1577: Death of the Italian Renaissance painter Titian (b.1488).
1666: The Great Fire of London breaks out and burns for three days, destroying over 10,000 buildings, including Saint Paul’s Cathedral.
1715: Death of The Sun King, Louis XIV (b.1638), ending a reign of over 72 years. It is probably impossible to summarize a life as consequential as his in a DLH paragraph, but here goes anyway: Louis was the personification of the concept of an absolute monarch, who believed he was put into his position by divine right, and was not subject to any standard of law other than God’s. When asked once to define the nature of the state, he responded with the famous quip,“L’etat, c’est moi.” (I am the State). It was Louis quatorze who converted the royal hunting lodge outside of Paris into the Palais du Versailles, forcing the nobility by decree to reside in its apartments and live the Court life isolated and distant from their own power bases in Paris and the other, more distant regions of France. Versailles put the final punctuation mark on the development of a centralized, unitary state on the European continent, with its glamour and opulence seducing the nobility away from their nominal political independence from the French crown. (Note on style: Louis XIV is always shown with the classical “big hair” which in his case is often described as compensation for an early receding hairline. The fact that the King himself wore long, curled tresses set in play the somewhat bizarre (to our eyes) hair styles that characterized the aristocracy across Europe for the next hundred years. During the English Civil War, the rabid NON-aristocracy took pains to shave their heads to disassociate themselves with the monarchy, and became known as “Roundheads” in consequence: less hair = more piety in their cases. Of course, during the French Revolution, it became a matter of Reason, not style, for the true revolutionaries to cut their hair to more practical lengths).
1748: Birth of Jacques-Louis David (d.1825), whose masterful works defined the transition from 18th Century Rococo to the bold Neo-Classical composition and coloring of the Enlightenment movement. During the French Revolution, he became the de facto state artist, as we saw several weeks ago with his Death of Marat work. When Napoleon came to power he led the next transition into what is known as the Empire style, continuing the classical tradition, but in a contemporary context. His work kept him at the top of the art world until his death, and even afterward, as his legions of students maintained his influence well into the 19th Century.
1776: General George Washington and the Continental Army suffered a strategic defeat at Brooklyn Heights when the British army under General William Howe outflanks his defenses and almost completely encircles the American forces as they retreat to prepared position on the heights. By late afternoon Washington recognizes they cannot hold the ground at Brooklyn and orders a retreat across the East River to Manhattan Island. While Howe is carefully digging in for a siege of the American redoubts, Washington evacuates the American army without further loss of life. Between the excellence of Howe’s forces and the strength of the British fleet that controls New York harbor, Washington eventually realizes he will have to completely evacuate New York. On the positive side, the successful evacuation from Brooklyn ensures that the entire Continental Army remains a viable force-in-being that the British will not be able to ignore as the war deepens.
1780: Birth of the great French painter Jean Ingres (d.1867). His work is distinctive for its subtle emphasis on “line,” not just the shapes of things themselves, but the movement of the line against- and in relation to– its background. He is also noted for the way his enamel-like colors enhance the “line” concept.
1792: In France’s continuing descent into the anarchy and bloodletting of the Revolution, mobs throughout Paris go on a rampage known as the September Massacres. Like most mob actions, this one began with a rumor, although the rumor had some basis in fact: the Duke of Brunswick’s Prussian army had indeed invaded France just days prior, overpowering the border fortress of Verdun before continuing on toward Paris. The Paris mobs, essentially un-led by anything resembling a functioning government, concluded that the officers at Verdun must have been secret Royalists who turned the fortress over to the Prussians. Brunswick himself was unusually blunt in publicly stating his aims to restore the monarchy and the authority of the church from the anarchy of the revolution. Fearing an uprising of the monarchists imprisoned throughout the city, the mobs surged into those prisons, most notably Saint Germaine du Pres, and began slaughtering all the “monarchists” behind the bars. For good measure, they also attacked and killed over 500 Carmelite priests and a number of other clergy. Within weeks, over 1,200 had been murdered by the mob in the name of the Revolution and Reason.
1799: In a little-known episode from the continuing wars of the various anti-France coalitions (in this case, the Second Coalition), a British fleet under the command of Vice-Admiral Andrew Mitchell captures an entire Batavian Dutch fleet of twelve ships under the command of Rear Admiral Samuel Story without firing a shot. The victory hinged on an outstanding intelligence estimate, the Brits’ timely and correct application of diplomacy, a credible threat of devastating force, and a civil-military “strategic communications” plan that played directly into the nationalistic sentiments of Dutch sailors who served under the French-ruled Batavian Republic. The action took place near present-day Den Helder at the mouth of the Zuider Zee: a British army had made a landing three days earlier on the North Sea side of the peninsula. The fleet then made its way into the Helder roadstead, flying the flag of the Hereditary Stadtholder, the Prince of Orange. The knowledge of the British landing, combined with the sight of the British fleet and the knowledge that their actual sovereign was within range, triggered a spontaneous mutiny of the Dutch sailors and most of their officers against the hated French. Admiral Story, recognizing that resistance would be fruitless, offered to surrender his fleet to the Stadtholder and himself and his men to the British as Prisoners of War. Admiral Mitchell made a point of delaying the decision but then took it before the French had an opportunity to re-establish their control of the fleet. British prize crews sailed the best of the ships back to England, where they were inducted into the Royal Navy. This event became known as the Vlieter Incident. It was a singular success from an otherwise disastrous 1799 Anglo-Russian Campaign, which began to unravel almost immediately after today’s startling victory.
1859: First commercial extraction of oil, from a well near Titusville, Pennsylvania. “Pennsylvania grade crude” and “Pennzoil” are a couple of legacies of this event, as are Standard Oil & J.D. Rockefeller, among others.
1864: Union General William T. Sherman opens his assault on the strategic railroad crossroad of Atlanta, defended by Confederate General John Bell Hood. The crushing Union force overwhelms Hood’s defenses, forcing them to finally evacuate on September 2nd. On entering Atlanta, Sherman orders all civilians to leave the city, an act that prompted the city council to appeal on behalf of the women, children, elderly, and those who had no bearing on the conduct of the war. Sherman’s response remains the quintessence of harsh realism tempered with what I used to call a ‘magisterial humility’ but after repeated verbal beatings from certain dearly beloved DLH friends, I will modify my preface to, “…tempered by a very real humanity:” “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war.[…] I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war, and I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect and early success. But, my dear sirs, when peace does come, you may call on me for anything. Then will I share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter.” In November, he ordered his troops to destroy every government and military building in the city, an act that quite literally burned Sherman’s image into Southern consciousness to this day.
1883: The Indonesian volcanic island of Krakatoa self-destructs in a paroxysm of explosions that caused the landmass to completely disappear beneath the waves of the Sunda Strait. The final explosion was heard distinctly in Perth, Australia (1,930 miles away) and on Rodrigues Island off the coast of Africa, over 3,000 miles across the Indian Ocean. The force of the detonation is nominally estimated at 200 Megatons, equivalent to about 13,000 “Little Boy” atomic bombs (Hiroshima). The explosion ejected into the atmosphere approximately 5 cubic MILES of pumice, rock, and ash, creating beautiful sunsets and cold winters around the world for several years. Since 1927 the volcano has been building a new island, named Anak Krakatau (Child of Krakatoa), which is growing about 5 meters a year.
1885: German engineer, designer and handyman Gottlieb Daimler patents the world’s first motor-cycle, powered by a one cylinder, one horsepower gasoline engine he nicknamed the “grandfather clock engine.” You probably knew that he went on to join forces with his fellow small-engine junkie Wilhelm Maybach to form the motor company we now know as Mercedes-Benz.
1895: In Latrobe, Pennsylvania, kickoff for the nation’s first professional football game. The game was contested between the Latrobe YMCA team and a team from nearby Jeannette PA. Latrobe pays its quarterback John Brallier $10.00 for expenses. Latrobe won, 12-0, and claimed the offered prize money. Brailler prudently went on to a career in dentistry, but he was given lifetime passes for all National Football League games. He died in Latrobe in 1960 at age 83.
1896: The shortest war in history is fought between Great Britain and Zanzibar, a result of a dispute over the accession of the new Sultan of Zanzibar. With an ultimatum expiring to no effect at 0900, a British task force opened fire on the palace, setting it afire and destroying Zanzibar’s only artillery pieces, in addition to sinking a royal yacht. When the palace flag is finally hit and knocked down at 0940, the Brits cease-fire and a complex diplomatic dance between Germany, Zanzibar, and Great Britain ensues, with the British choice for sultan eventually taking the throne. Total time in combat: 40 minutes.
1897: Inventor Thomas Alva Edison patents the Kinetoscope, the world’s first movie projector.
1899: Birth of British author Cecil Louis Troughton Smith, better known by his pen name, C.S. Forester (d.1966), from whose fertile mind came the eleven books detailing the life and times of Captain Horatio Hornblower, among other swashbuckling heroes, and the delightful anti-hero of Charlie Allnut of The African Queen (1935). He is also the author of The General (1936), a cold-eyed satire of a generic WWI British general, portraying for the first time the stereotype of a military leader as a hidebound and unimaginative dolt, insulated by the perks and prerogatives of his position.
1901: Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, speaking at the Minnesota State Fair, first uses the expression, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”
1911: Ishi, the last Native American to make contact with American civilization, steps out of the woods near Mount Lassen in northern California to meet his destiny. He immediately became a sensation in anthropological circles, providing demonstrations of a former life completely independent of European influence. He lived at the University of California, San Francisco, until his death from tuberculosis in 1915.
1914: Only four weeks into the Great War, the Imperial German 8th Army of 166,000 under the command of Field Marshalls Paul von Hindenburg and Eric Ludendorf, decisively smashes the Russian 1st and 2nd Armies in the Battle of Tannenberg. The three-day fight in East Prussia saw Hindenburg take full advantage of the German railroad network to quickly move his forces to a position where Ludendorf could engage them as a singular unit against both Russian groups. Their adaptability and ability to concentrate against the Russian flanks (It was the classic “double envelopment” or “pincer” movement derived from Hannibal’s victory at Cannae) allowed them to completely dominate the battlefield, killing or wounding 78,000 and capturing 92,000 of the 416,000 total Russian force. Rather than report the loss to the Tsar, the Russian commander committed suicide. Over the next three years, Russia was never able to recoup from the shattering loss, and eventually sued for a separate peace.
1928: In one of the more obtuse pieces of diplomatic idealism ever to be ratified, the Kellogg-Briand Pact is signed by the United States and 14 other nations. The treaty, negotiated outside the jurisdiction of the League of Nations, essentially outlaws war as a legitimate diplomatic tool, except for self-defense. It is no stretch to say the treaty (which is actually still in force) is honored only in the breach, but it was the basis for the “crimes against the peace” that underlay the post WWII Nuremburg Trials.
1937: Birth of New Zealand race car driver and designer Bruce McClaren (d.1970). Race winner in Formula 1, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the CanAm series, and the Indy 500. His brilliant driving style directly influenced crucial racing developments in aerodynamics, suspension, and highly focused engineering efforts. He was killed while testing an M8D CanAm car at Goodwood at age 32, but his legacy lives on today as a major constructor in Formula 1 and in an eponymous automobile business that defines the word “supercar.”
1939: After finally using up all their diplomatic pretexts, and having neutered their Soviet adversaries with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact, Nazi Germany invades Poland, thus marking the start of World War II. The Poles put up fierce resistance, but German Blitzkrieg tactics, refined in combat with the Condor Legions in Spain, overwhelm Poland’s defenses.
1949: The Soviet Union detonates its first atomic bomb. Despite a significant level of in-house development by Soviet scientists, the event was hastened by broad-based espionage from the Manhattan Project by Klaus Fuchs, who provided the Soviets significant details on gaseous diffusion of uranium isotopes, using plutonium instead of uranium in the fission device, techniques for extracting plutonium through a “uranium pipe,” confirmation of critical mass (determined after years of trial and error by the Manhattan Project), and a complete set of blueprints and schematics for our own atomic bomb. There remains some level of indignant debate in Russian circles over whether they would have succeeded on their own, but the point is moot.
1964: Death of Alvin York (b.1887). The World War I hero was a corporal during the Meuse-Argonne campaign when his battalion began to be mowed down by 32 German machine gun nests. As the firing let up, York realized it was only him and six others who could still function. He led the men behind the German machine gun line and began to systematically pick off the Germans one by one- (“And those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful. And the Germans were yelling orders. You never heard such a racket in all of your life. I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush… As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. There were over thirty of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharpshooting… All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn’t want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had.) …until the commander closest to him surrendered the remaining 132 Germans to the seven Americans. His actions earned him the Medal of Honor and a battlefield promotion to Sergeant. The Tennessee native later explained that it was something like picking off squirrels, he started shooting at the back of the line so the ones in front didn’t know they were being cut down until it was too late.
1965: First flight of the B-337-SG/SGT Super Guppy airplane, designed to carry outsized cargo. Only one remains flying, with NASA, to haul gigantic space station parts around the country.
1966: The Beatles perform their last concert for paying customers, held in San Francisco at Candlestick Park. I was too young to attend, really.
1969: Death of Ho Chi Minh (b.1890), Vietnamese revolutionary and politician. He served as Prime Minister of North Vietnam from 1945 to 1955 and President from 1945 until his death in 1969. Ideologically a Marxist–Leninist, he served as Chairman and First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Vietnam.
1972: In Reykjavik, Iceland, American chess wizard and political gadfly Bobby Fischer defeats Soviet chess master Boris Spassky to become the World Champion of Chess. Because the international chess tournament worked its way down to these two competitors, the match took on unusual levels of Cold War significance, made even more weird by the antics of both of these titanic egos making demands on the lighting, stage positioning, hours of play, food, breaks, etc.,
1997: Death of Diana, Princess of Wales; from injuries sustained in a Paris tunnel automobile crash.
2005: Hurricane Katrina slams into the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, wreaking havoc. Minimum central pressure was 902 mb, or 26.64 in/hg. You know the rest of the story. Over 1,800 souls lost and $125,000,000,000.00 in property damage.