742: Birth of Charlemagne, first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. If you want to demonstrate to your friends your exceptional historical erudition, you should now smugly say something along the lines of, “…and it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor was it an empire.”
1093: Dedication of Winchester Cathedral, the nominal home of King Arthur’s round table.
1453: Ottoman Turk Mehmed II begins his siege of Constantinople, which finally falls in May, ending the Christian Byzantine Empire and establishing the Muslim Ottoman Empire (which survived through the Great War as “The Sick Man of Europe,” but was finally dismembered via the Treaty of Versailles (1919)). Mehmed is credited with adopting many aspects of Byzantine administration over a fractious empire. His religious tolerance enabled one of his key methods for keeping the Christian remnants under control: kidnap the brightest Christian children from the provinces and train them up to serve in the Sultan’s court or as his personal bodyguards, the Janissaries.
1521: Continuing his exploration of the Philippine archipelago, Ferdinand Magellan lands on the island of Cebu.
1588: Birth of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (d.1679). He is probably best known for his rather gloomy view of the human condition and the need for a powerful sovereign to maintain order. In his magnum opus, Leviathan (1651), Hobbes described life of an unconstrained individual in a state of nature as “…solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
1590: Death of Francis Walsingham, one of Elizabeth I’s key advisors and mentors. Walsingham developed the world’s first professional intelligence service, with agents, spies and couriers posted throughout Europe, but most prominently within the Spanish-Scottish nexus, wherein dwelt persistent and dangerous attempts to restore the Catholic Queen Mary to the throne of England.
1614: Virginia native Pocahontas marries British subject and Jamestown leader John Rolfe.
1621: After wintering over in Cape Cod Bay, Mayflower sets sail from Plymouth, Massachusetts on its return trip to England.
1730: Dedication of Shearith Israel– the first synagogue in NYC.
1743: Birth of Thomas Jefferson (d.1826).
1776: The Continental Congress authorizes its first Letters of Marque and Reprisal. In a bill signed by John Hancock, its president, and dated April 3, 1776, the Continental Congress issued “INSTRUCTIONS to the COMMANDERS of Private Ships or vessels of War, which shall have Commissions of Letters of Marque and Reprisal, authorizing them to make Captures of British Vessels and Cargoes.”
1792: President Washington issues the first presidential veto on a bill concerning apportionment of representatives between the several states.
1793: The Committee of Public Safety assumes executive control over the government of revolutionary France, four years into the turmoil we now recognize as the French Revolution. The Committee, under the leadership of Citizen Maximilian Robespierre, begins its work to suppress counter-revolutionary activity, particularly of the Girondins, toxic enemies of Robespierre and his Jacobin faction. By July the Committee had reorganized itself to the task of physically eliminating all opposition, which led to la Terreur, (a.k.a., The Terror) during which the guillotine (“the National Razor”) lopped off nearly 40,000 French heads of various political persuasions. The public orgy of death accelerated itself into la Grande Terreur until it finally disposed of the chief terrorist of them all- Robespierre himself- in July of 1794.
1795: As part of the new French Republic’s emphasis on rationalization, the French National Assembly accepts the meter as the basic measure of length. The process began within a year after the revolution began and, perhaps- one might presume– had something to do with extricating France from the navigational dominance of Great Britain (a.k.a. L’Albion Perfide), who had already defined the Prime Meridian as the N-S line running through the naval observatory at Greenwich, and who had further defined the nautical mile as 2000 yards or 1 minute of latitude. In any event, France decided they needed a “rational” measure around three feet long. In 1790, the Assembly first defined it as the length of a pendulum with a half-period of one second. In 1791, they accepted the recommendation of the National Academy of Science which determined that there are 10,000,000 meters (10,000 kilometers) between the north pole and the equator along the meridian running through the center of Paris. So there! And it is all divisible by 10, not 12, like the perfidious English. Tant pis! The meter has gone through six further refinements since this date, the latest being 2002, when the International Committee of Weights and Measures declared it a “proper length.”
1801: The British Channel Fleet, with Horatio Lord Nelson second in command, destroys the majority of the Danish fleet in the Battle of Copenhagen. During the battle, Nelson refused an order to withdraw, instead turning with renewed fury to pound the line of moored Danish ships. At the height of this renewed engagement, Nelson suddenly ceased fire and opened negotiations with the Danes, who in the end agreed to a fourteen-week armistice. The victory was a blow to French interests in the Baltic and gave the British breathing room to re-fit and continue their seaborne pressure on trade with the French Republic.
1820: Venus de Milo (b.130 BC) is discovered on the Greek island of Melos, and is transported to Paris for public display at the Louvre.
1860: Pony Express mail service begins between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California. The money-losing service inspired the country with its dramatic rides and colorful riders (including William “Buffalo Bill” Cody), but quickly lost its reason for being with the rapid expansion of the telegraph and railroad services. The last horses ran in October, 1861.
1862: A year into the War Between the States, Union Major General U.S. Grant’s army meets Confederate General Albert Sidney-Johnston at the Battle of Shiloh, in western Tennessee. The two-day battle looked like a potential Confederate victory as the first night fell, but Union troops physically reinforced their position in a low spot near Pittsburgh Landing and were further reinforced in numbers that evening by the arrival of MG Don Carlos Buell and his army. The Union counter-attack the next morning overwhelmed the Confederates, killing General Johnston and forcing his deputy, P.G.T. Beauregard to withdraw before the slaughter became a complete rout. Shiloh was the bloodiest battle in the war to date, with over 13,000 Union and 11,000 Confederate casualties. Grant was highly criticized by the Union press for his performance on the first day, but was vindicated by President Lincoln, who, when flooded with calls for Grant’s sacking, declared: “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”
1865: Union troops overrun Confederate defenses at Petersburg. Lee orders a strategic retreat up the Appomattox River.
1865: On news of the fall of Petersburg, President Jefferson Davis and his war cabinet abandon Richmond in the hopes of re-establishing a functioning Confederate government in Mississippi.
1865: Union forces enter Richmond, where they find little but the burned out shells of its downtown buildings, fired by the retreating Confederates. Robert E. Lee leads the remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia up the Appomattox River to meet with a promised supply train near Lynchburg.
1865: Battle of Saylors Creek. Three days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee abandoned the defenses of Petersburg, the cavalry of Union General Phil Sheridan cut off his planned route to meet up with Joe Johnson at Danville. Marching without food, and with a promise from the Confederate Commissary General for 80,000 rations waiting for him in Farmville, Lee shifted direction and began moving his army due west. But Lee’s shift to the right was countered by a further swing of Sheridan’s cavalry, effectively surrounding and capturing in a short, sharp battle nearly a quarter of Lee’s army, including 8 general officers, and unknown to Lee, the Confederate commissary train itself. Although it was a Union victory, it came at a cost of nearly 1200 casualties. When Lee saw the remnants of the fight streaming along the road, he exclaimed out loud, “My God! Has the army dissolved?”
1882: Former Confederate guerrilla (and participant in the 1863 massacre at Lawrence, Kansas) Jesse James is shot in the back by a member of his own gang, Robert Ford.
1887: Anne Sullivan teaches the word “water” to Helen Keller.
1891: Death of circus impresario P.T. Barnum (b.1810).
1896: The first modern Olympic Games opens in Athens.
1904: Great Britain and France sign a mostly secret Entente Cordial which, although structured around their spheres of influence in their global empires, actually signaled the end of over a century of near-continuous hostility and occasional war between the two countries. The treaty solidified the obligations of one another against potential hostilities with the burgeoning Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, also treaty-bound by their own Triple Alliance. By 1907 Russia grew increasingly concerned over the conduct of the Central Powers, particularly Austria-Hungary in the Balkans, leading them to join with France and Britain to create the Triple Entente.
1913: Ratification of the 17th Amendment, specifying the direct election of Senators, a key political goal of the Progressive movement. Prior to this, Senators were appointed by state legislatures and represented the interests of the several States themselves, serving as a powerful check on Federal overreach.
1917: President Woodrow Wilson asks Congress for a declaration of war against Imperial Germany.
1917: Vladimir I. Lenin arrives in St. Petersburg from Switzerland, via Germany and Sweden. There is a fascinating sub-plot to this story, in that the putative leader of Russia’s Bolsheviks was in exile in Switzerland when the original Russian Revolution broke out in February, and was thus unable to influence the course of events. As the Kerensky government vainly tried to find its post-czarist footing, the Imperial German government sensed a unique opportunity to consolidate its dominant military victories on the eastern front with a decisive political victory that would decapitate the Russian government. The Germans made secret arrangements for a guarded “extra-territorial” train to transport a small cadre of their nominal Russian enemies from their Swiss exile in order to foment continued revolution, with the goal of generating a separate peace between Russia and Germany. The plan worked exactly as expected, with Lenin’s Bolshevik faction seizing power in October and making it their first order of business to conclude the Treaty of Brest-Litvosk in March, 1918. Russia thence continued its descent into Soviet Communism, prompting Winston Churchill to offer his typically concise summation of how it started:
“Lenin was sent into Russia by the Germans in the same way that you might send a phial containing a culture of typhoid or cholera to be poured into the water supply of a great city, and it worked with amazing accuracy.” (–Speech to the House of Commons, November, 1919).
1922: Joseph Stalin becomes General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
1931: Fox Studios fires John Wayne from its list of in-house actors.
1933: Prohibition ends for the production and sale of 3.2% beer, eight months before final ratification of the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th.
1936: Richard Bruno Hauptmann is executed by the electric chair for the kidnapping and murder of Charles and Ann Morrow Lindbergh’s baby.
1945: USN carrier aircraft from Task Force 58 under Admiral Marc Mitscher, attack and sink Imperial Japan’s largest and most powerful battleship, IJN Yamato, during the opening stages of the Battle of Okinawa. In an operation called Ten-Go, Yamato and her task force of cruisers and destroyers were ordered into an intentional suicide defense of Okinawa, with the intent of blasting their way through the American invasion fleet, then running aground to function as a shore battery until they were finally destroyed by the Americans. American reconnaissance submarines spotted their departure through the Bungo Strait and reported their position and course up the command chain. 5th Fleet commander Admiral Raymond Spruance then ordered a U.S. battleship force to intercept the Japanese, but Mitscher mobilized and launched his aircraft before the battleships got within range. With no defensive air cover to oppose them, the Navy aircraft systematically attacked and destroyed the Japanese force, to the extent that the torpedo bombers could align their deliveries to only attack from Yamato’s port side, enhancing the probability of uncontrolled capsizing. After two hours of nearly constant attack, and suffering from flooding, fires and loss of propulsion, Yamato began her final rollover on the way down. And at that very moment, her forward magazine detonated with a gigantic mushroom cloud seen over a hundred miles away.
1955: Citing health reasons, the 80 year old Sir Winston Churchill resigns as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He remains a back-bencher in Parliament until 1964 and died in his home at age 90 in January, 1965.
1962: Civilian test pilot Neil Armstrong takes the X-15 rocket plane to180,000 feet altitude. I’ll have some more very cool X-15 data as the year progresses.
1966: Death of British author C.S. Forester (b.1899), best known for the stories of Captain Horatio Hornblower, a Royal Navy hero loosely modeled after the life of Nelson.
1968: Death of Scottish Formula One driver and two-time World Champion, Jim Clark (b.1936), in a Formula 2 warm-up race in Hockenheim, Germany. At the time of his death he had won more Grands Prix (25) and more pole positions (33) than any driver in history. He introduced the revolutionary Lotus mid-engine race car to the Indianapolis 500, competing 5 times and winning the race once.
1973: The American League of MLB begins using the “Designated Hitter” in actual baseball games, thus forever destroying the historic purity and strategy inherent in putting a pitcher up to the plate to strike out.
1974: Opening day for the new World Trade Center twin towers in Manhattan.
1976: Death of movie mogul, aviation pioneer, industrialist and fabulously wealthy eccentric, Howard Hughes (b.1905).
1981: Death of General Omar Bradley (b.1893), USMA class of 1915.
1984: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (born Lou Alcindor) breaks Wilt Chamberlain’s all-time scoring record of 31,419 (31,421).
1996: Theodore Kaczynski is arrested. The Unabomber sent his first letter bomb in 1978; his casualties totaled 3 dead and 26 wounded.
2005: Death of Polish prelate Karol Jozef Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II (b.1920), and canonized as Saint in April of 2014.