79AD: On the feast day of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and blacksmiths, an earthquake is felt on Mount Vesuvius, along with a small plume of ash that does not linger. Revelers in Pompeii and Herculaneum continue the feast.
79AD: Mount Vesuvius erupts in a cataclysmic explosion of ash and pyroclastic flow that obliterates the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
410: The Visigoth army, under the command of Aleric, begins a three-day sack of Rome.
1346: Nine years into the Hundred Years War, British Longbowmen create a decisive victory for King Edward III and a shattering defeat for French King Philip VI at the Battle of Cresy, just south of Calais, in northern France. The battle confirmed the validity of massed longbow attacks against armored knights and is widely viewed as the beginning of the end of the period of classical chivalry since the 1500(+) French knights who fell were killed not in honorable hand-to-hand combat, but by randomly fired arrows puncturing their armor. After the battle, the British also dispatched, rather than captured and treated, wounded French knights, another violation of the knightly virtues. In modern terms of the battle, it was organization, tactics, and equipment that carried the day. Casualties (these are consensus numbers): British- 2 knights and approximately 300 soldiers killed. French- 11 noblemen (including King John of Bohemia), 1542 knights, and 2300 Genoese crossbowmen killed, in addition to “several thousands” of infantry killed.
1456: Completion of the first printing of the Gutenberg Bible.
1607: Death of Bartholomew Gosnold (b.1562). An early gentleman-explorer of the New World, he sailed with Walter Raleigh and was friends with Richard Hakluyt, who wrote extensive volumes on the early voyages of discovery. Gosnold pioneered a direct route to New England in 1602, touching in Maine, identifying and exploring Cape Cod, naming Martha’s Vineyard after his daughter, and returning back to England where he became the prime mover and planner for the eventual Virginia Colony at Jamestown in 1607. He commanded the expedition’s ship Godspeed on the transit to the New World. Although opposing John Smith’s initial location of the colony on Jamestown island, he nevertheless took a strong leadership role in making it a permanent settlement. He died of dysentery only four months after the landing.
1609: Italian mathematician, astronomer, physicist, and inventor Galileo Galilei presents his first telescope to the Doge of Venice. It was a 3x magnification model, with hand-ground lenses carefully placed within a stable brass tube to give an upright (i.e. not inverted) image to the viewer’s eye. The instruments became very popular for surveying and navigation, providing a steady stream of income that supported Galileo’s other studies. He, himself, used a 30x instrument to make his discovery of four of the moons of Jupiter. His continuing observations and predictions of their movements proved a core theory of orbital mechanics, and thus the validity of Copernican heliocentricity.
1768: Captain James Cook, in HMS Endeavour, departs Plymouth on his first voyage of discovery. The ostensible reason for the voyage is to observe for the Royal Society the Transit of Venus across the face of the sun. In Cook’s case, this will be from Tahiti, which is one of the dozens of pre-planned locations around the globe to observe and record the event, with the eventual goal of using the data to determine the exact distance between the sun and the earth. Once the observation was completed the following April, Cook opened his sealed Admiralty orders, which directed him to map the unknown regions of the South Pacific, in particular, to search for and claim for Great Britain the fabled Terra Australius, which had long been mapped but never seen.
1789: The French National Assembly, in an intentionally symbolic moment, approves and orders published The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. It is designed around the principle of Natural Law, similar in concept to the preamble of our own Declaration of Independence, but focuses more on popular sovereignty as the antidote to the divine right of kings, and on individual rights and democracy.
1857: The Panic of 1857: a series of cascading bank failures brought on by a combination of a year-long recession, the Crimean War’s effect on US trade, collapsing banks, collapsing real estate market speculation brought on by railroad failures, collapsing grain prices, the loss of a ship carrying a huge shipment of gold from California and deep uncertainty about whether the US government could back up its debt obligations in specie. As of this day the stock market lost 66% of its 1852 value, which it did not recover until years after the conclusion of the Civil War. Other than that, things were pretty normal, except for the growing violence of the abolitionist movement and the looming secession of the southern states.
1793: The revolutionary French National Convention decrees a Levee en Masse, the first nationwide military draft, in order to create an army large enough to fight the wars spawned by the overthrow of their monarchy. In defense of their own monarchies, Prussia and Austria declared war on France in April of 1792, By the summer of 1793 they were joined by Spain, Great Britain, Piedmont (Northern Italy), and the United Provinces (Netherlands). The ensuing military threat to France was significant. The Levee developed under the concept that the new political rights of French citizens brought with it new obligations to the state, which included mobilization of essentially the whole of society in support of France’s war efforts. The result was the world’s first citizen-army, whose performance shocked the much smaller professional corps of the monarchies, and led to France’s eventual domination of the European continent.
1819: Death of Oliver Hazard Perry (b.1785), the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie, of malaria while surveying the Orinoco River in Venezuela. After his decisive defeat of British forces on the lake, his battle report was deliciously brief: “We have met the enemy and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner, and one sloop.” Perry’s younger brother was Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who opened Japan to US trade in 1854. Later generations included Commander John Rogers, Naval Aviator #2, and Calbraith Perry Rogers, the first person to fly an airplane across the United States.
1834: Birth of Samuel Pierpont Langley (d.1906), astronomer, physicist, and aviation pioneer, whose unsuccessful attempts at flying a man-carrying heavier-than-air machine spoiled an otherwise distinguished career in science and as head of the Smithsonian Institution. The Aerodrome on which he staked his professional reputation was overweight, underpowered, and under-controllable; it nearly killed its pilot twice. Its catapult launch from the roof of a houseboat on the Potomac River was described as having flight characteristics akin to “a handful of mortar” as its ballistic trajectory took it directly to a watery grave. The Smithsonian Institution spent years in a sometimes vicious campaign to prove Langley’s success ahead of the Wright Brothers, a campaign which they only recently* conceded as false.
1839: Great Britain captures and occupies Hong Kong Island as a staging base in preparation for the First Opium War, later in the year.
1851: After sailing across the Atlantic to meet the gentleman’s challenge issued by the Royal Yacht Squadron, the New York-based racing yacht America competes in the 53 miles Around the Isle of Wight sailing race to decisively win the silver cup, the “Auld Mug” that now bears its name: America’s Cup. The New York Yacht Club brings the trophy back to the United States, where they hold onto it until 1983: 25 separate competitive regattas spanning 132 years, comprising the longest winning streak of any sport in history. Witnessing the race finish, and listening to the dismay of her countrymen, Queen Victoria turned to the RYS commodore and asked who finished second. His famous reply: “There is no second, Your Majesty.”
1902: Theodore Roosevelt becomes the first US President to ride in an automobile.
1910: Birth of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (d.1997), the Albanian nun better known as Mother Teresa, who founded the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India in 1950. Her selfless work with the poor and destitute earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. She died in September 1997, and was beatified by Pope John Paul II as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
1911: Birth of North Vietnamese general Vo Nguyn Giap (d.2013), victor over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, who also completed the final roll-up of the South Vietnamese army in 1975 after the United States declined to honor its commitments to the Vietnamese government.
1914: The Battle of Mons (Belgium): after the declaration of war earlier this month, Great Britain began transporting their army across the Channel to Belgium with the mission to hold the left end of the French line. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) under General John French was only 80,000 strong, organized into two Corps, but they were by far the best trained professional army anywhere, known especially for the infantry’s skill in rapid-fire rifle marksmanship. After the first contact between British bicycle scouts and German snipers on the 21st, the BEF surged forward to defend the Mons-Conde Canal outside the city of Mons in order to prevent the German right from turning the French line. The BEF was outnumbered 3:1, but was able during the course of the battle to inflict tremendous casualties that halted the German advance in its tracks on its first assault. The Germans then regrouped into open formation and surged forward again, at which point the British position became increasingly untenable. During the night the BEF began an orderly retreat to a pre-established line where they expected to make their next stand, but with the concurrent retreat of the French, the new position could not be held. The retreat continued for two weeks and eventually covered over 250 miles. The Battle of Mons is considered a tactical victory for the BEF, in that they properly held their positions for 24 hours, significantly delaying and inflicting severe casualties on the German advance. The battle reinforced the military virtues of the British soldier, but, like our own First Manassas, it also proved that the war would not be a quick and glorious event. NOTE: Of particular interest in the immediate aftermath of the battle were stories of the appearance of spectral bowmen who threw a protective curtain around the retreating British soldiers. The apparition quickly became known as The Angel of Mons, and to this day there remains a cottage industry of historians and skeptics attempting to prove or disprove its reality.
1927: Execution of Italian anarchists and convicted murderers Sacco and Vanzetti.
1930: Birth of Sean Connery (d.2020).
1939: The foreign ministers from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression treaty between the two dictatorships that conveniently contains a secret clause that divides between them the Baltic States, Finland, Romania, and Poland.
1939: Opening night for The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland. The movie lost the Best Picture award to Gone With the Wind, but went on to lasting fame as an Autumn television tradition all through the 1950s and 60s.
1942: Opening guns in the Battle of Stalingrad, putting permanently to rest the abiding fiction of the 1939 pact.
1944: After four years of German occupation, and two and a half months after the landings in Normandy, Allied armies liberate Paris. The local German commander, in an uncharacteristically humane decision, did not burn the city to the ground during his evacuation.
1945: Death of Baptist missionary and OSS agent John Birch (b.1918), at the hands of communist Chinese forces. He is considered the first casualty of the Cold War, and 14 years after his death a rabid anti-communist organization adopted his name as their own. It is too bad for his legacy; during his years in China, Birch did great and honest work for his faith and his country, and was disgusted by the depredations of the Chinese communists in the immediate aftermath of the Japanese occupation.
1948: The House Un-American Activities Committee holds its first televised Congressional hearing, the dramatic confrontation between former Communist Whittaker Chambers and not-former Communist Alger Hiss.
1962: The technological tour de force NS Savannah completes her maiden voyage. The nuclear-powered merchant ship remains a symbol of the potential for peaceful uses of the atom. After de-fueling her reactors in January 1972, she became a museum ship in Charleston’s Patriot Point but was transferred back to the supervision of the Maritime Administration in 1994. She remained in the inactive fleet up the James River until mid-2008, when she was towed to Baltimore for complete denuclearization, where she remains in preservation layup.
1968: France detonates its first thermonuclear bomb, the CANOPUS test in the Polynesian test range, becoming the fifth nation to do so. The French photography is the most artistic to come out of the atmospheric test programs of the nuclear powers.
1974: Death of aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh (b.1902).
1991: Mikhail Gorbachev resigns as head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
1992: Hurricane Andrew slams into South Dade County as a Category 5 storm.