539 BC: Cyrus the Great of Persia captures Babylon, adding another huge swath of fertile territory to what became the largest unified empire on earth up to its time. Cyrus maintains an honored place in Western Civilization as one of the early progenitors of a centralized state managed by the rule of law. He integrated conquered peoples into the empire with a high degree of sensitivity to their customs, strengths and weaknesses, developing a system of local Satraps to administer the lands in the name of the King. Cyrus also has a place of honor in the Bible, being the referred to as “God’s anointed,” who not only freed the Jews from their Babylonian exile, but financed their return to their homeland.
680: Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of the prophet Mohammad, is decapitated in battle against the army of Caliph Yazid I. Ali’s death is one of the defining events in Islam’s great Sunni-Shi’a split. The core of the dispute centers on who rules as the legitimate successor to the prophet himself: blood heirs (Shi’a position) or political-scholarly leaders (Sunni position). The death is commemorated as the feast of Ashurah.
732: A Frankish army of 30,000 under the command of Charles “The Hammer” Martel, decisively defeats the invading Muslim army of Abdul Rahman al Ghafiqi at the Battle of Tours (also known as the Battle of Poitiers (pronounced “pwat’-teeaay”)). This victory was one of three- many would say it was the most important- engagements that halted the militant spread of Islam in its tracks, and ensured that Europe would continue to develop as a collection of explicitly Christian kingdoms. The conventional wisdom over the last century or so is that had Martel’s army not been successful here, the tallest towers in the cities of Europe would have been minarets instead of church steeples.
1066: The last successful invasion of the British Isles takes place at the Battle of Hastings, where an invading French army under the command of the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy demolishes the army of England’s King Harold II. The victor changes his moniker from William the Bastard to William the Conqueror, and assumes the throne of England as William I. The victory was a credit to the discipline and morale of William’s army, aided by severe fatigue in Harold’s army, which had just recently force-marched themselves from the coastal north, where they repelled a Norse invasion on the 25th of September.
1307: On this Friday night, King Philip the Fair of France, with the begrudging support of the Pope, sends out swarms of secret agents to arrest over 400 Knights Templar on charges of treason, blasphemy, and a dozen or so other spurious charges.On3/18, when the last Grand Master of the order, Jacques de Molay was burned at the stake: this was the moment when Philip’s crusade against the Crusaders came to fruition, with torture, forced confessions and brutal executions following in the wake of this night.
1322: Robert the Bruce defeats the Earl of Richmond at the Battle of Old Byland– yet another nail in the coffin of British King Edward II’s subjugation of Scotland.
1492: Five weeks after heading west from the Canary Islands, Christopher Columbus makes landfall near Samana Cay in the southern region of the Bahamas Islands. He spends the next three months exploring primarily along the north coast of Cuba and the island of Hispaniola, trading with the natives, taking careful soundings while noting the locations of the harbors and availability of provisions for follow-on exploration. NOTE: There is a particularly vitriolic strain of revisionist history that is working even as we speak to debunk Columbus’ colossal achievement in planning and successfully executing this unprecedented voyage, in addition to working to intellectually neutralize the impact of his other two voyages and attempts to establish a Spanish colonial regime over a people who were hitherto completely ignorant about European power and politics.
1600: The tiny principality of San Marino, which looks like a small Tuscan city tucked on the side of a cliff (which it is), adopts a written constitution, making it the first republic of the modern age.
1654: A huge explosion in the beautiful Dutch city of Delft kills over a hundred people, injures hundreds more, and levels the central business district. The blast occurred during an inspection of a gunpowder magazine in the city center. Interestingly, the Delft University of Technology maintains an explicit and popular major in the science of explosions, a direct result of this tragedy.
1701: Connecticut colony issues a charter to the Collegiate School of Connecticut, located in Old Saybrook (although it probably wasn’t quite so old back in the day). You would probably recognize the school as Yale University, alter-ego to that older institution up in Massachusetts.
1739: Birth of Grigory Potemkin (d.1791), Russian nobleman, military leader, and lifelong “favorite” of Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. The idiom that now bears his name came from his time as Governor-General of the newly annexed Crimea region. On the eve of renewed war with the Ottoman Empire, the Empress made an “unannounced” visit up the Dnieper River with her Court, multiple ambassadors, and a disguised Austrian Emperor Joseph II to show them the strength of her new territories. Potemkin painted up actual riverfront villages to make them look better, and also created a kind of mobile village that could be set up quickly and populated with members of his army and staff dressed up as peasants as the royal flotilla went by. It could just as quickly be knocked down and moved to the next location.
1775: The Continental Congress, recognizing the need to do something to protect American trade on the high seas, authorizes and purchases two vessels to act as the Continental Navy, progenitor of the United States Navy, which recognizes this date as its formal beginning. The tiny American fleet eventually grew to 65 vessels, mostly converted merchant ships, all of which provided the command and operational experiences for the cadre of captains who distinguished themselves in later naval conflicts with both France and Great Britain. 11 ships finished the war basically intact, with the final one, frigate Alliance, being sold off to a private buyer for $26,000* in 1785.
1780: A massive hurricane tears through the Lesser Antilles, creating a swath of destruction from the Grenadines to Bermuda that leaves 23,200 souls dead and no fewer than 65 naval vessels from France, the Netherlands and Great Britain lost at sea or smashed to splinters on a lee shore, to say nothing of the devastation ashore, where thousands of homes and business were swept away by the storm’s surge. The Great Hurricane of 1780 remains the single most destructive weather event in the history of the Atlantic Ocean.
1792: In the District of Columbia, the cornerstone is laid for the Executive Mansion, known today as the White House.
1799: HMS Lutine founders and sinks off the Frisian Islands in the North Sea, taking with her to her watery grave 240 souls and £1,200,000 pounds in gold bullion. You’ll remember that Lutine’s bell was recovered in 1858 and is displayed in the central hall of Lloyds of London, where until 1986 it sounded a single toll on news of a lost ship, and two when a missing ship was reported safe. No fewer than 14 salvage attempts have been made to recover the treasure. The most successful was the 1857-58 expedition, which brought up 45 gold bars, 64 silver bars, and over 15,000 coins of various denominations, yielding the investors a return of 136%. The last salvage attempt was in 1933.
1810: Crown Prince Ludwig I of Bavaria invites all the citizens of Munich to a fair just outside the city gates to celebrate his wedding to Princess Therese of Saxe- Hildburghausen, celebrating in a meadow they named Threseinweise (Therese’s meadow), the same name as it has today. The celebration was such a hit, with an agricultural fair, horse races, fresh beer, and a general celebration of all things Bavarian, that the good citizens of Munich have continued it to this day (well, except this day in 2020, along with all the other great things intentionally ruined that year), as the annual Oktoberfest, where you can eat traditional Bavarian food, drink traditional Bavarian beer,
1812: In the Battle of Lake Erie, an American squadron of 9 ships under Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry achieves a decisive victory against a fleet of 6 British gunboats, ensuring American control of the entire southern coastline of the Great Lakes for the remainder of the war. Perry’s formal report of the battle is deliciously brief: “Dear General, We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner, and one sloop. Yours with great respect and esteem, O.H. Perry”.
1823: Scotsman Charles Macintosh patents and sells his first raincoat, a garment whose virtues are a direct result of Macintosh’s invention of a method to blend rubber into cotton and linen threads.
1844: Birth of Henry J. Heinz (d.1916). The logo on his ketchup bottles says “57 Varieties.”
1845: The first class of The Naval School is seated in Annapolis, Maryland; 50 midshipmen and 7 instructors begin the process of formalizing the training of nascent officers of the U.S. Navy.
1871: Three days after “Mrs. O’Leary’s cow” knocked over the lantern in the barn, The Great Chicago Fire finally burns itself out. The cataclysm took over 300 lives, left nearly three and a half square miles of the city center in cinders, and displaced over 100,000 people from their homes. The cow story, by the way, was fabricated by a journalist, knowing it would play well against the latent anti-Irish sentiment that infected much of Chicago society.
1879: At the Battle of Angamos, the Chilean Navy defeats the Peruvian navy in a crucial action that opened up the Bolivian port of Antofagasta to eventual occupation and annexation by Chile. I count myself among those of us Norte Americanos whose knowledge of South American history ends somewhere in the early 1800s when Simon Bolivar forced Spain to begin breaking up their centuries-old overseas empire. “And what happened then?” we ask. Well, without Spain to enforce colonial borders, the newly independent states resorted to the traditional methods of inter-state war to settle competing claims and boundary disputes. In this case, the issue at hand was the lucrative mining regions of the central Pacific coast, nominally under Bolivian control, but claimed as well by Peru and Chile. The naval battle this day provided a huge strategic advantage to Chile, which was eventually codified in the treaty that ended the 1879-83 War of the Pacific, also known colloquially as “The Saltpeter War” or “The Guano War,” due to the nature of one of the mining products in the region.
1884: American inventor George Eastman receives a patent for a paper-strip photographic film.
1888: The recently completed Washington Monument opens to visits by the general public. Have you ever hiked up that stairwell? It is very cool- well worth the effort, not only for the view, but also to see the complex interior structure of the obelisk, which was at the time of its opening the tallest man-made structure in the world.
1893: Birth of silent screen siren Lillian Gish (d.1993), one of the pioneers of the film industry who helped define the term, “Movie Star.”
1899: Birth of Bruce Catton (d.1978), American historian and author of the gripping Civil War vignette, A Stillness at Appomattox, the third installment of his Civil War trilogy after Mr. Lincoln’s Army and Glory Road. Most of my generation probably also remember him as the author of the American Heritage series of history books we devoured in junior high.
1910: At Kinloch Field just west of Saint Louis, Theodore Roosevelt climbs aboard a Wright Model B aeroplane with pilot Archibald Hoxey and becomes the first (ex-)President to go flying.
1912: Opening guns of the 1st Balkan War, where the Balkan League (Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Bulgaria) initiated combat in a bid for independence from the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were no match for the multi-front armies of the four allies, who relatively swiftly defeated their Turkish overlords and then settled into their own rounds of territorial squabbling, aided and abetted by the Great Powers of Europe. You are correct to assume that the formal cessation of hostilities only shifted the focus of long-simmering regional anxieties.
1912: Former President Theodore Roosevelt, campaigning in Milwaukee as the head of the new Bull Moose party, is shot in the chest by a local saloon keeper. The bullet penetrated his steel eyeglass case and a 50 page copy of his manuscript before lodging in the muscle of his chest wall. Since he was not coughing up blood, TR knew that the wound was not mortal, so he went ahead and gave the speech with blood slowly oozing under his shirt and coat. He opened his comments with, “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose…the bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.” Afterwards, the doctors decided it would be safer to leave the bullet in place rather than remove it, and TR carried it with him until he died.
1919: The Chicago White Sox throw the final game of the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, cementing for themselves the opprobrium of the nation, and the permanent moniker of the Black Socks.
1919: Birth of Doris Miller (d.1943), a cook aboard USS West Virginia (BB-48). During the attack on Pearl Harbor, Miller dashed up to the bridge after his normal General Quarters station was hit by a Japanese torpedo, and helped move his captain from the path of direct fire from the Japanese aircraft. Then, on his own initiative, he started firing one of the bridge machine guns at the attacking planes. He was presented the Navy Cross by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. His citation reads, in part:
““…[his] distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard of his personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. While at the side of his Captain on the bridge, Miller despite enemy strafing and bombing, and in the face of serious fire, assisted in moving his Captain, who had been mortally wounded, to a place of greater safety and later manned and operated a machine gun until ordered to leave the bridge.”
2020 Update: Last January the Navy announced that the newest nuclear aircraft carrier in the new Ford class will be named USS Doris Miller (CVN-81).
1928: Three years after the death of his long-time mentor, Sun Yat Sen, General Chang Kai Shek becomes Chairman of the Republic of China.
1928: First use of an Iron Lung for therapeutic respiration, at Children’s Hospital, in Boston.
1936: Birth of American Historian James McPherson, whose book, The Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), brought to life the depth, the strength, the beauty, the brutality, the hardship, the courage, and the utter humanity of the tens of thousands of lives from the War Between the States.
1938: First flight of the Curtis P-40 Warhawk, the mainstay fighter of the Army Air Corps in the early years of WWII, with 13,738 produced before production ceased in 1944.
1939: Flush with a hard-fought but clean victory over the Polish army, Nazi Germany annexes western Poland into the Third Reich, conveniently setting the conditions, per the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty, for the Soviet Union to occupy the eastern half of that long-suffering country.
1941: Birth of singer-songwriter Paul Simon.
1943: After running Il Duce out of office and putting his corpse on public display on a meat hook, the new government of suddenly non-Fascist Italy turns on their former Pact of Steel partner and joins the Allies against Nazi Germany. The occupying German army is not impressed, and fought a bitter and basically successful retrograde action up the Italian peninsula for the next two years, with the Germans still holding much of northern Italy when the war ended.
1945: In the aftermath of the Japanese surrender, the Communist Chinese under Mao Tse Tung and the Kuomintang of Chang Kai Shek sign an agreement on the post-war future of China. The “Double Tenth” agreement confirmed that the Kuomintang was the de facto ruling party of China, but that the Communists were a legitimate opposition party.
1947: USAAF ace and former POW Captain Chuck Yeager, flying as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base out in the Mojave Desert, makes the world’s first supersonic flight in the Bell X-1 rocket plane. The event was nicely depicted in the 1985 movie The Right Stuff, derived from Tom Wolf’s book of the same name, which rightly identified the Edwards test pilot cadre as the quintessence of America’s push into ever more expanded and dangerous flight regimes. After this flight, Yeager went continued to set altitude and speed records in an ongoing competition with fellow test pilot Scott Crossfield.
1960: At the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Premier Nikita Khrushchev, becomes incensed with statements made by the Philippine ambassador about the lack of political freedom in the nations of Eastern Europe. Khrushchev, furious, leaps to the podium to forcefully object to the statements, pounding his fist for emphasis, and as he continued, picked up his shoe and continued the diatribe until the embarrassed UN Chairman of the meeting declared the session over. In the U.S., the event became an iconographic shorthand for our view of the mercurial Soviet leader.
1962: Pope John XXIII convenes the Second Vatican Council, the first “summit conference” of the Roman Catholic Church since the First Vatican Council of 1878, and only the 21st Council since the beginning of Roman Christianity. Called with the specific intent of better aligning Catholic practice with the modern, post-World War II world, it remains a flashpoint of principled dissent within the traditional wing of the larger church body. Two primary arguments against the Council assert that: 1) since there was no formal doctrinal statement supporting the dilution of longstanding traditions of the Church, those changes were therefore not binding for faithful Catholics, and; 2) building even further on this thought, a small but intense school of thought believes that since the leadership of the Church broke with tradition with the work of the Council, the subsequent Popes have no canonical standing and cannot legitimately claim the papacy, thus legally rendering the office vacant. Of particular note is the post-John XXIII fate of four of the participants of the Council: Cardinal Giovanni Montini (Paul VI), Bishop Albino Luciani (John Paul I), Bishop Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II), and Father Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI).
1962: A USAF U-2 reconnaissance plane returns from a flight over Cuba with photographic proof that the Soviet Union was installing ballistic missile launching facilities on the newly communist island.
1967: Che Guevara is captured by Bolivians, and put to death.
1967: The Outer Space Treaty goes into effect. The parties to the treaty agree to not place nuclear weapons into orbit, and to refrain from using the moon or other celestial bodies as military testing or staging areas. The treaty is often misconstrued as prohibiting the “militarization” of space, but this is not the case. It does provide a framework for consultation and non-interference between spacefaring nations; it considers space part of the global commons, and the moon and other celestial bodies as part of the “common heritage of mankind”.
1969: The opening of the “Days of Rage,” a “direct action” protest against, oh, take your pick: the war in Vietnam, the draft, corporations, Wall Street, the “man,” suburban life, capitalism, bicameral legislature… any of the normal processes and institutions of national life. Organized [sic] by the Weather Underground, its guiding principle (quoted in the estimable Wikipedia) is quite clear: “The Elections Don’t Mean S**t—Vote Where the Power Is—Our Power Is In The Street!” I really hate to advertise the actual names of the goons who led this rabble, so I won’t; but they remain, shall we say, highly influential in very high circles even today.
1973: U.S. Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew resigns from office. The former Governor of Maryland was a lightning rod for the Left, acting as President Nixon’s verbal hatchet man, using mockery and incisive rhetoric to beat the radicals at their own game. What finally brought him down, as it did for Al Capone, was an eventual indictment for federal tax evasion. When faced with a potentially long and ugly public trial, Agnew did the correct thing and stepped aside, granting the Administration’s many enemies the first of several prominent heads to roll.
1975: First broadcast of Saturday Night Live, with hosts George Carlin and Andy Kauffman.
1984: Terrorists from the Provisional wing of the Irish Republican Army set off a massive time bomb at a hotel in Bristol, UK, where the Conservative Party is holding a conference. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was the explicit target of the blast, but she survived. 5 others were killed, 31 wounded. Mrs. Thatcher took pains to hold the next day’s meetings on schedule in defiance of the terrorists.
1986: World premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, at Her Majesty’s Theatre, in London. The show is still running there, where it surpassed 10,000 performances in October 2010. On Broadway, where it opened in 1988 it crossed the 10,000 performance mark in February 2012 and remains the longest-running show in Broadway history (over 13,000 performances as of April, 2019).
2000: During pierside refueling in the port of Aden, Yemen, two Islamic terrorists carefully moor what looks like a service barge alongside the USS Cole (DDG-67). They pass lines across to the sailors on deck, step back toward the center of their craft, smile and salute the Americans. Then they trigger a huge explosion that blows themselves to smithereens, killing 17 American sailors, injuring 39, and opening a 40-foot gash in the side of the ship. Quick response from the ship’s damage control teams helped control the flooding and fire, saving the ship from what could easily have been a mortal wound. Cole was lifted back to the States for repairs and upgrades, and was back in service after 14 months. She is currently homeported in Norfolk, VA.