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.
1606: A band of English entrepreneurs, organized by Captain John Smith and the Virginia Company of London, set sail this date aboard three small ships, Susan Constant, Discovery and Godspeed, with the little flotilla under the overall command of Captain Christopher Newport of the Susan Constant.
1642: Dutch explorer Abel Tasman becomes the first European to set foot in New Zealand. You may recognize a derivative of his name elsewhere in the South Pacific neighborhood.
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 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. Additionally, some recently discovered faults and active fumaroles would seem to indicate the mountain may again be stirring, but there is no way to measure the actual pressure inside the mountain.
1770: Baptism, of theGerman 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. You will recall that 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. Couple of points to take away from this event: 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.
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.
1777: After a year of partial victories and major retreats against the Regulars of the British army, General George Washington orders the Continental Army into winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
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.
1793: A Royal Navy raid on the French port of Toulon captures a 5th rate ship of the line named La Lutine. She is commissioned into the RN as HMSLutine, and serves in that Service until 1799, when she’s lost during a storm in the heavily shoaled waters off the Dutch island of Texel. The vessel was loaded with “considerable capital” in the form of gold, silver, and thousands of Spanish coins, close to 20,000,000 Dutch Guilders (2007 value: about 81,176,969 pounds sterling).
1828: South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun publishes a tightly reasoned broadside titled, “South Carolina Exposition and Protest,” explicitly outlining the principle of nullification of federal law within State borders if the State finds the law unconstitutional. The proximate fight this time was over a particularly onerous tariff that affected primarily the southern trade in cotton and tobacco, and to a certain extent the exports of New England as well. But the fight over the tariff exposed a deep sectional divide between north and south, and between strong federal power and strong State power, with nullification as the central constitutional issue. The fight would play itself out repeatedly over the course of a generation, gathering in intensity when coupled with the moral absolutism of the mid-century abolitionist movement. It is no stretch to say that underlying causes for the War Between the States found their first overt causus belli during this 1828 Nullification Crisis.
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.
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, 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.
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.
1892: Opening night for Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite.
1903: After repairing the damage from Wilbur Wright’s failed flight attempt a couple days back (DLH 12/14), 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.
1906: Birth of the third First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Leonoid Brezhnev (d.1982), who really looked the part. Brezhnev’s name became attached to the communist doctrine that said, essentially, that any gains in expanding the space (both political and geographic) of the communist party were permanent, and will be defended by military force. His crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 underlined that fact.
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: 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.
1916: After eleven months of unrelenting artillery barrages, sniper fire, and fruitless attacks and counter-attacks across mere yards of torn up ground, the German Army makes a strategic retreat back to the heavily reinforced trenches from whence it began the Verdun offensive back in February. German General Erich von Falkenhayn claims he had achieved his objective of “bleeding the French white,” and French General Philippe Petain claims he had succeeded in preventing a German breakthrough into the interior of France: “Ils ne passeront pas!” (‘They shall not pass’ was his battle cry). At their farthest advance, the German army moved a little over a mile across the Muse River toward the city of Verdun, capturing several strategic forts in the French defensive line. With the French counter-offensive in the late summer, the line and the forts returned to French control, culminating in the final shots of the battle this day. I have walked the Verdun battlefield, and it is shocking beyond belief, with crater upon crater pocking the landscape as far as you can see, with a labyrinth of trenches and hard points still slashing through the earth. As occurred in the mud of Flanders, bodies of dead soldiers remained where they fell, eventually churned and mixed into the soil as the artillery shells continued their deadly rain without letup. The battle of Verdun became a grinder, where freshly trained regiments were sent into the trenches to relieve units who had been under fire, and whose casualty rates reduced them to 10-15% within weeks or less. Some numbers to ponder: French casualties around 542,000 (over 162,308 killed); German casualties 434,000 (over 100,000 killed). French artillery numbered 2,708 tubes, firing over 16,000,000 shells into the German lines; the Germans claimed over 21,000,000 shells into the French.
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.
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 assault as a tactical retrograde holding action, but the German army follows the artillery 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.
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.