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.”
37 A.D.: Caligula becomes Emperor of the Roman Empire upon the death of his great uncle, Tiberius.
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.
1521: Three-quarters of the way around his historic circumnavigation, Ferdinand Magellan lands in the Philippines.
1621: Only a few months into their colonial experience, the Pilgrim settlers of Plymouth, Massachusetts are startled by the appearance of an Abenaki Indian who walks boldly into their encampment and greets them with, “Welcome, Englishmen! My name is Samoset.”
1751: Birth of James Madison (d.1836). Virginia-born Madison composed the first drafts of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights and earned the nickname “Father of the Constitution.” In 1792, Madison and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) founded the Democratic-Republican Party, which has been called America’s first opposition political party. When Jefferson became the third U.S. president, Madison served as his secretary of state. In this role, he oversaw the Louisiana Purchase from the French in 1803. During his presidency, Madison led the U.S. into the controversial War of 1812 (1812-15) against Great Britain. After two terms in the White House, Madison retired to his Virginia plantation, Montpelier, with his wife Dolly Madison. His writings, along with those penned by other advocates, were released anonymously under the title “The Federalist,” a series of 85 essays produced between 1787 and 1788.
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.
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 Nathanael Greene. 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.
1802: Alarmed by continuing threats from British Canada, Congress authorizes establishment of a military academy at West Point, New York.
1815: Prince Wilhelm of the house of Orange-Nassau, proclaims himself King of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, becoming the first constitutional monarch in the Low Countries. You would be correct it you reasoned that this proclamation came as a result of much diplomatic wheeling and dealing that accompanied the demise of France’s Napoleonic empire. Until they were conquered by Napoleon, the region was part of the Hapsburg Empire- as the Austrian Netherlands- and was often a pawn in the dynastic wars of the previous 300 years.
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 modelling 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 (d.1900). 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 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.
1865: With their fighting prowess in dire straits, the Confederate Congress authorizes the enlistment of black troops into the Confederate Army, with the promise of freedom as the primary motivation of the enlistment package. The law stipulated that the enlistment and release from slavery was contingent on agreement of the slave’s master, but coming this late in the War between the States, with the South teetering on collapse and the Emancipation Proclamation promising freedom already, the act did little to draw the South’s black population to fight on its behalf.
1879: Birth of Albert Einstein (d.1955), relatively speaking.
1883: Death of Karl Marx (b.1818), author of, Das Kapital.
1899: Birth of Gracie Doll (d.1977), part of a German acting family whose careers climaxed in 1939 with the release of The Wizard of Oz.
1906: Death of Susan B. Anthony (b.1820), one of the leading forces of the Women’s Suffrage movement, and the first woman to be featured on U.S. currency, the quarter-sized 1979 dollar coin.
1908: Birth of Ed Heinemann (d.1991). The Douglas Aircraft designer’s motto to his engineering team: “Simplicate, and add lightness.”
1915: The German light cruiser SMS Dresden is abandoned and scuttled by its crew in Cumberland Bay on the Chilean island of Mása Tierra. As the only turbine-powered ship in a German fleet that was otherwise destroyed by the Royal Navy in the Battle of the Falklands Islands the previous December, she escaped virtually unscathed and continued to elude detection, all the while bringing British shipping to a halt in the region. She finally anchored in neutral Chilean territory, out of ammunition, nearly out of coal, and with major wear making her power plant barely usable. Two British cruisers discovered her location, and after a warning shot, Dresden raised the white flag of surrender. Lt. Wilhelm Canaris- later the Nazi’s Chief of Military Intelligence- motored over to the British ships to arrange terms, but it was only a ruse to allow for the rest of the 300+ crew to escape to Chilean territory, where they were interred for the remainder of the war. As the final crew departed, they re-hoisted the German battle ensign, and the ship defiantly scuttled from the British grip.
1916: General John J. Pershing leads the 7th and 10th Cavalry Regiments across the border into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa.
1917: Czar Nicholas II of Russia abdicates the throne of Russia in favor of his youngest 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 capital 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.
1926: Robert Goddard launches the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket in Auburn, Massachusetts.
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 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.
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.
1933: Birth of Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (d.2020)
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 Hitler made a triumphant automobile tour of Austria, finishing the annexation of the country at a rapturous mass rally in Vienna, no longer the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the independent nation of Austria, but the newest province of the greater German Reich. Those of us who grew up in the decades immediately after WWII remember the political unease of Austria carefully straddling the East-West divide of the Cold War, and the not-uncommon view that Austrians were actually the “good Germans” like Baron von Trapp of the Sound of Music. But you will also often hear or read that “the Austrians were really quite Brown…” during the 30s, meaning that their political sentiments were aligned with the Brown Shirts of the nascent Nazi party, a view reinforced by the events that began this day.
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.
1966: Launch of Gemini 8, the 12th U.S. manned spaceflight, and the first to rendezvous and dock with another spacecraft, the Agena, and the first spaceflight to abort due to an in-flight emergency while in orbit. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott noticed attitude control problems shortly after docking with the Agena, exacerbated by a rapid depletion of fuel for their thrusters. Un-docking from the Agena, their Gemini capsule then began an un-commanded roll, which Armstrong was initially able to stop with opposite thrusters. But as soon as he released the controls, thruster #8 began firing continuously on its own, sending the spacecraft into violent gyrations that threatened to incapacitate the crew. Armstrong’s steely test pilot nerves took over, and he shut off the orbital maneuvering system and brought the spacecraft back under control with the re-entry system. NASA ordered an immediate de-orbit, and the flight ended with a splashdown in the Pacific secondary recovery zone, around 500 miles east of Okinawa instead of the prime recovery zone in the Western Atlantic. Their coolness under extreme pressure was key to their selection as commanders of Apollo 11 (Armstrong) and Apollos 9 & 15 (Scott).