1118: In 1492 the Moors evacuated Grenada, ending the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula. That day of culmination was a long time coming: on this day, nearly 400 years earlier, Alfonso the Battler, king of Aragon and Navarre, re-conquered the city of Zaragoza in north-east Spain from its Muslim occupiers. The campaign for Zaragoza was central to a Crusade called by the Council of Toulouse in dealing with various heresies on the European continent. Note: we often consider the era of the Crusades solely in terms of the campaigns into the Middle East, but they were also called and fought against non-Christian occupation of both the Iberian Peninsula and the region now known as the Baltic states. We’ll scratch this itch more, later in the year.
1297: The Genovese warlord and leader of the Guelph faction, Francesco Grimaldi, disguises himself as a monk and ingratiates his way into the fortress at the Rock of Monaco, capturing it along with his cousin Rainier I and a small group of armed men. He held the citadel for four years, and on his death in 1309 deeded it back to his cousin Rainier I, from whom the current Grimaldi ruling family is descended.
1412: Birth of Joan of Arc (d.1431), the young French girl who rallied French troops at the siege of Orleans and found herself martyred by the British who eventually captured her.
1527: Vividly demonstrating the perils of the union of Church and State, the city government of Zurich arrests Felix Manz, co-founder of the Swiss Brethren Anabaptist movement (precursors to the Mennonites), and finds him guilty of heresy by his refusal to recant his demand for adult re-baptism after conversion. On this day he suffers the prescribed punishment for the offense: death by drowning. The city authorities truss up his arms behind his back, tying them to a long stick lashed to his legs. They then row out into Lake Zurich and throw him over the side to his watery fate. Once dead, Zurich confiscated all his property, and buried his body in a local cemetery. Manz becomes the first martyr of the Radical Reformation, the movement that believed the Reformation was not moving fast enough. The irony of his death at the hands of other Protestants should not be lost.
1536: Death of Catherine of Aragon (b.1485) Henry VIII’s first wife, and mother of his first heir to the English throne.
1540: Against his better judgment, Henry VIII marries his fourth wife, Ann of Cleaves, a German princess whom he admired politically, but whom he found repellent physically. Their marriage was never consummated, and after four months was annulled. Ann remained in England, taking the title of Beloved Sister of the King, and was, in fact, beloved by the mercurial king as a friend and confidant until his death. She had the satisfaction of outliving all of his other wives, and the man himself.
1610: Galileo makes his first telescopic observation of the moons of Jupiter.
1940: The army of Finland completely halts a Soviet offensive along the Raate-Soumussalu Road. The Winter War between Finland and the USSR exposed the naked aggression of the Soviet state, and generated admiration for Finland’s continued fight in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Unfortunately for Finland, their opposition to Russian aggression put them on the same “side” as Nazi Germany, even though they never formed a formal alliance with Germany. [Finnish machine gunners] N.B. You are probably thinking this is a continuation of the Winter War battle we noted in DLH 12/27, and you’d be mostly right. At the completion of the 105 day war in March of 1940, the two sides remained at peace, right up to the moment of the Nazi invasion in June of 1941, at which point Finland hopped on the bandwagon to cover a major Nazi front in the siege of Leningrad.
1642: England’s King Charles I, disgusted and concerned about the restiveness of his increasingly recalcitrant Parliament, surrounds himself with soldiers and enters into the Chamber to arrest key Members, all of whom slipped away before the arrest could be made. The act infuriated a broad swath of the nobility and the larger body politic, and is widely considered the opening act of the English Civil War.
1759: Virginia planter and surveyor George Washington exchanges nuptial vows with Martha Dandridge Custis.
1777: Building on his recent Christmas Eve success at Trenton, the Continental Army under General George Washington attacks and decisively defeats British Regulars at the Battle of Princeton (NJ). The battle is notable for two points in particular: 1) Washington himself, fearlessly rallying his faltering militia troops under withering fire until they slashed their way into the thick of the British contingent, shattering their effectiveness; 2) the post-battle decision by Lord Cornwallis to abandon southern New Jersey and fall back into the safety of New York. Although Great Britain considered Trenton and Princeton as only minor losses, they in fact invigorated the army and citizens of the nascent American republic into believing the war could be won.
1778: Birth of explorer Zebulon Pike (d.1813). American brigadier general and explorer for whom Pikes Peak in Colorado was named. As a U.S. Army officer he led two expeditions under authority of President Thomas Jefferson through the new Louisiana Purchase territory, first in 1805–1806 to reconnoiter the upper northern reaches of the Mississippi River, and then in 1806–1807 to explore the Southwest to the fringes of the northern Spanish-colonial settlements of New Mexico and Texas. Pike’s expeditions coincided with other Jeffersonian expeditions, including the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806) and the Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis expedition up the Red River (1806).
1790: Under the requirement of Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution, President George Washington delivers his first State of the Union address to Congress, at the time meeting in the temporary capitol of New York City.
1795: Death of Josiah Wedgwood (b.1730), the British potter who pioneered not only the use of high-quality glazes on his works, but also direct marketing and factory production of his product lines. He was also a prominent abolitionist whose efforts laid much of the groundwork for the ultimately successful efforts of William Wilberforce in 1807.
1809: Birth of Louis Braille (d.1852), blinded in an accident as a child, Braille developed an alternative alphabet that enabled the blind to “read” with their sense of touch.
1815: Led by General Andrew Jackson, American forces decisively defeat an invading British force at the Battle of New Orleans, the largest and final land battle of the war of 1812, fought a month after the formal conclusion of peace at the Treaty of Ghent on December 24th. The lopsided victory helped propel Jackson into a political career that eventually led to the Presidency. The U.S. suffered 333 casualties (55 dead) against the British 2459 (386 dead).
1823: Continuing the former Spanish government’s policy of emprasario land grants to encourage colonization of its Texas territory, the newly independent government of Mexico renews the grant of the late Moses Austin, in the name of his son, Stephen F. Austin. Austin receives title to a huge swath of land between San Antonio and the Gulf coast on the condition he will bring at least 300 families with him. He does, and The Old 300 become the leading edge of a flood of American immigrants into the endless Texas territory.
1870: Construction begins on the Brooklyn Bridge. In a time of engineering superlatives, the Brooklyn Bridge set the standard for greatness. It remained the longest single-span suspension bridge for twenty years after its opening.
1880: Death of San Francisco’s Joshua Norton (b.1811), self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. It may have been his stunning losses in real estate and rice speculation that sent him over the edge, but he was a beloved public figure in a city that was, even then, a showcase for the eccentric. If you remember the character of The King from Huckleberry Finn, that guy is Joshua Norton, brought to immortality by the pen of Mark Twain. Norton printed up imperial banknotes in his name, and they became an accepted local currency at the bars and restaurants around town. He persistently called for a suspension bridge to link San Francisco with Oakland via Goat Island. The eventual Oakland Bay Bridge does just that, and Norton is honored with a bronze plaque at the SF terminus of that structure.
1884: In London, founding of the Fabian Society, a collection of intellectuals who sought to create a socialist society by all means short of violent revolution. The named themselves after the Roman General Fabius, who used delaying tactics and attrition to wear down and defeat Carthaginian General Hannibal. The Fabians function as a left-wing think tank today, closely aligned with Britain’s Labour Party.
1892: Birth of British author J.R.R. Tolkien (d.1973), best known for his Hobbits and their Ring Trilogy.
1895: Birth of the pioneering aeronautical engineer and industrialist Leroy Grumman (d.1989) whose company built some of the most legendary aircraft in U.S. Navy history, including the F-6F Hellcat of WWII fame, and the A-6 Intruder and F-14 Tomcat that spearheaded Naval Aviation during the Cold War. The planes’ reputation for toughness earned them the nickname “Grumman Ironworks.”
1895: A French court-martial finds Army Captain Alfred Dreyfus guilty of espionage, strips him of his rank and sentences him to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. When reports of an army cover-up and Dreyfus’s possible innocence were leaked to the press, a heated debate ensued about anti-Semitism and France’s identity as a Catholic nation or a republic founded on equal rights for all citizens. Esterhazy was found not guilty by a secret court martial, before fleeing to England. Following a passionate campaign by Dreyfus’s supporters, including leading artists and intellectuals such as Émile Zola, he was given a second trial in 1899 and again declared guilty of treason despite the evidence in favor of his innocence.
However, due to public opinion, Dreyfus was offered and accepted a pardon by President Émile Loubet in 1899 and released from prison; this was a compromise that saved face for the military’s mistake. Had Dreyfus refused the pardon, he would have been returned to Devil’s Island, a fate he could no longer emotionally cope with; so officially Dreyfus remained a traitor to France, and pointedly remarked upon his release:
The government of the Republic has given me back my freedom. It is nothing for me without my honor.
1903: Death of Topsy the Elephant (b.(c)1870), electrocuted by Thomas Edison, using alternating current (part of the AC-DC “electricity wars” at the dawn of the electrical age). The circus elephant had in the preceding year killed three men and grievously wounded another, and the circus was concerned how to safely put her down. Edison fed her a dose of 460 grams of potassium cyanide prior to sending 6,600 volts of electricity into her. She died in seconds, witnessed by around 1,500 people. Edison also made a short movie of the event.
1909: The South American nation of Columbia recognizes the independence of its breakaway province, Panama.
1909: The Great White Fleet of the U.S. Navy transits the Suez Canal, marking ¾ of its politico-military circumnavigation of the globe.
1914: Industrialist Henry Ford announces that Ford Motor Company will initiate an 8-hour work day, with a minimum wage of $5.00 per day.
1918: In his State of the Union message, President Woodrow Wilson introduces his 14 Points to guide postwar international relations, ten months before the actual armistice which halted the fighting. The Points will form the basis for the Versailles peace negotiations in the aftermath of The World War. I won’t go over all of them, but will highlight here several of the points that tend to come up from time to time: 1) “Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at…” laying down the ideal of complete openness in international negotiations; 2) Absolute freedom of navigation on the high seas, with a caveat about closures in support of international covenants. Great Britain objected to the exception clause, and as the U.S. maritime power increased, we adopted the British position; 3) Free trade between nations as a foundation of peaceful relations. The majority of the other points concerned disposition of territories displaced by the war, with final lines drawn under the principle of national self-determination, a term which came into prominence during the Conference. The 14th point opened the discussion of an international organization to enforce the peace.
1919: At the Paris Peace Conference in Versailles, where the newly victorious Allies were busy carving up the spoils of the shattered Ottoman Empire, Emir Faisal, king of Greater Syria and Iraq, signs an agreement with the head of the Zionist movement, Chaim Weizmann, supporting Zionist efforts to create a Jewish homeland on the Mediterranean coast of Palestine. This remarkable document suggests that the current troubles in that benighted region may not have been inevitable. The estimable Wikipedia extracted some key quotes, appended below:
“The Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. Our deputation here in Paris is fully acquainted with the proposals submitted yesterday by the Zionist Organization to the Peace Conference, and we regard them as moderate and proper.” (Letter by Emir Faisal to Felix Frankfurter, March 1919)
“The two main branches of the Semitic family, Arabs and Jews, understand one another, and I hope that as a result of interchange of ideas at the Peace Conference, which will be guided by ideals of self-determination and nationality, each nation will make definite progress towards the realization of its aspirations. Arabs are not jealous of Zionist Jews, and intend to give them fair play and the Zionist Jews have assured the Nationalist Arabs of their intention to see that they too have fair play in their respective areas. Turkish intrigue in Palestine has raised jealousy between the Jewish colonists and the local peasants, but the mutual understanding of the aims of Arabs and Jews will at once clear away the last trace of this former bitterness, which, indeed, had already practically disappeared before the war by the work of the Arab Secret Revolutionary Committee, which in Syria and elsewhere laid the foundation of the Arab military successes of the past two years.”
1933: Construction begins on the Golden Gate Bridge, connecting San Francisco to Marin County, California. The project is often held up as a shining example of Depression-era federal job creation (re: the President Obama’s 2015 remarks in SF), which it was not. The bridge was actually the brainchild of Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss, who envisioned a design costing less than a fifth of the initial $100M (in 1916) estimate. The California Legislature authorized a Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District to manage design and financing. They established a bond issue after an approving vote by the affected Bay Area counties. When bond sales proved sluggish in the early years of the Depression, Amadeo Giannini, founder of San Francisco’s Bank of America, agreed in 1932 to have his bank purchase the entire issue as a way of stimulating the local economy. Construction beginning on this date reflected in a very real way the desires and aspirations of the citizens of the San Francisco Bay area. The last of the bonds was paid off in 1971, the original $35M supplemented by $39M of interest, all paid by bridge tolls (a.k.a. “user fees”).
1942: The Japanese army, having swept virtually all of the Philippine Islands under its control in less than two months, opens its final siege on the remaining American forces on the Bataan Peninsula.
1947: Pan American Airlines begins scheduling full around-the-world service.
1964: In his first State of the Union message, President Lyndon Johnson declares a “War on Poverty” that will eventually metastasize into the Great Society program he introduced the following year.
1965: President Lyndon B. Johnson gives his State of the Union speech, in which he announces a legislative program he dubs “The Great Society.” Johnson insisted this massive expansion of federal social programs could be accomplished simultaneously with massive expansion of U.S. engagement in the Vietnam War, a guns-AND-butter decision that set the country on an unsustainable financial course that now appears to be reaching the end of its viability.
1973: Opening argument in the case of the nine Watergate conspirators.
1980: President Jimmy Carter signs a $1,500,000,000 bailout of Chrysler Corporation.
1989: Two F-14 Tomcats flying from the USS Nimitz (CVN-69), intercept and shoot down two Libyan MiG-23 Floggers in international airspace over the Gulf of Sidra.
2005: The nuclear powered attack submarine USS San Francisco (SSN-711), making a high speed submerged transit in Pacific Ocean waters south of Guam, slams- at flank speed- into an un-charted seamount, crushing the sonar dome and bow compartment, and flinging crewmen against equipment and bulkheads as she comes to a sudden stop. Incredibly, the pressure hull is not breached, and the crew manages to get the ship to the surface despite the sudden loss of her forward ballast tank. One sailor was killed, and dozens injured with broken bones and lacerations. At the shipyard in Guam, the ship is fitted with a temporary bow and forward ballast tank in order to make a safe transit back to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, where her entire bow section was removed and replaced with the bow section of the newly decommissioned USS Honolulu (SSN-718).