1287: A dyke ruptures on the North Sea approaches near Texel, creating a flood that completely submerges the marshes and lakes of the north-central Netherlands. Friesland province is particularly hard hit, with scores of towns and cities demolished, and over 50,000 deaths punctuating the dramatic destruction. The inundation is so vast that an entirely new body of water takes shape, the Zuiderzee, that itself shapes the spectacular growth of Amsterdam, formerly a small inland town on a bend in the Amstel River. The Saint Lucia Flood still lives in the collective memory of our Dutch friends, who are never far from the water that can destroy them again.
1476: Death of the Bohemian prince Vlad III (b.1431), known more often by his nickname, “The Impaler” than for the virtues of his governance. Here’s a little tidbit: he actually was known as “Dracula,” meaning “son of the dragon,” in reference to his father’s position in the Christian Order of the Dragon. The order took root to protect Europe’s Christian populations during the period of the Ottoman conquest into Eastern Europe, and like father, like son, he took his role seriously, hence the moniker. He was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s gothic novel Dracula (1897).
1485: Birth of Catherine of Aragon (d.1536), best known as queen consort to England’s Henry VIII, but also widely regarded by contemporaries as a keen intellect and powerful voice for the education of women. She also became the first female Ambassador in history, acting as such for her father, Ferdinand II, at the English Court when his Ambassador died in office. Catherine retains a high level of sympathy among those who are attuned to England’s monarchical ebbs and flows.
1497: Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama leads his small fleet of exploration around the Cape of Good Hope, becoming the first European to sail into the Indian Ocean. The fleet eventually makes its way to India’s west coast, and back again to Portugal, providing that country with a secure route to the riches of the Spice Trade without having to traverse either the pirate-infested Mediterranean or the corruption and danger of the overland crossing through Arabia. De Gama’s opening creates a generation-long trade monopoly which makes Portugal rich. His systematic exploration and the immediate economic consequences of his work make him widely regarded as one of the greatest captains of the great age of exploration.
1503: Birth of Nostradamus (d.1566).A French apothecary named Michel de Nostredame, whose medical training led to further studies of astrology and eventually the occult. He began writing a series of quatrains that he billed as predictions, collected and published in an annual almanac under the Latinized version of his French name.
1653: Four years after executing King Charles I and declaring England a Commonwealth, the British Parliament formally invests General Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector of the Realm. The Parliament was ready to crown him king, but having used his army to defeat a king, and the Parliament to justify his executing a king, he prudently believed that his assuming a new kingship for himself would be a step too far. He did, however, designate his son, Richard, as heir to the Protectorate.
1707: First belch of the most recent eruption of Japan’s beautiful Mount Fuji. Note: after the 2011 Fukishima earthquake, a number of organizations created mathematical models to speculate on the potential for Fuji re-awakening. One model in particular generated a huge number representing an increase of pressure in the magma chamber since this 1707 eruption.
1770: Birth- that is, the baptism, of the great German composer, Ludwig van Beethoven (d.1827).
1773: After months of frustration and anger over Parliament’s insistence on their need and their right to tax the American colonies, a group of between 30 to 130 (the count varies with the telling) Sons of Liberty, in Boston, under the leadership of Samuel Adams, adjourn from a raucous meeting in Faneuil Hall, don elaborate disguises as Mohawk Indians and proceed down to Griffin’s Wharf, where lay the embargoed tea ships, Dartmouth, Eleanor and Beaver. The tax on tea, known as the Townshend Duty, created similar standoffs in New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, but in those colonies, the governors yielded to force majeure inherent in the Sons of Liberty’s latent violence, and ordered the tea ships back to England. In Boston, though, the governor was determined to not yield to what he considered an unruly and unreasonable mob. You know the rest of the story: the “Indians” boarded the ships and systematically, over the course of three hours, dumped all 342 chests of (very expensive) tea into the waters of Boston Harbor: 1) It electrified not only Boston, but the rest of the colonies as well, in that American citizens, using symbolism unique to the Americas, openly defied legitimate colonial and royal authority in support of what they claimed were their “constitutional rights” under English law; 2) In Great Britain, the wanton destruction of property hardened political opinion against the upstart colonies, even among nominal supporters of American ambitions and their radical political thinking.
1775: Birth of Royal Navy sea-dog Thomas Cochrane (d.1860), one of the bright lights in the final generation of naval officers who served in the Age of Fighting Sail straddling the turn of the 19th Century. Cochrane held command of three RN ships during Great Britain’s nearly continuous wars with France, where he ranged up and down the French coast wreaking havoc with unwavering dignity and professionalism. Aficionados and scholars who study C.S. Forrester’s Horatio Hornblower series and Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series know that Cochrane was the primary model for their composite maritime literary heroes.
1775: Birth of author Jane Austin (d.1817).
1777: A year into his role as Commissioner for the United States, Benjamin Franklin successfully persuades the kingdom of France to recognize the United States of America as an independent nation. Franklin helped them understand that supporting the new States would be like a sharp stick in the eye of the English. It was an effective move, and the eventual participation of France as an active belligerent against Great Britain provided the crucial military leverage that led to the British surrender at Yorktown.
1790: Discovery of the Aztec Calendar Stone. The incredibly detailed stone was discovered during excavations while renovating the cathedral in Mexico City. Its age is ambiguous, as is its purpose, although the best guesses orient it toward a religio-calendar-epoch kind of use.
1791: The Virginia General Assembly ratifies the Bill of Rights, providing the ¾ majority of the Several States, thus making the first ten Amendments part of the Supreme Law of the Land.
1799: Death of George Washington (b.1732). You may have heard of him.
1811: First shakes of two out of four massive earthquakes that rattle the center of the continent at New Madrid, Missouri. Almost any time you read about the next “Big One” out in California’s San Andreas Fault, there’s usually another sentence about the next “really big one” happening along the New Madrid fault, and how the last one re-routed rivers and moved mountains.
1832: Birth of Gustav Eiffel (d.1923), the great French engineer best known for his namesake tower. That 1889 structure publicly culminated an engineering career that had already made him famous for his innovative use of relatively light gauge iron in trusses and construction, including designing the trusses such that they were integral to the “look” of the structures, rather than remaining invisible as supporting elements. Eiffel’s extensive studies of wind loading on fixed structures brought him into the Statue of Liberty project, providing crucial design criteria for the interior framework supporting the copper-sheeted exterior. He also designed a family of transportable pre-fabricated bridge trusses for use in remote areas, with sizes ranging from footbridges to railroads trestles. Eiffel’s post-structural engineering career focused on aerodynamics and meteorology, for which he was awarded the Smithsonian’s Langley medal for his wind-tunnel work of the forces of lift and drag.
1861: Death of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coberg & Gotha (b.1819), consort of Britain’s Queen Victoria, from cancer at age 42. The shock of his death plunged the Queen into a paroxysm of grief that very nearly caused a constitutional crisis.
1862: Major General Ulysses S. Grant issues General Order No. 11, ordering the expulsion of all Jews in the Tennessee military district. That’s right, the great man himself signs off on an egregiously discriminatory order in a fit of pique over black market trading in cotton. The order generates immediate backlash throughout the country, quickly reaching the ear of President Lincoln, who orders the Order be rescinded. Grant, suitably chastened, canceled the Order on January 17th, claiming it was written by a subordinate, and signed without close reading in the haste of combat operations. The issue arose when Grant ran for the presidency in 1868, but because of its brief life, and Grant’s towering reputation as the victor of the War Between the States, the Order became nothing more than a footnote in history.
1864: Two weeks after his stunning defeat at the Battle of Franklin (DLH 11/30), Confederate General John Bell Hood positions himself for an even more futile engagement against Nashville itself. The two-day Battle of Nashville opens this day after Hood sent two of his crucial units out from their dug-in positions onto raids designed to draw Union forces out from the robust defenses they built around Nashville over the course of the last two years. Union Major General George Thomas bides his time, and on this day sorties from his redoubts to shatter Hood’s Army of Tennessee in a multi-pronged, multi-phased hammer blow against Hood’s depleted forces, eliminating it as an effective fighting force. Hood and the remains of his army skulked back to Tupelo, Mississippi, where he resigned his commission in January, 1865.
1867: Birth of Amy Carmichael (d.1951), British missionary to India, who sacrificed everything to live out a life of Christian-inspired caring for the destitute of that benighted country. Her story is told in the biography, A Chance to Die, by next-generation missionary Elisabeth Elliot (1987).
1890: Death of Sitting Bull (b.1831), key leader of the Lakota Sioux coalition that destroyed the US 7th Cavalry at the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn.
1894: Birth of Arthur Fiedler (d.1979), long-time conductor of the Boston Pops symphony orchestra. Fiedler carried on Toscanini’s legacy of bringing classical music into the popular mainstream through a combination of brilliant showmanship and a pitch-perfect ear for the public taste.
1903: First attempt by the Wright Brothers to get their powered airplane off the ground. Wilbur Wright won the honor of the coin toss, but failed to get airborne when his machine caught a gust of wind and dug the wingtip into the sand, forcing repairs that ended flying attempts for the next couple days.
1903: After repairing the damage from Wilbur Wright’s failed flight attempt a couple days back, younger brother Orville climbs into the machine, fires up the engine, and with his brother running alongside stabilizing the starboard wingtip, accelerates to a point that he can lift the airplane off the ground under its own power and fly it under control for 120 feet and into history. The photograph taken by one of the Coast Guard lifeboat crew still gives me chills, with the bracing wonderment of Wilbur’s posture, and the successful struggle of the machine to claw its way into the air. The pair ended up making four flights this day, the longest being the fourth- 59 seconds of controlled flight over a distance of 852 feet.
1907: The Great White Fleet, 16 U.S. battleships, along with their escorts and supply ships, depart this day from Naval Station Norfolk on a planned cruise around the world. President Theodore Roosevelt orders the deployment as a demonstration of the United States’ new status as a world naval power, and to emphasize the point, all of the hulls are painted a gleaming white, so that no one will miss their size or import. One of the apocryphal stories that go along with the sailing is that Congress was ill-disposed to spend the money for such a massive public relations undertaking, and only authorized half of the amount Roosevelt requested. No problem; the President ordered the fleet to proceed to Japan, and to wait there for Congress to fund their way back to the States.
1914: At anchor, trying to ride out a ferocious Atlantic storm, the giant seven-masted schooner Thomas W. Lawson founders on the rocks near Bishop’s Rocks Lighthouse off the coast of Cornwall, and sinks with the loss of fifteen of the seventeen hands on board. The ship was the last commercial sailing ship to be built without auxiliary engine power, and although she hypothetically should have been capable of solid sailing performance, she was widely considered a “pig” or a “bathtub:” under-powered and over-weight.
1914: The Serbian army re-captures Belgrade from the “invading” Austro-Hungarian army. You’ll note the “scare quotes” here, indicating that from the Austrian perspective, their army’s presence in Belgrade could just as easily be seen as a policing effort inside the legitimate empire of the Dual Monarchy.
1914: German battleships bombard English seaports of Hartlepool and Scarborough.
1944: The German Whermacht opens up a 90 minute artillery barrage across an 80 mile front on the western edges of the Ardennes Forest against a thinly manned sector of the Allied front. Allied leadership anticipates this artillery assault as part of a tactical retrograde holding action, but the German army follows the barrage with a massive attack by seven armored and 13 infantry divisions, confronting 6 American infantry divisions that were knocked on their heels into a fighting retreat towards the Belgian city of Bastogne. The sudden and dramatic change in the lines of contact quickly yields the nickname Battle of the Bulge, as the Allies transition their up-to-now unstoppable juggernaut into a desperate defense and re-alignment of forces in order to break the German advances before they completely penetrate the Allied line.
1917: A week after the meeting between Imperial German government and the revolutionary Bolshevik government of Russia, a formal armistice is announced between the two powers. The cease-fire will eventually lead to Russia accepting the separate Treaty of Brest-Litovsk next March.
1939: Premier screening of Gone With the Wind, at the Loews Grand Theater in Atlanta. Clark Gable’s final line caused a real stir, as you recall, don’t you?
1944: Death of Big Band leader and notable trombonist, Glenn Miller (b.1904), lost over the English Channel while enroute to a concert for U.S. troops fighting their way across France.
1945: General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, acting as the head of the occupation of Japan, formally orders the abolition of Shinto as the state religion of Japan. You’ll recall that part of this declaration necessitated the Emperor publicly renouncing his status as a deity. The famous picture of MacArthur & Hirohito standing side by side was specifically orchestrated by MacArthur to demonstrate his professional contempt for the old concept of the Emperor, all the while recognizing Hirohito’s crucial symbolic role in leading the shattered nation into the American-dominated future.
1965: Launch of Gemini 6A with Wally Schirra and Thomas Stafford. After four orbits, they perform an in-flight rendezvous with the previously-launched Gemini 7, with Frank Borman and James Lovell, proving the validity of orbital rendezvous, a technique critical for the future lunar missions of the Apollo program.
1969: Kecksburg UFO incident–on this day, the USAF “officially” closes the book on Project Blue Book, a study of UFO sightings and what they could possibly be. ???