1483: Birth of Augustinian monk Martin Luther (d.1546), in Eislieben, Saxony.
1519: Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez enters the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City), where the King Montezuma greets him with gold and precious stones, on the belief that Cortez is an emissary of the feathered god Quetzalcoatl, if not the god himself. Not wishing to disabuse Montezuma of this belief, Cortez ensconces himself and his small army in strategic locations throughout the capital, and in due time forces Montezuma to pledge allegiance to Spanish King Charles V. Interestingly, Cortez’ conquest of Mexico, which began in April, was part of a competitive spat between himself and the Governor of Cuba, Diego Velazquez, with whose sister-in-law Cortez had “a romantic interest.”
1605: Discovery, with only hours to spare, of The Gunpowder Plot– an audacious conspiracy by leading British Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament and King James I himself, in hopes of leading a violent restoration of Catholicism in Great Britain. The thirteen conspirators spent months coordinating- in addition to strategic kidnappings, escape routes, and proclamations- access to a large basement storeroom located directly beneath the House of Lords and filling it with multiple barrels of gunpowder, which remained hidden behind firewood and coal. On the night of 4-5 November, the point man for the detonation, Guy Fawkes, worked his way toward the storeroom, disguised as a firewood delivery man. He was stopped and questioned by a watchman but was allowed to continue his work. Late into the evening, alerted by concerned (ironically, Catholic) Parliamentarians, a renewed search of the Parliament “above and below” the chambers found Fawkes in the room directly below the Lords, carrying a slow match and a pocket-watch, dressed in black and wearing riding spurs. He was arrested on the spot, and when news of the arrest was made public, the Gunpowder conspirators vainly scattered into hiding. They were systematically arrested, tortured, confessed, were tried and found guilty of treason, and then executed by hanging, drawing, and quartering, with their limbs sent to the far corners of the realm and the rest of their mortal remains burned into ash.
1620: After a harrowing 66-day voyage from Plymouth, England, the 105 Pilgrim passengers aboard Mayflower sight land in the New World, but it is Cape Cod, not the mouth of the Hudson as they intended. They will spend about a week trying to work their way back south, but in the end, will drop anchor in what is now Provincetown Harbor on the 21st.
1656: Birth of English astronomer and mathematician Edmond Halley (d.1740), whose most public success was the correct calculation of the orbital period of the comet that now bears his name. Perhaps of more importance, however, was his discovery and careful survey of magnetic deviation in compasses, which he documented in the first publication of isogonic lines across the Atlantic Ocean.
1731: Birth of American astronomer, surveyor, and almanac writer, Benjamin Banneker (d.1806). Banneker’s astronomical skills provided critical inputs in setting the original boundary stones for the new federal District of Columbia. He subsequently contracted to write a six-year series of highly acclaimed almanacs, which ended up being published in twenty eight editions across five of the Several States.
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.
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. In 1801, 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.
1799: The Coup d’état of 18 Brumaire– As chaos reigned between the Council of Ancients and the Council of 500, it became apparent that the Directors themselves were in danger. General Napoleon Bonaparte, fresh from the fields of conquest, was tasked to “protect” the Directory. He did, in concert with two others who set themselves up as Consuls, with Bonaparte as the First Consul. When he strode into the Council of Ancients and announced the coup d’état, a near-riot broke out in the chambers that nearly cost Napoleon his life. He left the chamber, but came right back, supported by armed soldiers, and in the confusion of the ensuing days he completely dissolved the last semblance of the Directory and made himself Dictator. Political resistance remained active from the left-wing of the spectrum, but Napoleon’s astounding military success on the battlefield created for himself both a national reputation as a great leader, and a deeply committed following within the army itself. Ten years of Revolution had exhausted the country, and it readily accepted the rise of a leader who could reclaim the sense of stability and glory of the former French state.
1831: Leader of the August slave uprising over in Surrey County, Nat Turner, is tried, convicted and hanged by the neck until dead.
1854: Birth of John Philip Sousa (d.1932), The March King, composer and long-standing conductor of the United States Marine Corps Band, “The President’s Own.”
1860: Illinois lawyer and former Congressman Abraham Lincoln is elected President of the United States.
1861: Mississippi Congressman and Senator Jefferson Davis is elected to a six-year term as President of the Confederate States of America in an uncontested election.
1861: USS San Jacinto, under the command of Captain Charles Wilkes, USN, intercepts and boards the British mail packet Trent, two of whose passengers are Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell, who were enroute to Great Britain to press the case for British recognition and assistance to the Confederacy. Wilkes took the two Southerners as contraband of war and allowed Trent to continue on its journey. Arriving here in Hampton Roads on the 15th of November, Wilkes telegraphed his capture to Washington, and then continued to Boston where he turned the diplomats over to Fort Warren, a prison for captured Confederates. The entire episode stoked high emotions on all three sides of the issue, with charges of perfidy, treason, violations of honour, piracy, etc, etc, thrown around with abandon. The diplomatic row that ensued between Great Britain and the United States teetered on the brink of open war, but as tensions unwound, it did not translate into overt British support for the Southern states. The event is known as either The Trent Affair, or the Mason-Slidell Affair, depending on which corner of the triangle you sit.
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.”
1865: Seven months after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the Confederate commerce raider CSS Shenandoah, under Captain James Waddell, surrenders to the government of Great Britain after completing a year-long, 58,000-mile circumnavigation of the globe. During the voyage, Shenandoah captured or destroyed 38 ships, mostly Yankee whalers, took over a thousand prisoners, and earned more than $1,400,000 in prize money. She has the distinction of having fired the last shot in the Civil War (against a whaler in the Gulf of Alaska), and being the last Confederate unit to surrender active operations.
1866: Birth of Sun Yat Sen (d.1925), Chinese revolutionary whose pursuit of “nationalism, democracy, and the people’s livelihood” led to the final overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912. He is one of the few post-dynastic Chinese who remains not only respected but revered on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. His chief protégé, Chiang Kai Shek carried his legacy into the 1970s. Both the Nationalists and Communists claim him as the founder of the modern Chinese state.
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.
1899: Death of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (b.1840), the Russian composer- 1812 Overture (“This is the cereal that’s shot from guns…”), the theme from the ballet, Swan Lake.
1906: Theodore Roosevelt becomes the first sitting President to travel outside the country, in this case to visit the construction of the Panama Canal.
1911: Birth of the King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers (d.1998).
1914: Birth of Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr (d.2000).
1917: After three months of continuous and brutal combat in the thick mud of western Flanders, Canadian Commonwealth troops capture the town of Passchendaele from the occupying Germans. The battle, also known as 3rd Ypres, was British Field Marshall Haig’s third attempt to evict the Germans from their hold on the ports and coastline of Belgium. The taking of Passchendaele, although considered a success, came at the cost of 140,000 combat deaths, or a ratio of two inches of ground per dead soldier, to say nothing of the remaining 300,000 non-fatal casualties on the Allied side alone.
1918: Only days into what looks like the beginning of a Germany-wide revolution, Kaiser Wilhelm II, out of the country visiting his troops on the front lines in Belgium, abdicates the hereditary throne of the Hollenzollern Dynasty.
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.
1923: Former German Corporal Adolf Hitler attempts an overthrow of the German government with his band of socialist thugs. Working from their headquarters in a Munich alehouse, the Beer Hall Putsch gets off to a shocking start when the conspirators actually capture the city government and then issue a call for a general uprising across Germany. The only rising that happens is when the army arrives to capture the instigators. Hitler and several others are locked up for five years in Landsberg prison, where he writes his magnum opus, Mein Kampf.
1935: First flight of the Hawker Hurricane fighter. Although it was overshadowed by the more glamourous Spitfire, the Hurricane accounted for over 60% of the fighter victories in the Battle of Britain.
1935: Parker Brothers acquires the patent for the board game Monopoly.
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 Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber.
1942: Opening of Operation TORCH, the Allied invasion of North Africa. The attack answered- in part- the Soviet Union’s insistent and persistent demands for a second front to relieve pressure from the relentless German onslaught on Russia. The landings also answered the question over whether the Vichy French forces in Morocco and Algeria would forcibly oppose the arrival of British, American and Free French armies. There was some level of fighting, but by the close of day on the 9th, all of Morocco and Algeria surrendered to the Allies. In furious response to their erstwhile French ally, Germany and Italy forcibly occupied the heretofore otherwise untouched regions of Vichy France. For their part, the Allies then consolidated their forces and began a drive toward Tunisia to meet the German armies who held the remaining coastline of North Africa.
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.
1981: Space Shuttle Columbia launches on STS-2, its second mission and the first time a man-rated spacecraft is used twice. The ship went on to fly a total of 28 missions, logging 300 days on orbit, 4808 revolutions, before disintegrating during re-entry, February 1, 2003.