1184 B.C.: After 10 years of fruitless siege, the Greek armies of Odysseus set sail from their encampment, leaving behind a huge offering to their goddess Athena, in the form of a massive, wheeled wooden horse. The besieged army and people of Troy, realizing their enemy has abandoned their camps, rapturously wheel the statue into the city, and use it as the centerpiece of their victory celebrations, despite ominous warning from the Trojan priest Laocoon: “Do not trust the horse, Trojans! Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks. even bringing gifts.” (Virgil: Aenid, Book II). For his efforts, Laocoon is strangled by two snakes; the Trojan “victory” celebration continues into the night, and in the ‘wee hours of morning darkness and quiet, 30 hand-picked Greek soldiers slip out of their hiding places inside the horse to unlock the city gates and signal the Greek fleet to return to the beaches. The result is a complete slaughter of Troy’s population, and a comprehensive sack of its wealth, the Greek army finally vacating the city, leaving it a pile of smoldering rubble.
1157: Albert “The Bear” of Saxony, is appointed Margrave of Brandenburg by the Holy Roman Emperor. So what? you might ask. Well, here’s the so what: the margraves were principalities (“marches”)* out on the borderlands of the Empire, tasked with protecting the Empire from invasion. As such, they required and were authorized to maintain significant military forces, with the Margrave himself given a great deal of autonomy to act in defense of the realm. In reality, the margraves became de facto independent kingdoms. Albert’s accession as Margrave began the process of expanding Brandenburg into the strongest and most prosperous of the northern Germanic sates. Added to this its role as Elector of for the Holy Roman Emperor, meant that Germany’s most powerful and ambitious families would continually seek a role in Brandenburg’s politics. In 1415 the Hohenzollern family was named Prince-Elector of Brandenburg.
1215: King John the execrable Prince John whom Robin Hood harassed to distraction 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 acknowledgement 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. Four copies of the original are extant: one at Salisbury Cathedral.
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- the bravery and sacrifice (and simmering resentment)- and 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.
1509: Henry VIII marries his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon.
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.
1579: English explorer Sir Francis Drake lands somewhere on the northwest coast of North America and claims it for England in the name of Queen Elizabeth I, naming it Nova Albion. As a graduate of Sir Francis Drake High School in Marin County, California, and having seen the famous “plate of brass” making the claim, I was fully convinced that the landing place was just over the ridgeline to the west of us at Point Reyes, a peninsula of chalky cliffs that resembles a miniature Dover. The sheltered waters are even called Drake’s Bay. So that had to be it, right? Maybe not: Drake’s royal mission was not only to harass the Spanish in the Pacific basin, but also it was also to search out the western entrance to the (in)famous Northwest Passage. To that end, Drake’s coastal discoveries north of Spanish settlements were very much strategic state secrets to the British crown. Drake may, in fact, have worked his way far into Alaska’s inland passage and then back down the coast, where he eventually put into what we now know as Whale Cove on the central coast of Oregon.
1723: Birth of Adam Smith (d.1790), one of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, best known for his theories on the free market and the “invisible hand” that allows a market to establish a natural price that provides a reasonable return on land, labor and capital. His magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations (1776), expands on the theme, including the dangers inherent in any concentration of wealth or power that distorts natural market effects.
1752: Philadelphia printer, inventor, philosopher and political gadfly Benjamin Franklin conducts his famous kite-flying-in-a-thunderstorm experiment, proving that lightning is electricity. He lives through it.
1770: At the antipodes of his First Voyage of Discovery, Captain James Cook runs aground HMS Endeavour on the Great Barrier Reef. When the ship does not float off with a kedged anchor during the next high tide, Cook immediately orders the crew to lighten ship, eventually discharging all of Endeavour’s fresh water, stores, and all but four cannons over the side. The weight loss, combined with a Herculean effort with two more kedge anchors, frees the ship from the reef. Now afloat again, but 24 miles from the mainland and with large hole below the waterline, the ship is now in danger of sinking before they can safely beach it for repairs. Midshipman Jonathon Monkhouse was sent over the side with a wadded up mass of old sailcloth and oakum. He swam down to the hole and thrust the mass into the flow, where it acted like a huge cork, staunching the leak long enough that Cook could cut back from three pumps to one. That process, by the way, is called fothering, and it can be done either as a plug or as a gigantic patch, i.e., sliding an entire sail under the ship from one side to the other.
1775: Battle of Bunker Hill. Less than a week after British General Gage locks down Boston under martial law, a militia force of some 1,200 Minutemen under the command of William Prescott work their way under cover of darkness to set up redoubts on Breed’s and Bunker Hill, which dominate Charlestown’s landward approaches to occupied Boston. By daylight the fortifications are seen by the British, and they mount an assault to clear the hills. Twice, however, the assaults fail with high British casualties, the American troops exhorted to “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” Late in the day, as the colonials run out of ammunition, the third British attack finally takes the ground, but the colonial force withdraws in good order to fight another day. The British commander General Clinton, writing in his diary notes, “A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.” American casualties included the death of Dr. Joseph Warren, one of the founders of the Sons of Liberty and Chief Executive of the Massachusetts Revolutionary Government.
1777: Congress adopts the Stars and Stripes as the official flag of the United States of America.
1775: Virginia militia Colonel George Washington accepts a commission to lead the fledgling Continental Army.
1789: After six weeks of bitter political wrangling, defections from one Estate to another, and dithering by King Louis XVI, the increasingly assertive Third Estate declares itself The National Assembly, a group “of the people” and declaring that they will govern with or without the participation of the other Estates.
1789: Eight weeks (since 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.
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!”
1815: Battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras, both fought on this day, setting the stage for Napoleon Bonaparte’s final defeat at Waterloo. Ligny was a small town on the right of the French advance northward into Belgium; the sharp, house-to-house fighting there saw the tactical defeat and withdrawal of von Blucher’s Prussian army, and was Napoleon’s final victory in battle. Napoleon’s left was ordered to capture the nearby crossroads at Quatre Bras, but they were held off by the western coalition forces under the Duke of Wellington who, after confirming the French withdrawal from the battlefield late in the afternoon, executed a strategic re-positioning of his army northward to a low ridgeline just south of the town of Waterloo. Although Napoleon’s grand strategy was designed around keeping Wellington and von Blucher’s forces separated, they in fact maintained active communications despite the increasing distances between them during their withdrawal and repositioning on the 17th.
1825: The cornerstone is laid for Fort Hamilton, sited on the north shore of the Verazzano Narrows, protecting the approaches to New York’s great harbor. [The original classical redoubt, now completely subsumed by the much larger Army post; Fort Wadsworth (multi-level Battery Weed) sits on the opposite shore of the Narrows, providing interlocking fields of artillery fire with Hamilton across the strait.
1829: Birth of Geronimo, the great Apache warrior and medicine man, who fought both US and Mexican expansion into tribal lands from 1858 until his capture in 1886. He was renowned for his close calls and narrow escapes, the most famous of which came in the Robledo Mountains of New Mexico. Under hot pursuit by the US Army, Geronimo and his followers ducked into a cave; US soldiers set up a perimeter to catch them, but they never came back out. After several days Geronimo was spotted nearby, but the second exit from the cave was never found. If this sounds a little like “Injun Joe’s Cave” in Tom Sawyer, you’d be right. After his capture, Geronimo was shuffled between Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Mount Vernon Barracks in Alabama, and finally Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he died in 1909.
1864: 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: 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.
1917: German Gotha bombers attack central London, killing 162 and injuring 450.
1922: President Warren Harding becomes the first president to have his voice broadcast over radio.
1926: Death of American impressionist painter Mary Cassat (b.1843), best known for her evocative depictions of children and their mothers.
1927: After making a celebratory tour of France and England, Charles Lindbergh returns to New York aboard ship, with the Spirit of St Louis carefully disassembled and stored in the cargo hold. He is greeted this day by a rapturous ticker tape parade.
1930: President Herbert Hoover signs into law the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, ostensibly designed to protect American jobs and support economic growth.
1932: The Bonus March-The group of unemployed WWI vets who have been congregating on the mudflats of Anacostia, gather today en masse on the steps of the Capitol as the Senate votes on a measure advancing the pay date of their Army bonuses. Although reasonable order is maintained, it is becoming clear that the Bonus March is turning into a Bonus Army, and that tensions will only continue to rise as the summer heats up.
1940: After the declaration of Paris as an open city.
1943: Birth of Burt Rutan, the aeronautical engineer whose creations continue to stretch the boundaries of flight.
1944: United States 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 as the AMTRACS swam ashore. 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.
1958: Death of Imre Nagy (b.1896), former communist Prime Minister of Hungary, whose reforms in 1954-56 led to his forced ouster by the Hungarian Communist Party. A broad cross-section of Hungarian society rose up in revolt, with riots and burnings across the country demanding Nagy’s return to power and removal of the Communist Party from the country. The Soviet Union responded with an invasion of 200,000 soldiers and 2,500 tanks, crushing the uprising and killing thousands. Nagy was captured and imprisoned by the now-reinforced hard liners, who convicted him of treason and hanged him by the neck until dead on this day. As the communist empire collapsed in 1990-91, Nagy was reburied with full state honors in a funeral attended by over 100,000.
1961: President John F. Kennedy authorizes the expansion of the U.S. Assistance Mission to Vietnam, from 900 to 3200 advisors.
1963: Russian skydiver Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space, making a 71 hour, 48 orbit journey in a Voshkod capsule. She remained the only woman cosmonaut or astronaut until the 1980s, with the launch of American Mission Specialist Sally Ride in 1983.
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.”
1972: Under the leadership of President Nixon’s re-election chairman G. Gordon Liddy and CIA operative E. Howard Hunt, five men break into the Watergate apartment complex to bug the phone lines of the Democratic National Committee and steal McGovern campaign documents. They are discovered by Forrest Gump, but by an alert security guard named Frank Wills.
1982: After six weeks of defeats at the hand of the British army, marines and navy, the Argentine garrison at Port Stanley, Falklands Islands, surrenders and a general cease fire is declared. On the Argentine mainland, General Galieri is deposed from the presidency and serves three years in prison for military incompetence. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stands for re-election in the spring of 1983 and wins in a landslide.
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).