570 A.D.: Birth of Muhammad (per the Shi’a calendar (others put it at April 20th)), (d.632).
711: Moorish troops cross the Strait of Gibraltar to land in mainland Europe, beginning the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, known in Arabic as Al-Andalus (Andalucía in Spanish). The Moors (Berber Arabs from North Africa, recently converted to Islam) fought an eight year campaign against the Christian Visigoths under Roderick, on whose death in battle the Visigoth kingdom essentially collapsed, allowing the Moors to occupy virtually all of present day Spain and Portugal except for the Basque region in the north. They made continued forays over the Pyrenees, eventually taking substantial regions of Gaul under their control. The high water mark for Moorish expansion into Europe occurred at the Battle of Tours (Poitiers) in October of 732. At that battle, Frankish and Burgundian forces under Charles Martel (known at the time as “The Hammer”) won a decisive victory that set the stage for the Christian re-conquest of western Europe, which ended with the final expulsion of the Moors from Grenada in 1492.
1429: Led by what she claims is a vision directly from God, the young shepherdess Joan of Arc arrives in Orleans, France to relieve the English siege of that city.
1492: Christopher Columbus receives his commission from the Spanish Throne (Ferdinand and Isabella) to explore a western route to the Spice Islands of the Indies.
1521: Three quarters of the way around the first circumnavigation of the world, Portuguese navigator and explorer Ferdinand Magellan is killed on Mactan Island in the Philippines, only three weeks after making peaceful and productive contact with the indigenous inhabitants. After his death, the expedition continued under the command of Juan Sebastian Elcano, who managed to extend the westward passage all the way back to Spain. One cannot overstate the hardships they endured on their circumnavigation: of the five ships and 234 men who departed three years earlier, Elcano finished with one ship and 18 men.
1607: The English Virginia Company colonizing expedition led by John Smith (who was at that time confined below decks) makes its New World landfall at Cape Henry, not too far from where I’m sitting this morning.
1770: Captain James Cook in HMS Endeavour makes landfall in Botany Bay, Australia.
1773: In their continuing quest to look out for British interests, Parliament passes the Tea Act, lowering direct taxation on the East India Company and compensating by mandating a monopoly for their tea trade with America.
1789: After months of chafing under the abusive leadership of Captain William Bligh, Masters Mate Fletcher Christian leads 25 crewmen in a mutiny aboard HMS Bounty. The mutineers set adrift Bligh and 18 loyal crew members in an open 23 foot longboat. In an extraordinary feat of seamanship and survival, they navigate their way across 3600 miles of ocean to safely arrive at Timor in the Dutch East Indies on the 14th of June. Christian and the rest of the mutineers scuttle around the South Pacific trying to figure out what to do next. They eventually settle on remote Pitcairn Island, burning the Bounty to ensure their commitment to their new colonial effort.
1789: In New York City, Virginia planter, surveyor and Continental Army General George Washington is inaugurated as first President of the United States. The ceremony is notable for the pageantry that accompanied his travel from Mount Vernon, and the brown homespun suit he wore at the swearing in. Washington also established the tradition of placing his left hand on a family bible as he took the oath.
1791: Birth of Samuel F. B. Morse (d.1872), American painter and inventor.
1798: Birth of French romantic painter Eugene Delacroix (d.1863).
1803: The United States purchases from Napoleonic France the Louisiana Territory for $15,000,000. As part of an effort to disentangle French and Spanish claims over New Orleans, and to ensure adequate US access to the Mississippi River drainage through that city, President Thomas Jefferson sent James Monroe and Robert Livingston to France to negotiate buying the city outright. Napoleon, having recently failed to re-enslave Haiti, and preparing for continuing war with Great Britain, believed that maintaining France’s claim on the entire Louisiana Territory would only be a drain on French finances and add nothing to the upcoming fight with Great Britain. He therefore countered Livingston’s $10m offer for New Orleans with a $15m bid for the whole territory. Recognizing the fleeting nature of the prize, Livingston took the offer on April 30th and a treaty confirming the sale was signed on May 2nd. Although we celebrate the purchase today, it precipitated a constitutional crisis over whether the President had the authority to expand the United States in this manner. Jefferson himself was torn, and recognized that he would have opposed this expansion of Executive power if Alexander Hamilton had tried it. Napoleon, for his part, recognized the strategic nature of the sale: “This accession of territory affirms forever the power of the United States, and I have given England a maritime rival who sooner or later will humble her pride.”
1805: Led by a United States Agent and Marine Lieutenant Wesley O’Bannon, a small force of Marines and Berber mercenaries capture Derna, Tripoli and overthrow the anti-American pasha. Music lovers now hear something about The Shores of Tripoli ringing in their heads forever.
1810: Ludwig van Beethoven composes the piece beloved by piano students and their parents worldwide: Fur Elise.
1840: The world’s first adhesive postage stamp, the “Penny Black,” is issued in England.
1861: Slave state Maryland votes not to secede from the Union.
1861: Less than three weeks into the open rebellion of the southern states, President Lincoln suspends the writ of habeas corpus.
1861: West Virginia secedes from Virginia after the Old Dominion secedes from the United States.
1863: Opening engagement in the Battle of Chancellorsville. The week-long battle cemented Lee’s reputation as a master tactician, repelling a Union force twice his strength and foiling “Fighting Joe” Hooker’s efforts to perform a double pincer movement against the Army of Northern Virginia.
1863:The Battle of Camaron– Two years into the Second French Intervention in Mexico- (hold it: do I mean there was a First Intervention? (yes, I do (it was called the Pastry War (really- the Mexican government owed a French baker a 60,000 pesos (against damage to a 1,000 peso shop (from a series of riots (the French “won” the war with agreement for repayment of 10x the original claim (but Mexico failed to meet the terms of the treaty (which led to high dudgeon in America about the Monroe Doctrine being flouted (not to mention even higher dudgeon from Great Britain, Spain, and France (who finally decided to exploit the United States’ distraction with its civil war to establish a European monarchy in Mexico))))))))))) -(1861-1867), a small detachment of 65 fusiliers from the Foreign Legion were escorting a wagon train of arms, ammunition, and gold from the port of Veracruz up to the headquarters of the French siege of Puebla, when around 08:00 they were set upon by a contingent of Mexican cavalry. The Legionnaires took cover behind the walls of an abandon hacienda and, with particularly sharp rifle skills and military discipline, systematically turned back wave after wave of Mexican assaults. The Mexican commander, realizing that despite their initial setbacks he greatly outnumbered the French troops, attempted at mid-morning to negotiate a surrender rather than “unnecessarily slaughter” the French soldiers. The French captain declined the honor, saying he “had plenty of ammunition and shall continue to fight.” The Mexicans made two more fruitless surrender attempts at 14:00 and again at 17:00. At the last one, only five Legionnaires remained, and they were out of ammunition, so they fixed bayonets and made a screaming charge at the Mexican force. With two of them shot down immediately, the sergeant finally admitted defeat, but insisted the Mexicans allow them to keep their weapons and provide medical care for their mortally wounded lieutenant. The odds this day were 800 Mexican cavalry with 2,200 infantry versus 62 Legionnaires and three volunteer officers seconded from the regular army. The Legion killed 190 and wounded over 300 during the course of the ten hour battle. April 30th is honored in France to this day as Vie Cameronne, the greatest display of valor in Legion history.
1865: The river steamer SS Sultana, crammed with over 2,400 former Union POWs, explodes, burns and slowly sinks, taking an estimated 1,700 lives to a watery grave on the Mississippi River. The ship was part of a process of repatriating Union POWs, having recently boarded the men in Vicksburg and ferrying them up river to Saint Louis for repatriation and discharge. One family on board noted how the men were crammed in from rail to rail, a point to which the captain testified that the ship was “…over-crowded, not over-loaded.” The semantic distinction was lost when one of the ship’s hastily repaired boilers exploded, igniting a fire in the engine room that quickly spread throughout the ship. Only 800 survived. Coming so quickly on the heels of the bloodletting of the Civil War, the deaths seemed just another dismal statistic in a long string of dismal statistics in that conflict, and the loss was quickly forgotten in the public mind.
1865: Two weeks after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Confederate General Joe Johnston echoes Lee’s decision and professionalism, surrendering the remnants of his army to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman at Bennett Place, near Durham, N.C.
1865: Cornered in a burning barn at Garrett’s Farm in rural northern Virginia, and refusing to surrender himself, John Wilkes Booth is shot dead by Union soldiers.
1898: Steaming into Manila Bay under darkened ship, Commodore George Dewey, commander of the United States Asiatic Squadron, completely surprises the 10 ships of the Spanish navy lying at anchor off of Cavite Station. At dawn, with his ships arrayed 5400 yards from the Spanish, Dewey turns to the captain of the flagship Olympia and utters those immortal words, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” Dewey orders a cease fire at 08:00 to allow the Spanish to surrender but they refuse. Re-opening the engagement around 10:00, the one-sided fight continues until 12:30 with the capitulation of the 10th Spanish ship. 6 Americans are wounded in the action to the more than 400 Spanish sailors killed. Dewey becomes a national hero. His flagship now resides in Philadelphia as a museum ship.
1939: Opening of the New York World’s Fair, in New York City. The Art-Deco masterpiece remains the largest world’s fair in history. It’s theme was “The World of Tomorrow” and “Dawn of a New Day.”
1915: RMS Lusitania departs New York on her final voyage. Six days out, enroute to England, and only 8 miles off the coast of southern Ireland, she is torpedoed by a German submarine and sinks with the loss of nearly 1,200 lives, including 128 Americans. The sinking of this liner provoked outrage against Imperial Germany, who insisted she was a troop transport loaded with military manpower and supplies. Germany had, in fact, anticipated what was coming and openly published the following warning in the New York papers, directly adjacent to an advertisement for her voyage back to England:
1931: The Empire State Building is dedicated in Manhattan.
1941: Premier of Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane, which he co-wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the lead role.
1944: First flight of the ME-262 Sturmvogel, the world’s first operational jet fighter. It became the terror of the Allied bombers striking Central Europe, but it was held back from air-to-air in favor of close air support of the German ground troops, a mission for which it was less than terrific. A Texas firm reproduced five flyable machines under license from Messerschmitt, exact replicas of the venerable jet.
1945: Italian Fascist, “Il Duce” Benito Mussolini and his mistress are captured by Italian partisans, executed by firing squad, and their corpses displayed to the public: hanged by their heels on meat hooks in Milan’s main square.
1945: United States troops liberate the Dachau concentration camp just outside of Munich, in Bavaria. I visited the camp in 2005, and the sterility of the place is absolutely chilling. The tour guide makes the point repeatedly that Dachau was not an extermination camp per se, like Auschwitz-Birkenau, but that the deaths were the result of overwork, underfeeding, and disease exacerbated by horrid sanitation. Mere days before liberation, a prisoner transport train arrived from Buchenwald, but was moved to a siding just outside the camp and abandoned. Americans investigating the train discovered only 800 survivors of the over 4000 initially loaded into the freight cars. Over 2300 corpses were discovered in and around the train.
1947: Norwegian explorer Thor Hyerdahl and a small international crew depart Peru on their balsa raft Kon Tiki to test his theory that ancient South Americans could have populated the islands of the South Pacific. They arrive in the Polynesian island of Raroia 101 days later.
1951: Birth of NASCAR superstar Dale Earnhardt (d.2001 in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500).
1960: A U-2 reconnaissance plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union. Powers is held by the Soviets until traded for a captured Soviet spy in 1962.
1964: As part of the postwar surge of de-colonization, Tanganyika and Zanzibar merge to form Tanzania.
1964: The first BASIC program runs on a computer.
1965: Acting on President Johnson’s assertions that Cuba was behind the unrest that threatened to create another communist foothold in the Western Hemisphere, a force of 20,000 United States Marines land in the Dominican Republic to restore order. They remain for nearly 18 months.
1967: Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali (nee Cassius Clay) refuses his draft induction into the Army. He is stripped of his title but stays out of the Army anyway.
1975: With regular North Vietnamese Army forces entering the outskirts of the city, the United States begins evacuation of American citizens from Saigon in Operation Frequent Wind.
1975: Saigon unconditionally surrenders to the Viet Cong.
1986: International monitoring devices note the release of huge radioactive cloud near Kiev, in the Soviet Ukraine.
1986: Three days after it exploded and spewed more than 50 tons of highly radioactive steam into the atmosphere, the Soviet government admits to “a malfunction” in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
1986: Boston Pitcher Roger Clemens sets a MLB record of 20 strikeouts in nine innings against the Houston Astros.
1992: The Los Angeles Riots begin, triggered by the acquittal of LAPD officers caught on videotape beating Rodney King. On the second day of the riots, King appears on television, pleading, “Can’t we all just get along?” After three days of mayhem, 55 people are dead and hundreds of buildings and businesses are destroyed.