577AD: Death of Saint Brendan the Navigator, the Irish monk whose legendary travels in a leather currach helped establish the idea of a lush and inhabited island across the sea from Europe. “St. Brendan’s Island” often shows up on early maps; one school of thought believes it indicates that Brendan was actually the first European to make landfall in North America. He remains the patron saint of sailors and navigators.
1532: Sir Thomas More resigns as England’s Lord High Chancellor, his second attempt to leave Henry VIII’s court over the issue of papal versus royal supremacy.
1655: The island of Jamaica captured by a 50 ship British fleet under Admiral William Penn.
1752: American Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin tests his first lightning rod. He somehow survives. Poor Richard is glad.
1775(a): Led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, American militia crosses Lake Champlain to capture Fort Ticonderoga from the British.
1775(b): The Second Continental Congress names Virginian George Washington as Supreme Commander of the newly formed Continental Army.
1801: Birth of William Seward (d.1872), Secretary of State in the Lincoln Administration, and the official at Lincoln’s deathbed who announced to the press, “Now he belongs to the ages.” In the Andrew Johnson Administration, Seward became the chief advocate of the United States’ purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. The popularly remembered “Seward’s Folly” cost the country $7,200,000.00, or 2 cents per acre.
1860: Opening day of the Republican National Convention in Chicago. Springfield lawyer and former Member of Congress Abraham Lincoln defeats the front-runner New Yorker William Seward on the third ballot.
1863: Stonewall Jackson dies of pneumonia, contracted subsequent to his Confederate-inflicted wounding. When he first heard of Jackson’s wounds, General Robert E. Lee said, “Jackson has lost his left arm; I have lost my right.” His loss will be particularly felt when the Army of Northern Virginia begins its northward march next month.
1864: The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, the third sequential battle in U.S. Grant’s Overland Campaign to capture Richmond. Coming a week after the Wilderness fight, the battle was characterized by horrific bloodletting and unprecedented firepower that flattened the landscape and destroyed every tree and bush in the battle area. The climax occurred at the Bloody Angle, where hand-to-hand fighting occurred back and forth across trench lines and muddy fields completely filled with the corpses of the fallen. The mud was so thick that men who lost their balance were trampled and drowned before they could get back up. Because Lee was able to hold his position, and because the number of casualties was heavily weighted against the Union, it was technically a Confederate victory. But the battle was so costly to Lee that he was never able to re-gain the initiative against Grant, who continued to shift his army to the left and continue to probe and plunge against Lee’s ever-weakening right flank, eventually leading to the establishment of the siege line around Petersburg.
1865: U.S. Army soldiers capture Confederate President Jefferson Davis at Irwinville, Georgia. He spends two years in custody at Fortress Monroe in Hampton. You can visit his cell today in the Casemate Museum inside the fort.
1868: President Andrew Johnson is acquitted on his impeachment trial by a single vote in the U.S. Senate.
1869: Meeting at Promontory Point, Utah, the nation’s first transcontinental railroad is completed with a golden spike. The ceremonial hammer and spike are connected to telegraph wires that relay the historic impacts back to Washington, DC. The three-year project of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads was largely financed by generous federal land grants.
1871: The Treaty of Frankfurt am Main ends the Franco-Prussian war. In addition to ceding to Germany the German-speaking French provinces of Alsace and Loraine, France is saddled with reparations of 5 billion Francs. German forces remain in strategic occupation positions across the north of France, right up to the outskirts of Paris, until September of 1873 when the last payment is finally made. The crushing German victory at the Battle of Sedan (DLH 9/1) triggered the overthrow of the French government and set the stage for the simmering resentment and thirst for revenge that exacerbated the onset of the Great War in 1914.
1918: As a companion bill to its recently passed Espionage Act, Congress passes, and President Wilson signs, the Sedition Act. It makes it illegal to criticize, e.g.: to“…willfully utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the U.S. government during the time of war. In addition to a $10,000 fine and 20 years in prison, the Postmaster General was tasked to halt mail deliveries to and from any person convicted or associated with a person convicted of the act. Over 1500 were charged and more than 1000 were convicted. Wilson’s Attorney General sought to keep a peacetime version in place after the war, but Congress repealed it in December, 1920.
1941: Nazi Deputy to the Fuhrer, Rudolf Hess, parachutes into Scotland to attempt peace negotiations with the government of Great Britain. The flight, staged just prior to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, continues to stir controversy over whether this was an official, but clandestine attempt by Hitler to make peace with his “natural ally” in England. Hess remained in British custody throughout the war, and was convicted at Nuremberg for crimes against the peace and conspiracy. After the 1966 release of Albert Speer and Baldur von Schirach, Hess remained imprisoned at Spandau- the only prisoner in the facility- at the insistence of the Soviet Union- until his death in 1987.
1949: Frustrated and embarrassed by the stunning success of the nearly year-long Berlin Airlift* (where air deliveries of food and supplies eventually surpassed pre-blockade rail shipments) the Soviet Union ends the Berlin Blockade, which is now recognized as the first battle of the Cold War. The success of the airlift compounded the political failure of the Soviets to intimidate the Western powers and led to the establishment of a separate West Germany on the 23rdof May.
1994: Nelson Mandela is inaugurated as the first black President of South Africa.