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.
1276: Augsburg is declared an Imperial Free City. It went on to become home to the Fugger banking empire and a significant mercantile and university industry. It is the only city in Germany to have its own legal holiday, celebrating the Peace of Augsburg on August 8th every year.
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.
1702: Birth of Anne Bonney (d. circa 1733) an Irish-American pirate of some renown.
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.
1726: Birth of Admiral Richard Howe, brother of General Sir William Howe. The siblings commanded the British navy and army forces respectively during the opening hostilities of the American Revolution. Admiral Howe was nominally sympathetic to the American cause. When a peace initiative with the Continental Congress failed, he resigned his commission, but it was not accepted before the French Revolution broke out in 1789, and Howe was assigned to command the Channel Fleet. He led several notable victories against the French, but his greatest victory came at home, when he almost single-handedly ended the Great Mutiny in 1797. His swarthy complexion earned him the nickname of “Black Dick” Howe.
1862: The Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (ex- USS Merrimack) sorties from the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth and attacks the Union fleet blockading the mouth of the James River. Her first target is USS Cumberland, which she sinks by ramming. Virginia then attacks USS Congress, which puts up a stiff fight, damaging Virginia’s stack and two cannons, but without creating appreciable damage to her iron cladding. Congress’ captain intentionally runs the ship aground and surrenders. While offloading prisoners, a Union shore battery at Newport News Point suddenly opens fire on Virginia. In reply, Virginia fires red-hot shot into the stricken Congress, which explodes and burns to the waterline. As Virginia begins her transit back to Norfolk for battle damage repairs, she commences a third attack, this time against USS Minnesota, whose captain tried to escape but ran aground on a sandbank. Being late in the day, Virginia left her quarry for the night and continued down the Elizabeth River, with plans to complete the destruction of the Union fleet the next morning. Meanwhile, the newly-commissioned USS Monitor is enroute under tow from New York, and about to enter the Chesapeake at Cape Charles.
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.
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. The family is famous for playing key roles as Munchkins in film.
1913: Death of the great abolitionist Harriet Tubman (b.1820), 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.
1916: Mexican gang leader Pancho Villa leads 500 caballeros on a raid into Columbus, New Mexico.
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.
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. The undercurrents of the Los Angeles Water Wars appeared 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.
1933: Birth of Barbara Feldon, probably better known to most of us as Agent 99.
1934: Birth of Yuri Gagarin. In 1961, the Soviet cosmonaut became the first human to “slip the surly bonds of earth” and orbit our planet in the vacuum of space. He died under mysterious circumstances in 1968. Unsurprisingly, the Soviet Union wouldn’t release information on his death.
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 capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the independent nation of Austria, but the newest province of the greater German Reich. Austria carefully straddles 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.
1940: Birth of Chuck Norris.
1941: FDR signs into law the Lend-Lease program to start the process of shoring up Great Britain’s defenses in the face of relentless Nazi pressure. The act is not universally applauded within the United States.
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.
1946: Birth of entertainer Liza Minnelli.
1985: Accession of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Russian Communist Party.