1204: Armies of the Fourth Crusade enter the city and begin the Sack of Constantinople. DLH note: For all the quacking that goes on today about the Crusades, it is rare indeed to hear the complainers mention this particular Crusade, which has had greater long-term effects than all the others combined. The city that fell this day was the capital of the Byzantine Empire- stay with me- the Christian Byzantine Empire, headed by the Christian Emperor and the seat of the Christian Pope of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Plenty of infidel Moslems around, to be sure, but they were not (yet) anywhere near taking political power in Anatolia until the Christian Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade demolished the Emperor’s armies and gutted his city. Once the Crusade left town and continued on their way to the Levant, the way was now clear for the ever-restless Ottoman Turks to establish a Moslem caliphate on the husks of what was for a thousand years, the beating heart of Christianity.
1446: Death of Filippo Brunelleschi (b.1377), designer and chief engineer of the magnificent dome topping the Florence cathedral. The span and weight of the dome was orders of magnitude larger than ever previously attempted, and Brunelleschi’s innovative thinking and close supervision of the project ensured its successful completion.
1452: Birth of Leonardo da Vinci (d.1519)
1492: Genovese mariner Christopher Columbus signs a contract with the Spanish Court to find a direct ocean passage to the Indies.
1521: At the Diet of Worms*, the monk Martin Luther is excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church for heresy and denying the authority of the pope. During his cross-examination he is repeatedly asked,“Do you recant?” (i.e., from his writings on the nature of forgiveness). In his timeless reply, he firmly responds, “Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me, Amen!“
1534: Sir Thomas More is imprisoned in the Tower of London.
1570: Birth of Guy Fawkes, a key figure of the famous Gunpowder Plot to destroy Parliament in 1605. We’ll read more about the plot in November- the 5th, to be exact, but for now we’ll ponder an anarchist’s description of him: “The only man ever to enter Parliament with honest intentions.”
1633: Galileo Galilei is convicted and sent into house arrest by the Holy Inquisition for publishing and then not recanting that the earth revolved around the sun. Over 350 years later, Pope John Paul II overturns the conviction.
1755: Publication of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language. The project was contracted for three years, but took nine, and remained the standard for our native tongue until the publication of the first Oxford English Dictionary in 1928.
1777: Birth of Kentucky Congressman and Senator Henry Clay.
1790: Death of Benjamin Franklin (b.1706), in Philadelphia at age 84.
1814: Napoleon Bonaparte abdicates as Emperor and departs for exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba.
1861: Under the command of P.G.T Beauregard, at 4:27 AM rebellious South Carolinians open fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. 34 hours and over 4000 artillery and mortar shells later, United States Army Major Robert Anderson surrenders the fort. Two days later President Lincoln asks for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. The first lanyard of the Confederate barrage is pulled by the “rabid secessionist” Edmund Ruffin of Virginia.
1861: Colonel Robert E. Lee resigns from the United States Army.
1865: At Appomattox, Confederate Major-General John Brown Gordon leads the march of the remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia through the drawn up ranks of Union soldiers under the command of Brigadier General Joshua Chamberlain, to stack their arms and return home. As General Gordon presents his lists to Chamberlain, the Union general calls his troops to attention and orders them to present arms as a mark of respect to their defeated foes. The ragged Confederates continue to march through the silent Union force until the disarming is complete, and the Civil War is over, four years to the day from when it began.
1865: Shouting “Sic Semper Tyrannis*- the South is avenged!” actor John Wilkes Booth shoots President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. He breaks his left leg leaping from the Presidential box onto the stage but succeeds in escaping Washington D.C. After getting his leg set by Dr. Mudd (‘your name is Mud’) he continues his flight but is cornered and killed in a burning barn near Bowling Green, Virginia. Lincoln dies the morning of the 15th at 7:22. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton is at the President’s bedside and declaims, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
1892: Birth of Arthur Travers “Bomber” Harris (d.1984), Air Marshall and Commander-in-Chief of RAF Bomber Command during WWII. He was at the business end of executing the concept of massive area bombing of German cities, with such successes as the firestorm in Hamburg. Harris had many pithy quotes, but is probably best remembered for his February, 1945 expostulation, “I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.”
1894: Birth of Nikita Khrushchev (d.1971). The embodiment of the Soviet system throughout the 50s & 60s; one of Stalin and Beria’s thugs who outlived them long enough to denounce them.
1902: James C. Penney opens his first dry goods store in Kemmerer, Wyoming.
1911: Lieutenant Theodore “Spuds” Ellyson qualifies as Naval Aviator #1.
1912: Death of Clara Barton (b.1821), who achieved notoriety during the Civil War as the “Angel of the Battlefield” for her efforts to ease the suffering of the wounded and dying. She went on to become the founder and first president of the American Red Cross in 1881.
1912: Cruising through the darkness of a preternaturally calm North Atlantic at normal speed, RMS Titanic strikes an iceberg and sinks. Over 1500 passengers drown in what remains the single biggest non-combat transportation disaster in history. During the centennial a couple years back, you couldn’t avoid Titanic stories. I think I was most surprised to see the BBC’s Downton Abbey series open with it in Season One, Episode One, Scene One.
1918: San Francisco native Douglas Campbell (1896-1990) shoots down his fifth German aircraft to become the United States’ first combat ace.
1919: Five time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs is sent to prison under the sedition provisions of the Espionage Act of 1917. The fiery union man and leader of the Socialist Party, USA, earned the undying enmity of President Woodrow Wilson for his continuing series of speeches against U.S. participation in the Great War, and in particular against the draft. His June, 1918 anti-draft speech was the last straw: Debs was arrested and charged with 10 counts of sedition. He called no defense witness at his trial and spoke on his own behalf in a 2 hour statement that was called by “journalist” (I use the term loosely) Heywood Broun “…one of the most beautiful and moving passage in the English language. He was for that one afternoon touched with inspiration. If anyone told me that tongues of fire danced upon his shoulders as he spoke, I would believe it.” During subsequent clemency proceedings, President Wilson wrote, “While the flower of American youth was pouring out its blood to vindicate the cause of civilization, this man, Debs, stood behind the lines sniping, attacking, and denouncing them….This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration.” Debs’ 10 year sentence was eventually commuted by President Harding. He died in 1926.
1943: Katyn Forest Massacre: during their drive across Poland, the German army discovers a series of mass graves containing the bodies of over 20,000 Polish prisoners captured by the Soviets during the 1939 partition of that country. In a rare display of honest revulsion, the Nazis announce the finding to the world, convening an international panel of forensic experts and neutral journalists to document the breadth and scope of the massacre. Joseph Goebbels was frank about using the findings for anti-Soviet propaganda purposes; he recognized that if they didn’t get the story out first, the Soviets would certainly turn it around on the Germans in the event of Russian re-occupation of the site. The Soviets steadfastly denied their culpability until 1990, with the release of archival documents that vividly show how Beria, Khrushchev, and Stalin himself recognized significant post-war opportunities for the communist movement if they could decapitate the leadership of Poland during the cover of war. The final tally of the murdered victims includes over half of the Polish officer corps, including 14 generals, an admiral, and appropriately higher numbers of colonels and below, including as well doctors, police leadership, university professors and members of the technical elite.
1945: President Franklin D. Roosevelt (b.1882) dies at his home in Warm Springs, Georgia, three months into his fourth term.
1945: Lieutenant Colonel Boris Pash, USA, seizes 1,100 tons of enriched uranium in Strassfurt, Germany. The Nazis were not collecting it to make glowing watch faces, but you probably deduced that part. It would be fair to say this capture was a close run thingin the race for atomic weapons, if not for the incipient Nazi threat, but also for the chance that our Soviet “allies” could have found it first.
1951: Mickey Mantle’s steps on-field for his first game with the New York Yankees. He goes 1 for 4.
1947: Birth of former insurance salesman Tom Clancy (d.2013). Remind me sometime to tell you about our “interview” when I met him back in 1994.
1961: After two years of secret training, the Soviet Union successfully launches Major Yuri Gagarin into orbit. He immediately becomes both an international hero and a propaganda icon for the Soviet state, too valuable to be allowed to make another space flight. He is killed under “suspicious circumstances” in a 1968 plane crash just outside of Moscow.
1961: First day of the Bay of Pigs invasion.
1964: Sandy Koufax pitches his 9th complete game without allowing a walk.
1970: Two days after launch, and halfway between the Earth and the Moon, an oxygen tank in Apollo 13’s Service Module explodes, causing the entire system to lose power and forcing the crew to complete the flight using the Lunar Module as a “lifeboat” for electricity, oxygen and trans-lunar navigation.
1970: After a harrowing trip around the moon and manual course corrections made by sightings through the LM windows along the limb of the earth, Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell, and crew Fred Haise and Jack Swigert make a successful splashdown within sight of the recovery ship USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2).
1986: The U.S. launches air strikes on Libya, dubbed Operation Eldorado Canyon. I know that several of our trusty DLH correspondents participated in that event.
1988: USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) strikes an Iranian mine floating free in international waters. The blast tears a fifteen foot hole in the hull, breaks the keel, and floods an engine room. The crew fought fire and flooding for over five hours, decisively saving the ship from otherwise certain destruction. Roberts was eventually lifted aboard a Dutch heavy-lift barge, the Mighty Servant 2, and returned to the United States for repairs. After forensics proved a direct link from the mine to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Navy launched Operation Praying Mantis, a one-day retaliation that destroyed two Iranian oil platforms they had converted to command and control stations, sank an Iranian frigate, heavily damaged another, and sank three Iranian high speed patrol boats. None of Roberts’ crew was killed, although ten were injured as a result of the blast.
1997: Tiger Woods becomes the youngest winner (at 21) of the Masters Tournament.