1415: At the Council of Constance, called to resolve the schism of the Western Church (i.e., competing popes: Rome versus Avignon), the council also takes care of some heresy, condemning the already dead English reformer and Bible translator John Wycliffe, ordering his bones exhumed, burned, and scattered in the River Swift, running through his hometown of Lutterworth. They also call to trial the still-living Bohemian reformer Jan Hus who will end up on the stake in July.
1469: Birth of Niccolo Machiavelli* (d.1527), observer of the machinations of the Borgia family and author of the definitive treatise on governance: The Prince.
1492: Christopher Columbus receives his commission from the Spanish Throne (Ferdinand and Isabella) to explore a western route to the Spice Islands of the Indies.
1494: On his second voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus sights the island of Jamaica. He names it St. Iago. The British re-name it Jamaica when they take the island in 1655.
1729: Birth of Catherine the Great (d.1796), Empress of Russia, born in Settin, Prussia.
1789: In New York City, Virginia planter, surveyor and Continental Army General George Washington is inaugurated as first President of the United States. The ceremony is notable for the pageantry that accompanied his travel from Mount Vernon, and the brown homespun suit he wore at the swearing in. Washington also established the tradition of placing his left hand on a family bible as he took the oath.
1796: Birth of Horace Mann (d.1859), who, in the 1830s, became one of the earliest and most prominent advocates for professionalism and state sponsorship of education, including secularizing a process that to this point had been the purview of the church. As a Congressional Representative from Massachusetts he became a strong abolitionist, engaging intellectual horns with Daniel Webster over extension of the Fugitive Slave Law. He spent the last seven years of his life as President of Antioch College.
1802: Washington, DC is incorporated as a city. Both Virginia and Maryland cede to the federal government several thousand acres of swampy bottom land to create the District of Columbia– not the “State” of Columbia, you’ll notice- a non-sovereign federal district designed to be administered by Congress.
1803: The United States purchases from Napoleonic France the Louisiana Territory for $15,000,000. As part of an effort to disentangle French and Spanish claims over New Orleans, and to ensure adequate US access to the Mississippi River drainage through that city, President Thomas Jefferson sent James Monroe and Robert Livingston to France to negotiate buying the city outright. The French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, having recently failed to re-enslave Haiti, and preparing for continuing war with Great Britain, believed that maintaining France’s claim on the entire Louisiana Territory would only be a drain on French finances and add nothing to the upcoming fight with Great Britain. He therefore countered Livingston’s $10m offer for New Orleans with a $15m bid for the whole territory. Recognizing the fleeting nature of the prize, Livingston took the offer on April 30th and a treaty confirming the sale was signed on May 2nd. Although we celebrate the purchase today, it precipitated a constitutional crisis over whether the President had the authority to expand the United States in this manner. Jefferson himself was torn, and recognized that he would have opposed this expansion of Executive power if Alexander Hamilton had tried it. Napoleon, for his part, recognized the strategic nature of the sale: “This accession of territory affirms forever the power of the United States, and I have given England a maritime rival who sooner or later will humble her pride.”
1840: The world’s first adhesive postage stamp, the “Penny Black,” is issued in England.
1863:The Battle of Camaron– Two years into the Second French Intervention in Mexico- (hold it: do I mean there was a First Intervention? (yes, I do (it was called the Pastry War (really- the Mexican government owed a French baker a 60,000 pesos (against damage to a 1,000 peso shop (from a series of riots (the French “won” the war with agreement for repayment of 10x the original claim (but Mexico failed to meet the terms of the treaty (which led to high dudgeon in America about the Monroe Doctrine being flouted (not to mention even higher dudgeon from Great Britain, Spain, and France (who finally decided to exploit the United States’ distraction with its civil war to establish a European monarchy in Mexico))))))))))) -(1861-1867), a small detachment of 65 fusiliers from the Foreign Legion were escorting a wagon train of arms, ammunition, and gold from the port of Veracruz up to the headquarters of the French siege of Puebla, when around 08:00 they were set upon by a contingent of Mexican cavalry. The Legionnaires took cover behind the walls of an abandoned hacienda and, with particularly sharp rifle skills and military discipline, systematically turned back wave after wave of Mexican assaults. The Mexican commander, realizing that despite their initial setbacks he greatly outnumbered the French troops, attempted at mid-morning to negotiate a surrender rather than “unnecessarily slaughter” the French soldiers. The French captain* declined the honor, saying he “had plenty of ammunition and shall continue to fight.” And they did. The Mexicans made two more fruitless surrender attempts at 14:00 and again at 17:00. At the last one, only five Legionnaires remained, and they were out of ammunition, so they fixed bayonets and made a screaming charge at the Mexican force. With two of them shot down immediately, the sergeant finally admitted defeat, but insisted the Mexicans allow them to keep their weapons and provide medical care for their mortally wounded lieutenant. The odds this day were 800 Mexican cavalry with 2,200 infantry versus 62 French Legionnaires and three volunteer officers seconded from the regular army. The Legion killed 190 and wounded over 300 during the course of the ten hour battle. April 30th is honored in France to this day as Vie Cameronne, the greatest display of valor in Legion history.
1863: Opening engagement in the Battle of Chancellorsville. The week-long battle cemented Lee’s reputation as a master tactician, repelling a Union force twice his strength and foiling “Fighting Joe” Hooker’s efforts to perform a double pincer movement against the Army of Northern Virginia.
1863: While making a nighttime inspection of his outer defense lines, Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson is shot and mortally wounded by Confederate pickets during the Battle of Chancellorsville.
1898: Steaming into Manila Bay under darkened ship, Commodore George Dewey, commander of the United States Asiatic Squadron, completely surprises the 10 ships of the Spanish navy lying at anchor off of Cavite Station. At dawn, with his ships arrayed 5400 yards from the Spanish, Dewey turns to the captain of the flagship Olympia and utters those immortal words, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” Dewey orders a cease fire at 08:00 to allow the Spanish to surrender but they refuse. Re-opening the engagement around 10:00, the one-sided fight continues until 12:30 with the capitulation of the 10th Spanish ship. 6 Americans are wounded in the action to the more than 400 Spanish sailors killed. Dewey becomes a national hero.
1898: Following up the naval victory at Manila Bay, US Marines storm ashore and capture Cavite Station, raising the American Flag for the first time on soon-to-be American territory.
1904: Opening of the Louisiana Purchase World’s Fair in Saint Louis. For a very charming look at the time and place of the fair, may I recommend the old musical, Meet Me In Saint Louis, starring Judy Garland (1944). You’ll recognize a lot of the music, including The Trolley Song and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.
1904: The United States begins work on the long-planned Panama Canal. The decades prior to this witnessed the technical and organizational failure of a French canal company (on whose board engineer Gustav Eiffel served as advisor) and a U.S.-fomented revolution of Colombia’s Panama province against the central government. The canal finally opened for business on 15th August, 1914.
1915: RMS Lusitania departs New York on her final voyage. Six days out, enroute to England, and only 8 miles off the coast of southern Ireland, she is torpedoed by a German submarine and sinks with the loss of nearly 1,200 lives, including 128 Americans. The sinking of this liner provoked outrage against Imperial Germany, who insisted she was a troop transport loaded with military manpower and supplies. Germany had, in fact, anticipated what was coming and openly published the following warning in the New York papers, directly adjacent to an advertisement for her voyage back to England: NOTICE!TRAVELLERS intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.IMPERIAL GERMAN EMBASSY,
Washington, D.C. 22nd April 1915
1931: The Empire State Building is dedicated in Manhattan.
1933: First modern sighting of the Loch Ness monster.
1936: Wearing Yankee pinstripes, Joe DiMaggio plays his first major league ballgame. He gets three hits.
1939: Opening of the New York World’s Fair, in New York City. The Art-Deco masterpiece remains the largest world’s fair in history. It’s theme was “The World of Tomorrow” and “Dawn of a New Day.”
1939: Margaret Mitchell wins the Pulitzer Prize for her novel “Gone With the Wind.”
1941: Premier of Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane, which he co-wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the lead role.
1942: First day of the Battle of Coral Sea. This engagement represents the first full-strength American attempt to halt the Japanese juggernaut in the South Pacific. It also becomes the first naval battle in history where the combatant ships are not within visual range of each other. After four furious days of aerial combat the Japanese forces cancel their planned attack on Port Moresby, New Guinea. From the bean-counting perspective the battle is a tactical win for Japan but in reality it is a strategic victory for the United States. Although the U.S. lost an aircraft carrier (USS Lexington (CV-2)) a destroyer, an oiler and 70 aircraft, the force took its toll on the Japanese with the destruction of 60 aircraft, sinking of a light carrier and major damage to two fleet carriers which, because they were not included in the Midway campaign the following month, led to the massive American naval victory there.
1944: First flight of the ME-262 Sturmvogel, the world’s first operational jet fighter. It became the terror of the Allied bombers striking Central Europe, but it was held back from air-to-air in favor of close air support.
1945: German armies in Italy accept unconditional surrender to the Allies.
1952: First commercial flight of the world’s first commercial jetliner, the Comet, built in the United Kingdom. The London to Johannesburg flight was a public relations sensation, but within a year the Comet fleet suffered three high profile air disasters that ruined its reputation and led to its eventual commercial failure. With its design flaws analyzed and fixed, the aircraft continued to fly through June, 2011 as the RAF Nimrod anti-submarine patrol plane.
1953: Ernest Hemingway is awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Old Man and the Sea.
1960: A U-2 reconnaissance plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union. Powers is held by the Soviets until traded for a captured Soviet spy in 1962. I bet Kip heard plenty of hangar talk about this one. FYI- here’s another book recommendation: Marco Polo if You Can, by William F. Buckley, Jr. (1982). Written in Buckley’s inimitable clean crisp prose, the novel offers something of an “alternative history” of the U-2 program and one of its most important payoffs.
1964: The first BASIC program runs on a computer.
1970: Troops from the Ohio National Guard fire 67 live rounds into a group of anti-war protesters on the Kent State campus, killing four and wounding nine students.
1975: Saigon unconditionally surrenders to the Viet Cong, courtesy of the North Vietnamese Regular Army.
1979: Margaret Thatcher becomes Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
1982: The British nuclear powered submarine HMS Conqueror (S48) torpedoes and sinks the Argentine cruiser ANA General Belgrano (ex-USS Phoenix (CL-46)) off the coast of the Falkland Islands. Although the sinking occurred outside the British declared 200 mile total exclusion zone, British forces recognized the ship as a legitimate threat and took action to eliminate it.
1982: HMS Sheffield, a Royal Navy Type 42 destroyer operating in support of the re-capture of the Falkland Islands, is struck by a single Argentine Exocet missile. The ship caught fire and immediately lost electrical power. The primary fire main was also ruptured, dooming the ship. It sank under tow on May 10th, becoming the first RN ship to be lost to enemy action since WWII. Of her crew of 287, twenty were killed in the attack.
2007: Death of Wally Schirra (b.1923), Naval Academy class of 1945, test pilot, and one of the original 7 Mercury astronauts. He is the only astronaut to fly in all three of America’s first space programs: Sigma-7, the fifth Mercury flight (6 orbits, 9 hours in space); Gemini-6A with Tom Stafford, making the first in-orbit rendezvous with Gemini-7; and Apollo-7 , an eleven day earth-orbital flight, the first flight of the program after the fatal Apollo-1 fire.