216BC: Continuing his invasion into the heart of the Roman Republic, Carthaginian general Hannibal meets and defeats in detail a massive Roman army nearly twice his strength in the Battle of Cannae, on the lower Adriatic coast of Italy. This is the third major engagement since his winter crossing of the Alps. After his first two victories, his army systematically pillaged their way down the Italian peninsula, creating a rising sense of panic in Rome itself. In response, the Senate ordered two proconsuls to combine their armies to stop the Carthaginians. On the field of battle, the Romans formed into a deep infantry wedge with supporting cavalry on the flanks. For his part, Hannibal stretched his infantry across a wide front, inviting a direct attack against his center. Two African divisions were held in reserve on both flanks, not connected to the basic line. When the attack began, Hannibal began carefully withdrawing his center until the Roman force became concentrated en masse deep inside a crescent of Carthaginian troops. As the Romans’ positions began to collapse from the rear, Hannibal ordered attacks from both flanks, essentially surrounding the entire Roman army, which degenerated into panic as the Carthaginians then reversed their withdrawal and began to slash their way through a Roman mob who had nowhere to go. Of the 86,000 Romans and their allies who began the battle, over 45,000 were killed outright, in addition to 4,500 captured infantry and cavalry. Of Hannibal’s 56,000 troops, his losses were between 5-7,000. The battle was remains a classic in the study of leadership and tactics, as Hannibal himself fought from the center, maintaining close control over every movement of his forces. The double-envelopment “pincer” movement remains a time-tested goal of ground combat (and air and sea for that matter) to this day.
70AD: Culminating their relentless Siege of Jerusalem, the Roman army under the command of Titus (later to be Titus Ceasar) loots, burns, and completely demolishes the Temple that had been the center of Jewish worship for a thousand years. The destruction is mourned annually as the fast of Tisha B’Av. Note: in the name of accuracy, the actual structure that fell this day was the Second Temple (also known as Herod’s Temple), which was a complete on-site rebuilding of 10th c. BC Solomon’s Temple eighty years prior to the Roman siege. The famous Western Wall which remains today is part of the retaining wall built by Herod to consolidate the entirety of the Temple Mount summit, and includes within its perimeter much of Solomon’s original foundation stones, as yet not exposed to daylight these two thousand years later.
1305: Scottish patriot and nationalist William Wallace is captured near Glasgow and hauled off to London, where he is accused, tried, convicted and executed for treason against Edward I. As he faced his accusers, Wallace declared: “I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject.”
1607: First performance of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
1620: The chartered merchant ship Mayflower, in company with the Speedwell, departs Southampton, England on its first attempt to reach North America with its Puritan passengers, who plan on colonizing “North Virginia” near the mouth of the Hudson River. After a very short day at sea, Speedwell develops severe leaks and the two ships return to port for repairs.
1704: As part of the War of Spanish Succession, the Spanish peninsula of Gibraltar is captured by an Anglo-Dutch fleet commanded by Sir George Rooke. Eventually annexed into the British Empire, it remains a thorn in the side of Anglo-Spanish relations to this day, and I bet it will remain that way tomorrow as well, just a hunch.
1742: Birth of Nathaneal Greene (d.1786), who rose from Private of the Rhode Island militia to Major General of the Continental Army and became one of George Washington’s most trusted advisors and effective subordinate commanders.
1782: General George Washington orders the creation of the Badge of Military Merit to honor wounded soldiers who “has given of his blood in defense of his homeland…” The idea of the award was revived in 1927 and formally re-established as the Purple Heart in 1931 by Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur.
1789: As their reform movement continues to gather momentum, the French National Assembly takes an oath to “end feudalism” and “abandon [their own] privileges,” a bit of public grandstanding that probably helped them rationalize- (the Age of Reason, right?)- the cascading excesses of France’s accelerating descent into revolution.
1792: Birth of Percy Bysshe Shelley (d.1822), the English poet widely regarded as the greatest lyricist in English history. His most famous poem, Ozymandias, posits the inevitable decline of even the most powerful institutions of men. Shelley lived an “unconventional life” with and around fellow Romanticists Byron and Keates. His uncompromising idealism helped fuel the intellectual “-ism” movements of the mid-19th century, including Thoreau’s Transcendentalism and Marx’s Communism, among others. He drowned under mysterious circumstances while sailing his schooner between Leghorn (Livorno) and Lerici in northern Italy. His second wife, Mary Shelley (1797-1851) was a noted author in her own right, best remembered for her Gothic novel, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus.
1794: President George Washington invokes the Militia Act of 1792 to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion, an increasingly violent anti-tax revolt that centered in western Pennsylvania. Washington raised a federal militia (via a draft, because there weren’t enough volunteers) of 12,500 men under the command Virginia governor Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee. After a Presidential pass-in-review in Cumberland, Maryland, the army marched westward to regain control of the situation. As news of the army’s movement spread, the revolt collapsed before it could turn into an organized armed resistance. Washington’s actions during this affair are credited with confirming the federal government’s authority and willingness to exercise itself as a national government.
1864: Rear Admiral David Farragut leads a US Navy flotilla into the fortified confines of Mobile Bay, with the mission of permanently closing the port to further trade and blockade running. During the previous year, while Farragut’s attentions were earlier turned to returning the Mississippi River to Union control, the Confederates fortified Mobile with three forts ashore and a minefield guarding the main channel into the bay. Farragut’s flotilla entered the bay at dawn, guns blazing, and overwhelmed the shoreward defenses. When one of his captains slowed his ship due to the threat of the mines (“torpedoes”), Farragut responded with “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” Of note from the Confederate perspective was the single-handed fight of the ironclad ram CSS Tennessee against the entire Union fleet, which took three hours to finally force its surrender.
1876: Birth of Margaretha Geertruide Zelle MacLeod (d.1917), better known as Mata Hari, the sultry Dutch “courtesan” of multiple dozens of military and civilian leaders on both sides of the trenches during the Great War. In March of 1905 she opened her act as an exotic dancer on stage in Paris, becoming an overnight sensation, and was almost immediately taken in by a millionaire industrialist. Often imitated, never duplicated, her sensual exploits kept her in the public limelight for a decade. With the Netherlands remaining neutral during the conflict, Mata Hari exploited her Dutch nationality to travel freely between Germany and France via Britain and Spain during the course of the war. At one point during an interview with British intelligence, she alluded to working for French intelligence, a relationship the French would neither confirm nor deny. After an intercepted German cable from Spain appeared to implicate her, Mata Hari was arrested by the French in February, 1917, charged and convicted of espionage, and executed by firing squad in October. She steadfastly denied the charge of being a double agent. At her execution she stood without blindfold, blew a kiss to her lawyer, with her last words being, “Merci, monsieur.” A more lurid account has her flinging open her chemise shouting “Harlot, yes, but traitor, never!” Neither account has a shred of evidence, but they reflect the intensity of public emotion that surrounded her case.
1892: The parents of Lizzie Borden are found murdered in their Fall River, Massachusetts home. Lizzie is acquitted of the murders in the sensational trial that follows, but her notoriety remains to this day in the words of the famous jump-rope song: “Lizzie Borden took an axe…”
1914: After receiving a negative Belgian response to their request to cross their territory to attack France, the Imperial German army crosses the border anyway, meeting stiff resistance from the Belgian army. With their guarantee of Belgian neutrality at stake, not to mention their alliance with France in the Entente Cordiale, Great Britain declares war on Germany. The Wilson administration in United States declares an official policy of neutrality.
1930: Birth of lunar astronaut Neil Armstrong (d.2012)
1934: Death of Paul von Hindenburg, hero of the Great War (victor of the Battle of Tannenburg), and twice elected President of the German Republic. The old war horse helped legitimize Adolf Hitler’s electoral rise to power in 1932. When he died, Hitler assumed the office of the Presidency in addition to the Chancellorship, formally assuming the powers as dictator of the German state.
1940: Nazi Germany annexes the French-German-French-German provinces of Alsace-Lorraine into the greater German Reich.
1943: In the South Pacific, PT-109 is sliced in half and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. Its skipper, Lt John F. Kennedy, rallies his stricken crew to swim to a nearby island, saving all but two of them.
1961: Birth of Barack Hussein Obama.
1962: Birth of right-handed pitcher Roger “Rocket” Clemens, winner of seven Cy Young awards and one of only four pitchers to achieve more than 4,000 strikeouts in their careers.
1962: Death of Marilyn Monroe (b.1926).
1964: On patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam, the US destroyer USS Maddox (DD-731), operating 28 miles offshore, is attacked by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats. The boats launched several torpedoes but were driven off by US gunfire, including strafing by F-8s from the USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14). Two days later, Maddox and USS C. Turner Joy (DD-951) were back on station around 11 miles offshore in heavy weather when they were allegedly attacked again by North Vietnamese gunboats.The indications of a second attack were- and remain- highly ambiguous, mostly due to heavy weather and the understandably heightened alertness of the radar and sonar crews after the earlier attack. Fighter aircraft who launched immediately in defense of the ships saw nothing in the vicinity, and reported as such. This fact did not dissuade President Johnson from asking Congress for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing him to use whatever conventional force necessary to assist any Southeast Asian state subject to communist aggression.
1964: In the first response to the now-notorious Gulf of Tonkin Incident (DLH 8/2), aircraft from the carriers USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) and USS Constellation (CVA-64) launch 60 sorties against the North Vietnamese patrol boat base and oil storage facility, destroying 25 boats and eliminating their entire stock of fuel.