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.
1099: After four years of intrigue, violence, betrayal, death, war, negotiations, prayer and fervor, the First Crusade enters Jerusalem as a conquering army. The ensuing slaughter of Saracens and Jews on the Temple Mount was such that contemporary witnesses wrote that the knights rode in blood up to their stirrups.
1203: Venetian armies of the Fourth Crusade capture Constantinople, driving the sultan into exile and setting into motion the eventual death of the Christian Byzantine Empire.
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 port side 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, when 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. Over 40 percent of the hull remained trapped in the 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. The entire remaining hull and thousands of artifacts are today on display at the Royal Dockyard in Portsmouth, England.
1584: Feast day of Saint Camillus de Lellis, founder in 1584 of the Camillian order of monks, whose mission of easing the suffering of the sick transformed itself into easing the suffering of those wounded on the field of battle. They wore a distinctive red cross on their cossacks to identify themselves. The order and a derivative of its insignia was the inspiration in 1863 for the treaty that became the International Committee of the Red Cross.
1606: Birth of Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn.
1692: Five women are hanged for witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials.
1717: From a royal barge gliding down the Thames River, King George I and a small retinue hear the first performance of George Fredrick Handel’s Water Music.
1762: Catherine the Great assumes the throne as Empress of all the Russias after the assassination of Peter III.
1789: After Louis XVI dismissed his long-time Finance Minister, Jacques Necker; the news got into Paris early on the 12th, causing immediate consternation from the various mobs who were continually gathered on the grounds of Palais Royale. They grew deeply concerned that the Royal troops gathering in Versailles from their border outposts would be used to suppress the mobs and take over the National Assembly. Also, most of the “Royal” troops on station in Paris proper were Swiss and German mercenaries, the result of the king and his advisors being uneasy with entrusting the capital city to native French troops of uncertain loyalty. General riots broke out all around the city on the 12th with virtually no reaction from the army or police. On the 13th, with further fears growing of an impending attack, the mob was incited by Camille Desmoulins, a Masonic agitator, who mounted onto a table, pistol in hand and exclaimed: “Citizens! There is no time to lose- the dismissal of Necker is the knell of Saint Bartholomew for the patriots! This very night all the Swiss and German battalions will leave the Champ de Mars to massacre us all; one resource is left: to arms!” The mob surged to the massive arsenal of Saint-Lazaire and stole hundreds of arms and barrels of powder. Early in the morning of the 14th, the more energized 500 or so among them appeared before the gates of the medieval-era Bastille prison, which held only seven prisoners but also contained a large cache of weapons and ammunition. After fruitless negotiations with the warden, the mob finally attacked, and the ensuing one-sided battle killed 98 of the attackers to one of the prison guards. Recognizing the inevitable, the warden, Governor de Launay, surrendered the facility around 3:00 in the afternoon, and the mob bundled him back to the square at Palais Royale, where they jostled him around as they tried to determine his fate. Exasperated, he finally cried out “Enough! Let me die!” and kicked a baker named Dulait in the groin. The enraged mob then began stabbing him and sawed off his head, which they mounted on a pike and paraded through the streets. As evening closed in, the mobs established barricades in the streets to protect themselves from an expected counter-attack. In the end, the Fall of the Bastille had zero military effect, but because of the symbolism of a royal facility falling to the citizens of the country it became the touchstone for the entire French Revolution and is celebrated today as the National Holiday, Bastille Day.
1792: American naval hero Captain John Paul Jones dies in Paris. After his exploits in the American Revolution, he served briefly in Saint Petersburg as Catherine the Great’s naval advisor. 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.
1793: Charlotte Corday is executed via guillotine. Immediately after her head fell into the basket, the executioner’s associate pulled it out and slapped her cheek, and the Jacobin council ordered an autopsy to determine if she was a virgin (she was). France’s post-Revolutionary decades saw Corday’s legacy undergo a major revision: from being the she-devil incarnate and Enemy of the People, she became more widely known as a woman of integrity and virtue who sacrificed herself to halt the gross excesses of le Terreur.
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.
1798: President John Adams signs into law the fourth of four bills collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, passed in response to a high level of Francophile agitation against the Quasi-War with that country. The Sedition Act signed today made it a federal offense to write, publish or utter a false or malicious statement against the United States government. Thomas Jefferson was particularly vocal against the law, a dispute which causes a deep breach in their friendship. This law, although it had an expiration date of the last day of Adams’ term, was eventually overturned based on a 10th Amendment ruling on Congress overstepping its enumerated powers, rather than a more predictable First Amendment argument.
1799: In the Egyptian village of Rosetta (a.k.a. Rashid), French Captain Pierre-Francois Bouchard finds a portion of an ancient stele, with inscriptions in three languages: Egyptian hieroglyphics, Egyptian Deotic script, and ancient Greek. The common inscriptions, written in honor of the 13-year-old Ptolemy V, provided the first viable translations of hieroglyphics. When the British army defeated the French in Egypt in 1801, they assumed possession of the Rosetta Stone as part of the Treaty of Alexandria. It was immediately put on display in the British Museum, where it remains to this day.
1815: Four weeks after his decisive loss at Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte surrenders himself aboard HMS Bellerophon, which immediately transports him and a small retinue into permanent exile on the tiny island of Saint Helena, deep in the South Atlantic.
1853: Commodore Mathew Perry, USN, sets foot in Araga, Japan and begins his first negotiations to open that country to outside trade interests, such as the United States.
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 cries of “On to Richmond!” from the press and fellow citizens as they passed by.
1862: Captain David Farragut is promoted to Rear Admiral, becoming the United States Navy’s first flag officer.
1870: Georgia becomes the final former Confederate state re-admitted to the Union.
1870: 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. Bismarck’s main political goal was the complete unification of German lands under the leadership of Prussia. He had early on begun 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 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. This 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 revanch (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.
1917: Three years into the Great War, King George V issues a very British proclamation that his descendants will bear as their surname “Windsor,” after the castle in which the family lived, vice “von Saxe-Coberg and Gotha” which derived from Queen Victoria’s Germanic consort, Prince Albert.
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 Mien Kampf.
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 the 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 (aircraft carriers are not listed as a class?) in peacetime.
1938: After a solo transcontinental flight from Long Beach to Floyd Bennett Field in New York in an airplane of his own design, aviation mechanic, pilot, handy-man and barnstormer Douglas Corrigan takes off again through cloud cover on a flight plan filed for a return trip to California. He lands instead, in Ireland, and earns everlasting public acclaim as “Wrong-Way Corrigan.”
1941: The New York Yankee’s “Joltin’ Joe” DiMaggio hits safely for his 56th consecutive game, a record that stands to this day.
1942: Opening guns of the German army’s assault on Stalingrad. This is a week after the start of the Kursk campaign, which sealed Germany’s defeat in the south of Russia. On this day German assault got underway: the siege lasted nearly a full year through a bitter winter of inadequate clothing, sniping, and counter-assaults by the Red Army.
1944: General Hideiki Tojo resigns as Prime Minister of Japan. Hung for war crimes in 1948.
1944: German Chancellor Adolf Hitler survives an assassination attempt led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg.
1945(a): 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(b): 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.”
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. He 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.
1948: 37-year-old Argentine driver Juan Manuel Fangio makes his Formula 1 debut at the French Grand Prix. Known as “The Maestro” for his spectacular technical ability with a race car while remaining polite and mild-mannered in public, Fangio eventually set a record of 51 wins and five world driving championships, including four in a row 1954-57, a record only recently surpassed by former Ferrari F-1 driver Michael Schumacher.
1955: Opening day for Disneyland, a world of dreams, built from scratch in a parcel of distant orange groves in Anaheim, California.
1958: A military coup, led by Major General Abdul Karim el Qasim, overthrows the Iraqi monarchy, killing the young king and his uncle the crown prince. Qasim himself is overthrown in a 1963 coup led by the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party.
1960: USS George Washington (SSBN-598) conducts the first underwater launch of a ballistic missile, the Polaris A1.
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: Senator Edward M. Kennedy careens his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island. He survives the crash. Mary Joe Kopechne does not.
1975: First docking between American and Russian spacecraft. The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) tested the limits of Soviet-American cooperation in each nation’s premier technology demonstration project. In addition to fundamental issues of trust and language compatibility, technical hurdles included differing measuring systems, different spacecraft and therefore different mating adapters and docking systems, different air pressures and different gas mixtures. That the program worked at all is a testament to the determination of the engineers who pulled it all together.
1979: Sandinista rebels under Daniel Ortega capture Managua, Nicaragua and institute a Marxist regime in Central America.