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 (DLH 4/21), 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.” We won’t go into all the details about the other “related” expedition that followed Cortez into Mexico, because Cortez gained the big prize and started sending Aztec gold and silver back to Spain, forever securing his place in history.
1620: After a 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 (b.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. 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. I’m afraid this little paragraph does not do full justice to the astonishing arrogance of the intellectual classes during this period, who kept coming up with better and better ideas to create a perfect society, all of which led to greater and greater tyranny over mind and soul, and with the rise of Napoleon, the body politic as well.
1799: The Coup d’état of 18 Brumaire– You’ll remember the 1795 establishment of the French Directory (DLH 10/26), where the re-constituted bicameral legislature picks a rotating stock of five Directors to manage Executive functions. It worked out about as well as you’d expect, with the actual leadership of the country quite literally decapitated, and the Directorate intentionally designed to be beholden to the legislature. 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.
1840: Birth of French sculptor August Rodin (d.1917).
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.
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.”
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 bleak novel, Heart of Darkness.
1885: Birth of George S. Patton, Jr.
1906: Theodore Roosevelt becomes the first sitting President to travel outside the country, in this case to visit the construction of the Panama Canal.
1918(a): Only days (DLH 11/4) 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(b): Birth of Maryland Governor and 39th Vice President of the United States, Spiro T. Agnew (d.1996). Acting as President Nixon’s hatchet man against the increasing stridency of the cultural left, he uttered one of my favorite quotes regarding the so-called cultural elites, referring to them as “…an effete corps of impudent snobs, who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”
1918 (c): 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 (DLH 11/9), 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. If you’ve been following the Great War through these DLH posting, you probably recognize that this war, out of all the centuries of warfare that stained the continent of Europe, this war uniquely 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. And from the personal perspective, 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.
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 ale house, 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.
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. 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.
1944: After thirteen attempts over the preceding five years, British forces finally sink the German battleship Tirpitz, anchored in a Norwegian fjord. The ship was sister to the Bismarck, and was expected to perform the same commerce raiding mission, but it only engaged in a single offensive combat action, a shore bombardment. After the loss of the Bismarck, Hitler lost faith in the surface navy and confined the ship to the safety of occupied Norway’s fjords. Even though it rarely moved, the ship remained a force in being that demanded a significant portion of the Royal Navy be dedicated to keeping it blocked in the fjords or, in the event of a breakout, taking her under fire and sending her to the bottom. As the war played out, Tirpitz took multiple hits over the years from a variety of bombs, torpedoes and mines, but was always repaired, moved, and re-camouflaged, necessitating another round of reconnaissance and subsequent attacks. The strike that finally put her under came from 24 Avro Lancaster bombers flying from a base in Scotland. The ship capsized but stayed afloat long enough for rescuers to cut out and save 80 of the 1000 men trapped in the hull.
1945: Birth of Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young.
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.
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.