64AD: The Great Fire of Rome; beginning in the residential area near the Circus Maximus, the fire becomes a firestorm that burns for five days before coming under control, then reignites and burns for four more days. 2/3 of the city is consumed by the flames. Emperor Nero, away at a summer palace when the fire starts, is widely blamed for either setting it or ignoring it, fiddling- if you will- as Rome burned.
1099: Having subdued all lingering resistance and now controlling Jerusalem, the knights of the First Crusade elect Godfrey de Bouillon as the first Defender of the Holy Sepulchre, creating the first Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem. Godfrey could not bring himself to take the title of “King” in the Holy City- hence the awkward title- but he acted the part, forcing Acre and a dozen other cities to pay tribute to this nascent kingdom.
1545: Leading a major Royal Navy attack into the Solent against an invading French fleet, Henry VIII’s flagship Mary Rose heels suddenly to starboard from a gust of wind. Her open lower gun ports begin to take on water, exacerbating the heel, which then causes the portside cannons to break free, along with stores and ammunition careening to the leeward side. The ship completely capsizes and sinks into the turbulent waters of the Solent, in full view of the king himself and the two battling fleets. Of the nearly 400 crew aboard, only 35 escape with their lives. Sporadic salvage efforts continue through 1549, until the deleterious effects of scouring sand, toredo worms and general exposure finally cause the ship’s open timbers to collapse to be carried away by the current. But over 40 percent of the hull remained trapped in mud until the wreck was accidentally re-discovered in 1836. The site was re-confirmed in 1971, and a full salvage effort began in 1982.
1545: Following their inconclusive battle yesterday with the British fleet in the Solent, the French invasion fleet lands a small army on the Isle of Wight. The soldiers make a desultory attempt to conquer the island, but after looting and burning a few towns, they are repulsed by local militia. It remains the last direct French assault on the British Isles.
1692: Five women are hanged for witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials.
1812: An Anglo-Portuguese army under the command of Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) defeats a French army in the Battle of Salamanca. The battle cemented Wellesley’s reputation for tactical genius, as he kept his own dispositions hidden from the French while remaining alert and disciplined to watch and wait for opportunities to exploit fleeting French tactical weaknesses. The British Peninsular Campaign remained a constant drain on French resources during Napoleon’s reign. Although neither side won a decisive strategic victory, the constant coalition pressure on the Iberian Peninsula eased French pressure against other coalition allies in the French eastern European campaigns, most notably the French drive deep into Russia.
1769: Father Junipero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan monk, founds Mission San Diego Alcala, the first of 21 Franciscan missions in Alta California. The missions are carefully sited approximately one long day’s ride (or a three day walk) from each other, and formed the nucleus of most of California’s early cities. The trail between them became known as the El Camino Real (“The Royal Road”), which also became the first historically commemorated road* in the country. The only surviving original adobe mission structure remains at San Juan Capistrano. The missions themselves run north between San Diego and Sonoma.
1792: American naval hero Captain John Paul Jones dies in Paris (b.1747). After his exploits in the American Revolution he served briefly in Saint Petersburg as Catherine the Great’s naval. His Russian tour complete, Jones was back in Paris awaiting his appointment letter as United States Consul to Algiers when he died. His mortal remains today rest in a crypt beneath the US Naval Academy chapel.
1849: Birth of American poet Emma Lazarus (d.1887), author of the poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor; your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your teeming soil; bring these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me; I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door.”
1861: Two and a half months after the secession crisis degenerated into the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln orders a Union army of 35,000 under Brigadier General Irvin McDowell to begin a march into Virginia, with the object of defeating the gathering Confederate army and putting pressure on Richmond. McDowell heads west out of Washington, DC toward the Manassas junction, with the joyful cries of “On to Richmond!” from the press and fellow citizens ringing in the army’s ears.
1861: First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas)- After a two-day march from Washington and a short bivouac at Centerville in the sultry July heat, the Union Army of Northeastern Virginia under Brigadier Irvin McDowell attacks the Confederate Army of the Potomac (correct army names, on both accounts) of General Joe Johnson at a stone bridge over Bull Run Creek near Manassas, Virginia. The fight brought to prominence Confederate Colonel Thomas Jackson, whose regiment came up from reserve to halt a Union advance against General Bee. When things were looking particularly bad, Bee turned to Jackson and exclaimed, “The Enemy are driving us!” Jackson turned to him and responded: “Then we shall give them the bayonet.” Suitably impressed with his taciturn subordinate, Bee then turned to his wavering men: “There stands Jackson like a stone wall…rally behind the Virginians!” As the battle ebbs and flows around the Warrenton Turnpike it becomes increasingly clear to both sides that the nascent war will not be the simple game that so many voluptuaries expected. The mindset was so pervasive (“On to Richmond!”) that the upper crust of Washington society this morning drove hundreds of carriages to the high ground near the expected battlefield to watch the Bluecoats whip the Rebs while they enjoyed a picnic lunch. When the Union army began its otherwise orderly withdrawal from their defeat, the picnickers panicked and turned the escape route into a rout. The high casualty count sobered both sides into realizing this would be a long and hard-fought campaign. Union casualties: 2,896- 460 killed/1100 wounded/1300 missing; Confederate casualties: 1,982- 387 killed/1500 wounded.
NOTE: Civil War naming conventions varied between North and South; the North named battles after significant geographic landmarks (rivers, creeks, mountains, etc.), while the South generally named them after the nearest town or settlement. Bull Run- Manassas and Antietam- Sharpsburg are two of the more prominent examples of this little proclivity.
1862: Captain David Farragut is promoted to Rear Admiral, becoming the United States Navy’s first flag officer.
1863: The army’s first all-black military regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry makes its combat debut, in a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful attack on Fort Wagner near Charleston, SC. Their leader, Colonel Robert Shaw, was killed in the attack and buried by the Confederate victors in a mass grave with his fallen men. The grave site no longer exists, washed into the eternal sea by years of Atlantic storms.
1870: The First Vatican Council issues the Bull of papal infallibility. If you’d like to stir up your Christian friends, ask them what it means, then stand back. In the meantime, you can get a glimpse into the horse’s mouth at www.newadvent.org/ which is the Catholic Encyclopedia. Type in “papal infallibility” and it will pop right up to a relatively concise explanation of what it means to have ex cathedra pronouncements by the Bishop of Rome.
1870: At the climax of a long series of diplomatic slights and under increasing pressure from a highly assertive Kingdom of Prussia, France declares war on the German state, opening the Franco-Prussian War. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had conducted two earlier limited wars which expanded Prussia’s territories into southern Denmark and Austria’s Sudetenland, both of which had the salutary effect of bringing many smaller Germanic states under Prussia’s control. You will recall that Bismarck’s main political goal was the complete unification of German lands under the leadership of Prussia. He early on began to lay claim to the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which were populated nearly 80% with Germans, and not coincidentally contained a huge proportion of French heavy industry. The war consisted of almost a year of closely sequential battles along the Rhine. The crucial battle was at Sedan, where brilliant German tactics and superior artillery allowed them to capture an entire French army, including the head of state, Napoleon III; German armies then advanced to the suburbs of Paris and put the city under siege. The armistice that silenced the guns was enforced by the Germans conducting a victory parade through Paris, after which they garrisoned themselves within sight of the city until France paid a 5 billion franc bill of reparations, in addition to ceding Alsace and Lorraine to Germany.It re-ignited the old rivalry between France and Prussia, with the results being the opposite of the Napoleonic era. The humiliating loss of Sedan and capture of the French Emperor fed a seething spirit of revanche (revenge) throughout the French body politic for the next 45 years, motivating their drive for military alliances with Great Britain (the Entente Cordiale) and Russia (the Triple Entente) with which they could surround and eventually crush the German state.
1923: Death of Jose Doroteo Arango Arambula (b.1878), the Mexican warlord more commonly known as Pancho Villa.
1925: Seven months after his release from Landsberg Prison, Adolf Hitler publishes his magnum opus: Mien Kampf.
1933: Fifty thousand cheering people greet aviation pioneer Wiley Post as he arrives at Floyd Bennett Field in New York City at the completion of his second flight around the world. The distinction here is that he did the feat solo, using a self-developed autopilot and compass instead of a navigator as on his earlier flight. He went on to further acclaim as he investigated the problems of high-altitude flight, inventing several varieties of pressure suits to compensate for the physiological dangers of low pressures, low temperatures, and low oxygen. His Lockheed Vega aircraft “Winnie Mae” is on display at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum Dulles annex.
1936: The Spanish Civil War begins. Two years after a wrenching election that installed its second left wing socialist-Marxist government since 1931, Spain awakens to a widespread army revolt instigated from the Canary Islands by General Francisco Franco. Government forces (the Republicans) quickly respond, but the army (the Nationalists) possess nearly overwhelming force against the chaotic efforts of the leftist ideologues running the government. Both sides consolidate their hold on territory by executing thousands; the vicious guerrilla war lasts through March 1939, leaving an estimated one million dead in its wake. Franco remained Caudillo (lit: guardian; actually: dictator) of Spain until his death in 1975, after which the Bourbon monarchy was restored. Both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany used Spain as a live-fire testing ground for new military concepts (i.e. Blitzkrieg combined arms raids) and political instigation.
1936: The Montreux Convention is signed in Switzerland, allowing Turkey to fortify the Bosporus and Dardanelles. The treaty also stipulates free passage of all ships in peacetime.
1941: The New York Yankee’s “Joltin’ Joe” DiMaggio hits safely for his 56th consecutive game, a record that stands to this day.
1944: General Hideiki Tojo resigns as Prime Minister of Japan. He was hung in 1948 for war crimes.
1944: German Chancellor Adolf Hitler survives an assassination attempt led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. Believe it or not, Tom Cruise plays the role very well in the 2008 movie version of the conspiracy, Valkyrie.
1945: Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, and President Harry S. Truman meet in Potsdam, in the outskirts of the ruined capital of Berlin, to discuss and decide on the fate of post-war Germany and the rest of Allied-occupied Europe.
1945: Scientists from the Manhattan Project detonate the world’s first atomic blast, code named Trinity, in the desert wastes of White Sands, New Mexico. President Truman, notified of the successful test during his summit meeting in Potsdam, told Stalin on the 25th “We have a new weapon of unusually destructive force.” Stalin, showing no emotion during the exchange, privately held his own explosion with his aides and American interlocutors that he was not told of it sooner.
1946: Jewish terrorists of the Irgun movement, including future Prime Minister Manachem Begin, bomb the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, headquarters of the civil and military administration of British Palestine.
1947: Death of Swedish diplomat and humanitarian Raoul Wallenburg (b.1912), in the Soviet Union’s Lubyanka prison. In late 1944, with the end of the European war in sight, Wallenburg was posted to Budapest, Hungary, where he was instrumental in halting the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews by issuing them Swedish passports, and by claiming entire blocks of housing areas as Swedish cultural centers subject to diplomatic immunity. Wallenburg is estimated to have saved over ten thousand lives, but was arrested as an “American spy” by Soviet political troops when they entered the city in January, 1945. Hustled off to Moscow, he was incarcerated and was never heard from again. In 1957 the Soviets issued a document dated July 17th, 1947, purporting to be from the warden, confirming the death of “…the well-known Swedish man Wallenburg, who died in his cell last night of a heart attack.” He then went on to say they went ahead and cremated the body without an autopsy. The mystery surrounding his death, compounded by credible reports of “a Swedish diplomat” in the Soviet prison system into the 1980s, and the Soviet’s lingering silence on the matter remain a sore spot in Swedish-Russian relations.
1949: The United States Senate ratifies the North Atlantic Treaty, creating for the first time an entangling alliance warned about by President Washington.
1954: As the Battle of Dien Bien Phu continued to play out, the Geneva Conference on Indochina agrees to divide Vietnam into a northern zone governed by the Vietminh party of Ho Chi Minh, and a southern zone governed by the State of Vietnam, a nominal republic. The conference was attended by the USSR, United States, France, the UK, and the Peoples Republic of China, none of whom were happy with the decision, especially since the going-in position for all parties was a unified state. Vietnamese representation was not part of the decision matrix.
1960: USS George Washington (SSBN-598) conducts the first underwater launch of a ballistic missile, the Polaris A1.
1961: Astronaut Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom makes the United States’ second flight into space aboard the Liberty Bell 7. His 15-minute sub-orbital flight reaches an apogee of 118 miles and lands 300 miles downrange from Cape Canaveral. After touchdown, the prototype explosive hatch on the capsule fires, opening the cockpit to seawater which nearly drowns Grissom. The recovery helicopter cannot keep the capsule from sinking and cuts it free as its wheels touch the water, after which they pluck Grissom out of the water. Grissom went on to be the first American to fly twice into space (Gemini 3, with John Young), and was commander of the first Apollo mission, in which he and fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee died in a fire on the launch pad in January 1967.
1963: Test pilot Joe Walker flies an X-15 rocket plane to 347,800 feet of altitude on the 90th flight of the program. Having gone more than 100 km up, it qualifies as a manned spaceflight.
1969: Apollo 11 launches to the moon with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins, and the prayers of tens of millions of us who remained earthbound.
1976: Atlanta Braves slugger Hank Aaron hits his 755th and final home run. The record held through 2007, when Barry Bonds of the SF Giants popped his 756th.
1989: A United Airlines DC-10 makes a controlled crash at the airport in Sioux City, Iowa after its tail engine blew up and severed all three hydraulic control systems just after takeoff from Chicago’s O’Hare airport. The pilot of Flight 232 controlled the attitude of the aircraft with differential power applications between the remaining wing engines, and very nearly made a “normal” wheeled landing when a gust of wind caught him just feet above the ground, causing the aircraft to cartwheel and burn. 112 of the 296 souls on board perished, which is also to say that 184 survived the crash.
1997: After a completing her first extensive rebuilding since the 1930s, USS Constitution sails from Marblehead Harbor under her own power for the first time in 116 years.
2003: United States troops of the 101st Airborne Division, making a coordinated attack on a protected Iraqi compound, kill Uday and Qusay Hussein.