1483: Birth of Augustinian monk Martin Luther (d.1546), in Eislieben, Saxony.
1763: Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon begin surveying the line that now bears their name. The survey was a Crown solution to a long-simmering border dispute between the colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland. Its primary goal was to clearly define the demarcation between Maryland the Pennsylvania in the western watershed of the Chesapeake, and to separate out the “south counties” of Pennsylvania that then became the separate colony of Delaware. When Pennsylvania abolished slavery, the Mason-Dixon Line and the Ohio River became the de facto border between slave and non-slave states. At that issue heated up in the mid-19th century, the line also came to represent the cultural divide between North and South. This survey was a direct result of Creasap’s War (also known as the Conojocular War) between PA & MD thirty years prior.
1775: Possibly recognizing, and therefore exploiting the core values of his constituency, Samuel Nicholas begins recruiting for the newly authorized corps of naval infantry in a Philadelphia bar, the popular Tun Tavern. His marching orders from Congress read as follows:
“That two battalions of Marines be raised consisting of one Colonel, two Lieutenant-Colonels, two Majors, and other officers, as usual in other regiments; that they consist of an equal number of Privates with other battalions; that particular care be taken that no persons be appointed to offices, or enlisted into said battalions, but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve by sea when required; that they be enlisted and commissioned to serve for and during the present war with Great Britain and the Colonies, unless dismissed by order of Congress; that they be distinguished by the names of the First and Second Battalion of Marines.” Nicholas is one of the two majors mentioned, and is today considered the first Commandant of the Marine Corps. Three USN ships have been named after him.
1777: 16 months after declaring independence from Great Britain, the Continental Congress adopts the Articles of Confederation as its governing document.
1793: Working from the notion that man’s reason is the measure of all things, and in reaction to centuries of sometimes capricious authority from the Roman Catholic Church, the French Revolutionary government begins a systematic legislative attempt to de-Christianize the country. They intend to replace it with what supporters un-ashamedly call the Cult of Reason, and begin their program by encouraging mobs to strip from public display all crosses or Christian iconography, including on gravesites, to seize all plate and precious stones from cathedrals and churches and to loudly proclaim the triumph of Reason in all things. As a symbol of what people should emulate, the cult’s leaders introduced on this day The Goddess of Reason, not as an icon to worship- heaven forbid!- but as the ideal to which everyone should strive. Anyone with a scrap of moral intuition would realize this plan was doomed to abuses and eventual failure, but they went ahead with it anyway. After a year of “scandalous* scenes” and “wild masquerades”, Citizen Maximilien Robespierre ordered the Cult of Reason shut down, and founded, without any sense of irony, the Cult of the Supreme Being, to tame some of the excesses by acknowledging the existence of some kind of a God, whose primary role was to guide mankind to virtue through reason. The revolutionary “government” kept adjusting its spiritual goals, leading only to further confusion and anger. Finally, in 1801, the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte put an end to the foolishness with an executive decree outlawing the cults and restoring the legal authority of the Catholic Church. *The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, for example, was plundered to its stonework, and formally re-commissioned as a “Temple of Reason.” A platform was built over the central altar, on which various women, posing as The Goddess of Reason, would quite reasonably permit themselves to be stripped and ravished on stage as part of the “worship” of reason. Similar apostasy was carried out throughout the realm.
1864: After evacuating all the civilians who will leave the city, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman orders all government and war-related buildings in Atlanta to be burned to the ground. From this day he sets in motion his March to the Sea, ordering his army’s supply trains and casualties to return to Tennessee, while his now-lightened forces will forage across a wide swath of Georgia and South Carolina in a vivid demonstration of the Union’s reach and power. Before setting out, he notified the War Department that he would no longer be sending telegraphic updates on his campaign: “I expect the Richmond papers will keep you fully informed.”
1871: Welsh journalist and adventurer Henry Morgan Stanley, after a major trek through the jungles of Tanganyika, finds the missing Scottish missionary, Dr. David Livingstone, greeting him with “Doctor Livingstone, I presume.” After the meeting, Stanley’s continued trek to the west coast of Africa via the Congo River provided the basis for Belgian King Leopold II’s claim on the entire Congo basin, and became the inspiration for Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness.
1884: The Berlin Conference opens. Beginning as a forum to establish trade regulations in Africa, it quickly turned into a scramble to define Europe’s burgeoning colonial interests in the continent. The conference’s General Act focused on the territories in and around the Congo River and marked out distinct spheres of influence and control for the colonial powers. By the end of the 19th Century, only Liberia, Orange Free State, Transvaal and Abyssinia remained independent from direct colonial rule.
1889: Birth of British character actor Claude Rains (d.1967), whose versatility provided a staple of supporting movie roles throughout the 30s and 40s. He is probably best remembered as the corrupt Captain “Frenchy” Renault opposite Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. [“Rick, I’m shocked! Shocked to find gambling going on here!”]
1891: Birth of German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (d.1944), the Desert Fox.
1918: After four years of unremitting death and destruction, and a scale of warfare never before seen, Imperial Germany signs an armistice with the Allied powers, ordering the fighting to stop on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year. Although it was technically neither a capitulation nor a surrender, Germany was clearly facing an increasingly bleak prospect toward anything resembling renewed success in combat. Further, the suddenly headless Imperial government, facing a legitimate political crisis in the homeland and uncertain of the continued loyalty of its troops in the trenches, chose to stop the shooting on the condition that its soldiers could simply return home. The Allies agreed, and the formal documentation was signed in a railroad car in the French forest region of Compiegne. Suddenly, the Great War was over. The Germans climbed out of their trenches and walked east; the French climbed out and walked west, the British climbed out and walked north to the Channel ports, and almost immediately, the diplomats went to work to put together the terms of the peace to follow. Very little ground changed hands along the Western Front to justify the unspeakable carnage that proceeded the armistice; France got back the provinces of Alsace and Lorainne, Germany proper lost nothing east of the Rhine, Italy took some of Austria’s southern provinces. The Great War, out of all the centuries of warfare that stained the continent of Europe and shattered an entire generation of the three most populous nations of Europe; it destroyed the bonds of trust between the people and their governments, it destroyed the very societies that launched the war itself, it destroyed three historic empires and set in motion the unraveling of the two victorious ones; it triggered a revolution that destroyed one of Europe’s oldest monarchies, and it created the rationalization for an entirely new class social engineering and ideological violence whose effects linger to this day. It transformed the nature of warfare from the already brutal drama of human combat into a machine that simply consumed everything that crossed its path. And in the end, it solved nothing: when the terms of the Treaty of Versailles were released in 1919, the great French Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch spoke with eerie prescience: “This is not a peace. This is a twenty year armistice.”
1921: President Warren G. Harding presides over the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington Cemetery.
1920(a): First General Assembly meeting of the League of Nations.
1920(b): The “Free City of Danzig” is formed under the protection of the League of Nations.
1940: The Royal Navy executes the first aircraft carrier strike in history, an attack on the Italian fleet anchored at Taranto, using as its main battery the already obsolete Fariey Swordfish torpedo bomber.
1960: USS George Washington (SSBN-598) submerges to begin her first Polaris deterrent patrol. She rises to the surface again 66 days later, having not fired a shot.
1975: The 729-foot long Great Lakes freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald sinks in a violent storm on Lake Superior, taking all 29 crew to a watery grave. [In happier times; today]
2007: Spain’s King Juan Carlos I, at the Ibero-American Summit in Santiago, Chile, turns to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez- who is continually interrupting a speech by the Spanish Prime Minister- and on an open mike says: “Por que no te callas?” Essentially, “Why don’t you just shut up?” The meeting bursts into applause, and before the king returns home, his voice becomes the most popular ringtone in the Spanish speaking world. The diplomatic corps, mostly on this side of the Line of Demarcation goes into a tizzy about what it all means, especially the part about using the “te” version of the “you” locution, the version used for only the closest family, or petulant children.