing of the Alps, Italy itself. Hannibal’s domination of the battlefield turned not only the colonies, but many of Rome’s Italian city-states into Catharge’s vassals, a fact that drove the Senate to distraction and led to to both periodic armistices and more aggressive military resistance to the hated North Africans. By 202 B.C., Hannibal was recalled to Carthage to shore up the ruling party’s position. Almost simultaneously, the Senate dispatched Scipio Africanus to effect a landing in North Africa and bring Carthage to heel once and for all. The battle this day broke the back of the existing Carthaginian state; the brutal Roman terms against Carthage ushered in a period of peace lasting over 50 years. In the case of the Roman Senate, the fact of Carthage’s continued existence, however weakened, was unacceptable. It lead to continued agitation to solve the problem once and for all, and motivated the great orator Cato the Elder to end every one of his speeches with the phrase, “CARTHAGO DELENDA EST” or “Carthage must be destroyed!”
This was the last use of the famous war elephants in major combat- Scipio correctly reasoned that the giant animals were only trained to move straight ahead to mow down the ranks of soldiers in front of them. At Zama, as the charging elephant line was about to crush the Roman forces, Scipio ordered the blowing of war trumpets, not only as a means to panic the pachyderms, but also to signal the soldiers and cavalry in line of the elephants’ attack to spread apart and open lanes all the way through the force, allowing the Roman cavalry to deal with the confused animals in individual detail away from the main battle.
1512: Augustinian monk Martin Luther is ordained Doctor of Theology, two days later to be received into the faculty of the University of Wittenburg.
1781: Two days after asking for surrender terms, at 2:00 in the afternoon, the British army at Yorktown marched out of their bivouacs with their muskets shouldered and flags furled, the British band playing the tune “The World Turned Upside Down” as the men stacked arms and colors and went into custody as prisoners of war. George Washington was keenly aware of what we would today call the “optics” of the formal surrender, beginning with his refusal to allow the British to surrender with bayonets fixed and flags flying. Cornwallis himself refused to be a part of it, claiming illness, and ordered his Deputy Commander Charles O’Hara to lead the march and execute the symbolic handover of his sword. When the moment arrived, O’Hara first attempted to hand the sword to the French commander, General Rochambeau, who refused it and pointed across the way to the Americans. O’Hara then walked over to General Washington, who also refused it, and directed him to present the sword to his own Deputy Commander Benjamin Lincoln, who accepted it, thus de facto ending the Revolutionary War; the du jure part would have to wait for two years of intense negotiations (kind of like Brexit, only backwards).
The Yorktown’s battlefield, where the preserved redoubts and siege lines bring has been well preserved, and still highlights the strength of the Franco-American position, and the tenuousness of the British in Yorktown itself. The self-guided driving tour will take you well behind the American lines to an area called the Surrender Field, where this event took place. A very well-narrated description of the surrender ceremony is available at this location.
1812: Five weeks after entering the flaming remains of Moscow, with his army previously depleted at the Battle of Borodino and there being virtually no remaining supplies to plunder, Napoleon Bonaparte orders the Grande Armee to turn around and begin the long retreat back to France. The losses suffered by this once omnipotent force are staggering, and remain a central focus for students at American war colleges to this day.
1901: Birth of Arleigh “31 Knot” Burke (d.1996), American naval officer renowned during WWII for the aggressiveness of his destroyer squadron in combat.