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. The rest of Germany has to work on that day.
1507: Death of Cesare Borgia (b.1495), 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, 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.
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.
1841: The United States Supreme Court rules that the West Africans who mutinied and captured their ship Amistad were enslaved illegally. The case was a huge step forward for the abolitionist movement in the U.S.
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. (Note: early telescopic images of Mars are notoriously fuzzy by today’s standards; Lowell studied the varying shading of Mars’ surface, the ebb and flow of the polar caps, and made a reasoned theory that an intelligent culture had created the network of canals to irrigate an increasingly dry planet. If you consider NASA’s continuing efforts to scratch Martian rocks to find evidence of water, Lowell’s theory does not look quite so quaint)
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.
1862: Fresh from her shocking destruction of the Union blockading fleet off of Newport News Point, and with basic battle repairs made overnight, CSS Virginia this morning steams out of the Elizabeth River to finish the job on the remaining Union ships anchored off of Newport News. But unknown to the crew of Confederate ironclad, the even-more radical USS Monitor had already raised steam off of Fort Monroe and sortied to protect the damaged USS Minnesota and the rest of the Union fleet from their terrifying new nemesis. A furious gun battle raged between the two ironclads for four hours, with neither ship doing appreciable harm to the other. Late in the battle, Virginia scored a hit on Monitor’s pilot house, blinding her captain, Lieutenant John Worden. Command passed to his XO, Lieutenant Samuel Green, who turned the ship back to continue the fight. Virginia, for her part, was constrained by falling tide to break off her attack on Minnesota, and opted to return to Norfolk for rest and repairs. Monitor, under orders to protect Minnesota, did not pursue the Confederate ship. The dramatic battle, watched by thousands on the Hampton Roads shorelines, was the world’s first clash of iron-armored warships. It ended with neither ship decisively victorious. Neither ship engaged in combat again, although Virginia made several defiant sorties over the next few weeks in an attempt to lure Monitor into another fight. As Union forces advanced on Norfolk in May, 1862, the crew of Virginia stripped her of her cannons, ran her aground on the flats at Craney Island, and blew her to smithereens. USS Monitor sank off of Cape Hatteras the following December, enroute to further blockading duty in the Carolinas. DLH Day Trip Note: The remains of Monitor were discovered in 1973, and a recovery effort in the 1990s brought to the surface her turret, guns, engine components, propeller, anchor, and a number of smaller artifacts. The Mariner’s Museum in Newport News recently completed a magnificent display wing dedicated to the Monitor. If you are the least bit interested in the dramatic story of this ship, you owe it to yourself to go visit- well worth the price of admission and the time to absorb the full scope of this ship’s legacy.
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.
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.
1888: First day of The Great White Hurricane, also known as the Great Blizzard of 1888. The storm eventually dumped between 40 and 50 inches of snow from the upper Chesapeake through the Canadian Maritime provinces. Forty knot winds whipped up drifts up to 50 feet deep, with numerous reports of three story houses becoming completely covered. Commerce was paralyzed for over a week and over 400 deaths are attributed to the storm, 200 in NYC alone. Minimum central pressure was 29.00 in.Hg or 982 mb.
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 actual woman (as opposed to a stylized Liberty) to be featured on U.S. currency, the quarter-sized 1979 dollar coin.
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 Los Angeles Water Wars were featured 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 the earth 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.
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 .
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.
1985: Accession of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Russian Communist Party.