323BC: Death of Alexander the Great (b.356BC). The young King of Macedon initiated a series of conquests that spread Hellenic civilization essentially throughout the known world of his day. He was never defeated in battle, but died at age 32 in Babylon, in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, just prior to beginning a planned campaign against Arabia.
632: Death of the Arab warlord and putative prophet Muhammad.
1190: Enroute to the Third Crusade*, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Fredrick Barbarossa (name means “red beard”) (b.1122), drowns in the Saleph River. His loss causes his Germanic army to nearly collapse, but the remnants eventually join the armies of France’s Philip II and England’sRichard Coeur de Lion in Acre.
1215: King John- Prince John whom Robin Hood harassed and who finally assumed the throne of England after the death of his popular brother Richard Lionheart- signs the Magna Carta on Runnymede plain. The 64-article “Great Charter” is the first royal acknowledgment that the king is subject to the rule of law rather than divine right. It laid the foundation for the revolution in civil governance that gave us English Common Law and eventually the Constitution of the United States.
1389: Battle of Kosovo, in which a Serb nationalist army under the command of Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic fights an Ottoman Turk army under Sultan Murad I. The battle was fought on Kosovo Field just outside of present-day Pristina, and was a bloodbath for both sides. The Ottomans secured a nominal victory on the field, having not only killed tens of thousands of soldiers, but also the Serbs’ leadership cadre as well. Owing to the Ottoman’s massive manpower reserves back in the empire, they were able to force Serbia into submission as a tribute-paying principality. For the Serbs this battle represented all that was good in the Serbian character- it remains a cultural touchstone to this day, most notably when President Slobodan Milosevic invoked it in a speech during the Kosovo War in 1998.
1525: Four years after his excommunication at the Diet of Worms, and in defiance of the Vatican’s rules on priestly celibacy, Martin Luther marries the former nun Katharina von Bora. The two of them not only make beautiful music together (A Mighty Fortress is his most famous hymn), they raise six children of their own in addition to adopting four orphans.
1775: Virginia militia Colonel George Washington accepts a commission to lead the fledgling Continental Army.
1775: Eight weeks after the failed raids on Lexington and Concord, British General Thomas Gage declares martial law in Massachusetts. He offers amnesty to any of the American rebels who will lay down their arms, except for Samuel Adams and John Hancock, whom he promises to hang on the spot.
1776: The Continental Congress appoints a “Committee of Five” led by Virginian Thomas Jefferson to draft a declaration of independence from Great Britain.
1777: Congress adopts the Stars and Stripes as the official flag of the United States of America.
1789: Eight weeks (29th April) after being set adrift in a 23 foot open launch with 18 loyal crew from HMS Bounty, Captain William Bligh lands on the Dutch East Indies island of Timor. The crew’s transit between the site of the mutiny and Timor was an extraordinary feat of survival and navigation, with Bligh using only his pocket watch and a sextant- no charts or compass- across 3600 miles of the South Pacific. The only casualty on the voyage was crewman John Norton, who was stoned to death by natives during a brief provisioning stop on the island of Tofua.
1793: The Jacobin faction of the French revolutionary leadership takes over control of the ill-named Committee of Public Safety and converts it into the Revolutionary Dictatorship.
1789: Virginian James Madison submits to the Continental Congress twelve proposed amendments to the Constitution. By 1791, ten of them are ratified by the states as the Bill of Rights. One more is finally ratified by the Several States in 1992, to become the 27th Amendment- prohibiting changes in Congressional pay and benefits without an intervening election.
1809: Death of Thomas Paine (b.1737), one of the intellectual fathers of the American Revolution, whose 1776 broadside, Common Sense, laid down in clear rhetoric the foundation for the Colonies making a complete break with the United Kingdom. By 1789 he became an early enthusiast for the French Revolution and was in fact “elected” to the French Assembly, even though he spoke no French. As an ally of Robespierre, he eventually fell into disfavor and was imprisoned in 1793. While in prison he penned The Age of Reason, which excoriated the teachings of the Church in favor of “free rational inquiry” into any and all subjects. But before descending into the mire of revolutionary France, and during the course of the American Revolution, he published a series of pamphlets called The American Crisis. You may recognize these words:
“THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”
1811: Birth of Harriet Beecher Stowe (d.1896). When President Abraham Lincoln met the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” at a White House reception he is reported to have said, “So, you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!”
1854: First graduation of midshipmen from the new US Naval Academy.
1864(a): With both armies having made strategic movements away from the battlefield of Cold Harbor, Union guns open fire on the crucial Confederate transportation junction of Petersburg, Virginia. Lee’s army throws up breastworks and entrenchments that will eventually stretch for miles around the eastern edges of the city as the siege deepens.
1864(b): Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorizes a national cemetery on 200 acres of Robert E. Lee’s Arlington plantation. One of the early burials of Union soldiers takes place in a mass grave in the garden very near the residence itself.
1886: On the shore of Lake Starnberg, searchers late at night discover the body of King Ludwig II of Bavaria (b.1845), along with Doctor Gudden, who declared him clinically insane a day earlier, thus completing the planned usurpation of the Bavarian throne by his uncle Prince Luitpold. The death was ruled “suicide by drowning” but not surprisingly, controversy remains as to the reality of what really occurred that evening. Ludwig is best remembered as patron to composer Richard Wagner, and for his nearly continuous construction of fanciful palaces and castles.
1915: Birth of Les Paul (d.2009), prolific musician and inventor of the legendary Gibson solid body electric guitar that bears his name.
1924: Death of George Mallory (b.1886), the great British explorer and mountaineer who, with his climbing partner Andrew Irvine,attempted an ascent to the summit of Mount Everest this day and never returned. Irvine’s ice axe was discovered in 1933, but no trace of either man was found except for a cryptic Chinese report of finding “an English dead” on the north face above 26,000 feet. Mallory’s body was eventually found during a dedicated search mission in 1999, although the question of whether he and Irvine actually achieved the summit remains one of mountaineering’s great mysteries
1940(a): Using the Pact of Steel with Germany, Italy declares war on France and Great Britain.
1940(b): Under the command of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the German Wermacht reaches the English Channel.
1940(c): Canada declares war on Italy.
1940(d): Triumphant German troops enter Paris unopposed.
1940(e): Norway surrenders to Germany.
1940(f): Only days after the British evacuation from Dunkirk, the roughly 50,000 remaining Allied troops on the continent surrender to the overwhelming juggernaut of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. French General Maxime Weygrand orders Paris to be an open city- “A cessation of hostilities is compulsory-” to save it from certain destruction. Weygrand bitterly blames the British for France’s defeat. France formally capitulates to German arms on the 25th.
1944: The Marines land on the South Pacific island of Saipan in Operation Forager. Despite intense naval gunfire support at near point-blank range, Japanese defensive preparation of the landing zone allowed for quick recovery from the barrage, and created devastating accuracy from their defending artillery. Over half the Marine amphibious tractors are destroyed in the first wave of the assault, and it takes the Marines over three days to expand their toehold beyond the surf zone. The three-week operation finally achieved Saipan’s eventual capture at cost to the Marine Corps of 16,525 casualties, including 3,426 dead. It became the first operational B-29 base in the Pacific theater
1964: Nelson Mandella and others from the African National Congress are sentenced to life in prison for treason and sabotage. Mandella never denies the charge and in fact proudly asserted that the violence planned by the ANC was a legitimate reflection of South African blacks’ grievances. After 27 years of hard labor he is released in 1990 and four years later is elected President of the now-desegregated country.
1967: Five days into the war with its Arab neighbors, having conquered all of Sinai and the Jordanian territory west of the Jordan River, Israel opens a large-scale armor assault on Syria’s Golan Heights, from which the Syrians had been raining artillery shells on Israeli towns in the Galilee region.
1967: With the complete collapse of Syrian defenses in Golan, and the frontiers with Jordan and Egypt stabilized, Israel signs a ceasefire with Syria, thus ending the Six Day War
1971: The New York Times begins publication of a set of classified documents that came to be known as The Pentagon Papers. They were a 1968 top secret report ordered by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, originally titled: United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense. The report outlined in close detail the thinking and decision-making behind the United States’ buildup and early execution of the Vietnam War, and bolstered the cause of the anti-war protesters nationwide. The legal wrangling that followed led to an extensive review and affirmation of First Amendment rights. The person who gave the classified report to the Times was one of the contributors to the report, Daniel Ellsberg. He justified releasing the documents on in a statement: “I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision” The NYT rationale centered on publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s judgment that: “Newspapers, as our editorial said this morning, were really a part of history that should have been made available, considerably longer ago. I just didn’t feel there was any breach of national security, in the sense that we were giving secrets to the enemy.”
1973: Virginia race horse Secretariat wins the third race of the Triple Crown.
1985: Petty Officer Second Class Robert Stethem, USN, is murdered by Shi’ite terrorists aboard the hijacked TWA flight 847, his beaten and shot body dumped onto the tarmac at Beirut International Airport. In 1994 the Navy honored his memory by commissioning a ship bearing his name, USS Stethem(DDG-63).
1987: In what may be the defining speech of his presidency, Ronald Reagan stands in the shadow of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and issues his stirring call to Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”