The 15th day of the month for March, May, July and October in the Roman calendar. The Ides of March was a festival day honoring Mars, the god of war.
44BC: Julius Caesar, dictator of the Roman Republic, is stabbed to death by a cabal of Roman senators. According to Plutarch, Caesar was warned by a seer to be on his guard against a great peril on the Ides of March. On his way to the Theater of Pompey (where he would be assassinated), Caesar saw the seer and joked, “Well, the Ides of March have come,” to which the seer replied, “Ay, they have come, but they are not gone.”
241 B.C.: Roman triremes sink the Carthaginian fleet in the Battle of the Aegates Islands off the western tip of Sicily, bringing to an end the First Punic War.
1507: Death of Cesare Borgia (b.1475), son of Pope Alexander VI, brother of the notorious femme fatale Lucrecia Borgia, and one of the primary hereditary princes studied by Nicolo Machiavelli in his classic treatise, The Prince. The Borgias represented the epitome of the self-perpetuating religio-politico-criminal power centers in the north-central tier of Italy, coming often into contact and conflict with the equally intense Medici dynasty of Florence. Machiavelli’s interest in Cesare’s princely career zeroed in on the fact that while his ruthlessness and cunning was effective enough to keep himself and his cronies in power, in the end, what Machiavelli described as his “princely virtue,” that is, his political power, was power actually endowed by the pope, power that was lost on Alexander’s death and the accession of a new pope who did not have the Borgia family interest at the center of his papacy.
1708: Britain’s Queen Anne withholds the Royal Assent for the Scottish Militia Bill, the last time a British monarch vetoes legislation. Coming less than a year after the 1707 Acts of Union with restive Scotland, one can understand her reluctance to sanction an independent armed force in the northern reaches of her realm.
1776: South Carolina becomes the first colony to declare independence from Great Britain by establishing its own government.
1781: German-born British musician, composer, mathematician, and astronomer Frederick William Herschel discovers the planet Uranus, using a telescope of his own design and manufacture. The brilliant polymath had been studying and cataloging the rings of Saturn, and more particularly, the phenomenon of double stars, when he happened upon a non-stellar object that appeared to move in the planetary plane. This was the first discovery of a planet visible only through a telescope. Herschel followed this with subsequent discoveries of multiple moons of Saturn, and a large number of nebulae in deep space.
1855: Birth of American astronomer Percival Lowell (d.1916), who became famous in the public imagination from his detailed observations of the surface of Mars, on which he surmised were the remains of a complex series of canals, indicating the presence of a sentient civilization on the red planet. Although his canal theory has since been disproven, it remains a staple of science fiction writing to this day. More importantly, Lowell’s mathematical modeling of the orbits of Uranus and Neptune set the conditions for the search for Planet-X, a search finally vindicated two decades later by Clyde Tombaugh, working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.
1863: Birth of Casey Jones. The railroad engineer for the Illinois Central had already become well-known for his famous whistle and from his driving consistency to “get her there on the advertised,” i.e. the advertised time of arrival. On April 29th, 1900 his train, Number 382 (photo) was “cannonballing” a load of passengers to New Orleans at over 70 mph when out of the fog there appeared the taillight of a stalled freight train. Jones ordered the fireman to jump as he immediately slammed the 382 into full reverse and laid on the whistle to warn of the impending impact. The train had slowed to around 35 mph by the time it slammed through the caboose and two other freight cars before de-railing against the siding. Jones was killed, but his sacrificial actions that saved his passengers became the stuff of legend.
1876: Alexander Graham Bell makes the first telephone call on his new invention with those immortal words: “Mr. Watson, come here! I want to see you!” Watson responded, thus completing the first electrical transmission of two-way speech.
1879: Birth of Albert Einstein
1781: Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Near Greensboro, North Carolina a short (90 minutes) sharp battle between 1,900 British Regulars under General Cornwallis against 4,000 Continental soldiers under General Nathaniel Green. Because of ground lost (and held) the battle was a technical loss for the Americans. But with a quarter of the British force suffering casualties, it was a classic Pyrrhic victory, prompting Whig party leader James Fox to declare, “Another such victory would ruin the British army.” Greene and his forces move south into South Carolina to un-do the earlier work of Cornwallis’ & Tarleton’s armies. Convinced he was still winning the war, Cornwallis advances into Virginia, where he eventually sets up his headquarters in Yorktown.
1883: Death of Karl Marx
1906: Death of Susan B. Anthony (b.1820), one of the leading lights of the Women’s Suffrage movement, and the first actual woman (as opposed to a stylized Liberty) to be featured on U.S. currency, the quarter-sized 1979 dollar coin. Of some discomfort to the current radical feminist movement today was her harsh denunciation of conditions that lead to rationalizing abortion, to say nothing of the act itself.
1913: Death of the great abolitionist Harriet Tubman, founder of the Underground Railroad, whose personal efforts freed more than 70 slaves from their servitude in thirteen separate expeditions. During the Civil War, Tubman served as a nurse and advisor to Union forces in South Carolina, and acted as a scout on the Combahee River Raid that freed over 700 slaves from their plantations. Her exploits before and during the war made her widely known in the press. In her later years she became deeply engaged in the women’s suffrage movement, working closely with Susan B. Anthony and other prominent leaders of the movement.
1917: Czar Nicholas II of Russia abdicates the throne in favor of his brother, the Grand Duke Mikhail. With a provisional revolutionary government already consolidating power, the Grand Duke declines the honor until it can be ratified by the Duma, which itself declines to retain the monarchy. This period is known as the “February Revolution,” and marks the end of over 300 years of the Romanov dynasty.
1918: Fresh from their capitulation to the Central Powers in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the new communist government of Russia moves the capitol of the country from the splendor of Saint Petersburg, where it was founded 215 years earlier by Peter the Great, back to the ancient Kremlin fortress of Moscow.
1928: Exactly two years after its completion, the St. Francis Dam in Southern California suddenly collapses, sending a 120 foot tall wall of water tearing down the San Francisquito Canyon, completely wiping the town of Santa Paula off the map, and finally ending its run into the Pacific Ocean near the border between Ventura and Los Angeles counties. The torrent of 12.4 billion gallons of water killed a confirmed 375 persons, with over 300 more never accounted for in the aftermath of the flood. Bodies washed ashore all along the coast as far south as Mexico. You may recall the nasty undercurrents of the Los Angeles Water Wars in the 1974 movie Chinatown- this dam, and the huge personalities involved in its design and construction figured prominently in the film.
1933: Newly inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt sets up a wireless studio in the White House and makes the first of his 30 Fireside Chats, a media venue* that made the most of his dulcet voice and political savvy to speak directly to the American people. It also permitted significant public exposure without the concomitant exposure of his crippling polio.
1938: German troops en masse cross the border with Austria, essentially conquering the country without firing a shot. The Nazi regime refers to the action as the Anschluss, literally a “connection” that had been a pressure point between Germany and Austria since the end of the Great War, and for which a plebiscite was scheduled for the 11th March and then abruptly ignored when the reality of the imminent German occupation took hold. Adolf Hitler himself crossed the border at his home town of Braunau and spent the night in Lintz. Over the next three days he made a triumphant automobile tour of Austria, finishing the annexation of the country at a rapturous mass rally in Vienna, no longer the capitol of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the independent nation of Austria, but the newest province of the greater German Reich.
1940: Birth of Chuck Norris.
1942: After two weeks of ignoring FDR’s direct presidential order, General Douglas MacArthur abandons Corregidor under the cover* of darkness, leaving command of the besieged U.S.and Philippine armies to Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright. The island fortress had been under essentially continuous Japanese artillery and aerial bombardment since December 29th, and Roosevelt reasoned that a living MacArthur would be more useful in leading the eventual re-conquest of the Philippines than a captured or killed MacArthur. On his arrival in Australia, MacArthur issued his most memorable promise: “People of the Philippines, I shall return.” Wainwright held out under increasingly dire conditions until surrendering the citadel on May 6th
1954: Under the direction of General Vo Nguyn Giap, the communist Viet Minh army opens the siege of the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu.
1957: In Havana, Cuban student revolutionaries storm the presidential palace of President Fulgencio Bautista.
1964: A Dallas, Texas jury convicts Jack Ruby for the murder of JFK’s presumed killer, Lee Harvey Oswald. The televised event from the previous December pretty much made it a non sequitur, and gave us one of the iconic news images of the 20th century.