70 BC: Birth of Roman poet Virgil (d.19 BC), author of the Ecolgues and the Aenid, among other works, whose legacy includes such pith as, Omnia vincit Amor (Love conquers all), Tempus Fugit (time flies…), Latet anguis in herba (a snake in the grass), and Durate, et vosmet rebus servate secundis (Bear up, and live for happier days).
202 B.C.: At the Battle of Zama, deep within the Tunisian territory of Carthage, Roman General Scipio Africanus engages with and decisively defeats the great Carthaginian General Hannibal Barca, who, for the last 16 years, had occupied and systematically raided Roman colonies in the Iberian Peninsula, and after his dramatic crossing of the Alps, Italy itself. Hannibal’s domination of the battlefield (cf: Cannae (DLH 8/2)) turned not only the colonies, but many of Rome’s Italian city-states into Carthage’s vassals, a fact that drove the Senate to distraction and led to both periodic armistices and more aggressive military resistance to the hated North Africans. By 202 B.C., Hannibal was recalled to Carthage to shore up the ruling party’s position. Almost simultaneously, the Senate dispatched Scipio Africanus to effect a landing in North Africa and bring Carthage to heel once and for all. The battle this day broke the back of the existing Carthaginian state. The brutal Roman terms against Carthage ushered in a period of peace lasting over 50 years.
1097: Opening moves of the First Crusade’s Siege of Antioch, the ancient Greek and Roman metropolis that dominated the trade routes of the upper Levant, and which was distinguished in the New Testament as being the city where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” Although the city was in commercial decline during the Crusader period, it remained a singular strategic prize during the centuries of warfare between the Latin Crusaders, the Byzantine and Seljuk Turks, the Saracens of Syria and the Mongols of the Asian Steppes.
1356: An earthquake estimated as strong as magnitude 7.1 flattens the Swiss city of Basel, with the structural damage exacerbated by massive fires caused by falling candles and torches. It remains the strongest seismological event in Central European history.
1448: The Second Battle of Kosovo ends with the Christian armies of Hungary depleted to the point where they were no longer able to mount a credible defense, let alone any offensive operations against the victorious Ottoman armies of Anatolia. The defeat gave the Ottoman’s junior commander (and later Sultan) Mehmed II the military breathing space for his eventual conquest of the Christian capital of Constantinople n 1453.
1512: Augustinian monk Martin Luther is ordained Doctor of Theology, two days later to be received into the faculty of the University of Wittenburg.
1529: End of the first Siege of Vienna, where the heretofore unstoppable armies of Suleiman I (The Magnificent) were stopped after an exhausting march through the Balkans by the combination of Vienna’s walls, an early snowfall, and the determination and skill of the German Landsknets– a powerful mercenary force well trained in the use of halberds, pikes and long swords.
1540: At a location thought to be only a couple miles southwest of present day Selma, Alabama, a 600 man Spanish army of conquistadores, led by Hernando de Soto, is led by Mississippian chief Tuscaloosa to an open field directly abutting a stout enclosure of stucco-covered log palisade, filled with a homogeneous collection of around 3,000 young men, all daubed with war paint and armed with longbows. Tuscaloosa lured the Spanish to his “town” of Mabila so the Spanish could trade for food and supplies in order to continue their long march through what we now know as the southeast of region of the United States. It did not take long for the trade negotiations to reach an impasse, at which point one of the Spaniards pulled an Indian’s loincloth off over his head, triggering the first of several volleys of arrows to avenge the insult. After several abortive attempts to fight back and breach the walls of Mabila, the Spanish finally organized themselves as a functional army and waded into the Indian fighters, protected by their armor, laying waste to the Braves with furious swordplay. They set fire to the “village,” took what loot they could, and moved on leaving over 2,000 dead and dying Braves, including Tuscaloosa himself, to be burned in the ruins of the fort.
1720: The notorious actual pirate of the Caribbean, John “Calico Jack” Rackham, is captured by a Royal Navy pirate hunter after terrorizing multiple small craft and fishermen along Jamaica’s north coast. He was brought to Spanish Town, Jamaica, where he received a fair trial and was found guilty, then hanged by the neck until dead, his corpse thence suspended in a gibbet for several months at the entrance to the bay.
1764: During a pause in his tour of Rome, British historian Edward Gibbon “[…] sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted fryars [sic] were singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind.” The idea germinated on this day eventually became six massive volumes of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, produced over a frenetic 12 years of nearly continuous research and writing. Gibbon was immediately catapulted to the top of Britain’s scholarly world. His primary theme was that the Romans lost their edge, and eventually their imperial power, as a result of the loss of civic virtue, i.e., an increasing unwillingness to hold onto a disciplined military-led culture, compounded by Christianity’s new emphasis on the eternal life of the spirit, which eased the temporal burdens of resistance to external aggression.
1776: Just weeks after his victory at the Battle of Brooklyn (DLH 8/27), British General Sir William Howe opens the next phase of his campaign to capture New York by crossing to the mainland to trap General George Washington’s army on Manhattan Island. After being thwarted from an initial attempt his first landing attempt at Throg’s Neck, Howe re-grouped and on this day lands a force of 4,000 Redcoats on the mainland side of Long Island Sound at Pell’s Point, at what today is Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. An American force of about 750 under the command of Colonel John Glover established themselves in defensive positions behind a series of stone walls. Using a tactic that would be echoed later at the Battle of Cowpens, Glover exploited the American expertise at sharpshooting to attack the advancing British with continuous fire until their position was very nearly overrun. They would then make an orderly retreat to the next stone wall and re-attack the same way. After repeated repulses, the British finally halted their advance, which gave Washington time to evacuate the bulk of his Manhattan force to White Plains, where the final tactical loss sealed the fate of New York, but allowed Washington to withdraw the intact Continental Army across to New Jersey.
1777: Ten days after his cataclysmic defeat at the second Battle of Saratoga, British General John Burgoyne surrenders his army to American General Horatio Gates. The American victory was crucial proof to the French that the Americans actually had a chance to prevail against the hitherto dominating military and naval superiority of Great Britain.
1781: Not too far from here in Yorktown, Virginia, with supplies running low, and the combined American & French armies under General George Washington closing their siege lines inexorably closer to the faltering British positions, British General Lord Cornwallis sends out a party under flag of truce to ask for terms of surrender. This stunning event was the direct result of the French naval victory at the Battle of the Virginia Capes, which diverted Cornwallis’ replenishment fleet from delivering its crucial stores.
1781: Two days after asking for surrender terms, at 2:00 this afternoon the British army at Yorktown marches out of their bivouacs with their muskets shouldered and flags furled. The British band plays the tune “The World Turned Upside Down” as the men stack arms and colors and went into custody as prisoners of war.
1793: French Queen Marie Antoinette is tried and convicted by a revolutionary court of “justice.”
1797: In Boston, the Joshua Humphrey designed 44 gun frigate USS Constitution is launched.
1803: After a relatively short debate, and fully aware of what some argued was the tenuous Constitutionality of the purchase, the U.S. Senate on this day ratifies the Louisiana Purchase as a treaty, essentially doubling the land mass of the United States.
1805: Just off the SW coast of Spain, the 27-ship strong Mediterranean Fleet of the Royal Navy, under the command of the Viscount Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, engages the larger 33-ship Allied combined French & Spanish fleets under the command of French Vice Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve in the pivotal naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars. The Battle of Trafalgar was the culmination of months of British blockades, French breakouts, a trans-Atlantic sea chase to the Caribbean and back, and an ultimately futile attempt by the Allied fleet to break free from their blockaded anchorage at Cadiz in order to make a run back into the Mediterranean for re-arming* and replenishment. Having finally weighed anchor and cleared his fleet for sea, Villeneuve realized almost immediately that Nelson’s fleet lay in wait below the horizon. He formed up his ships into the conventional and powerful line of battle, significantly outnumbering and out-gunning his British foes. Nelson, for his part, correctly anticipated Villeneuve’s move, and at dinner with his captains the night before, laid out an audacious plan to split his fleet into two lines of battle set up to run perpendicular to the Allied line in order to crash through it and break the powerful battle line into a general melee of individual ship actions, of which Nelson was confident that the morale, discipline, seamanship, and marksmanship of the British would carry the day. He was explicit with his captains that night: “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” The next morning Nelson, aboard his flagship HMS Victory, ordered a flag hoist message to all ships: “England expects that every man will do his duty,” and led his line straight into the middle of the Allied line just ahead of Villeneuve’s flagship. Nelson’s second commander, Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, crashed his line about halfway back between Villenueve’s ship and the rear of the line, thus separating the Allied fleet into three parts and creating havoc as the British gunners pummeled the French and Spanish ships into charnel houses while the vanguard of the Allied line worked vainly for over 90 minutes in the light winds to bring their lumbering ships back into the fray. The final butcher’s bill underlines the scope of the stunning British victory: Allied losses: 21 ships captured, one sunk; 4,393 sailors dead, 3,800 sailors wounded, over 8,000 sailors captured. British losses: no ships lost; 488 sailors killed, 1,208 wounded. Prominent among the dead was Lord Nelson himself, felled by sniper fire from a French fighting top.
1812: Five weeks after entering the flaming remains of Moscow with his army already depleted by the Battle of Borodino and there being virtually no remaining supplies to plunder, Napoleon Bonaparte orders the Grande Armee to turn around and begin the long retreat back to France. The losses suffered by this once omnipotent force are staggering, and remain a central focus for students at American war colleges to this day.
1814: The London Beer Flood. At a prominent brewery on Tottenham Court Road, a huge vat of beer ruptures, splitting open several other vats that suddenly disgorged over 323,000 Imperial Gallons of beer into the street. The frothy surge kills 8 souls, one of whom was crushed in the wreckage of the brewery’s collapse, and five others who drowned in the basement of a home where they were conducting a wake.
1818: The United States and Great Britain, in a remarkable display of common sense and reciprocal respect, sign The Convention of 1818, setting the southern Canadian and northern U.S. boundary starting at the northwest shoreline of Minnesota’s Lake of the Woods, due south to 49 degrees latitude, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Two little warts distract from this otherwise elegant line: a) The Northwest Angle, created by that southward excursion at the east end of the line, a holdover from the 1783 Treaty of Paris, and; 2) Point Roberts, Washington, a tiny peninsula of British Columbia that pokes into Puget sound for a mile or so south of the 49th. Both the U.S. and UK had to cede prior claims on both sides of the line, and both sides agreed to joint governance of the Oregon Territory (present day OR, WA, ID and part of western MT).
1833: Birth of Albert Nobel (d.1896), Swedish chemist and physicist, inventor of dynamite, whose bequest funds the ongoing Nobel Prize competitions.
1824: Briton Joseph Aspdin obtains a patent for Portland cement, which you may recognize as quite possibly the most important construction material ever invented. It derives its name not from the lefty city in Oregon, but from its similarity to stone quarried in the Isle of Portland in Dorset, England.
1863: The Confederate submarine CSS H.L. Hunley sinks (rather than submerges) during a test dive, drowning its inventor and the entire rest of the crew. After being raised and refurbished one more time, the 7-man submersible eventually makes the world’s first successful submarine attack on another warship. Hunley is currently on display in its restoration lab on the site of the former Naval Station Charleston.
1882: Birth of Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasco a.k.a. Bela Lugosi (d.1956), Hungarian-American actor best known for his defining characterization of Count Dracula in the 1931 movie. His accent remains the standard against which all other Dracula accents are judged.
1892: Opening ceremony for the World’s Columbia Exposition, the enormous world’s fair built on the south side of Chicago in Jackson Park. Construction of the neo-classical display buildings was driven as much by schedule as by engineering, but with the exception of a fire in one of them, all were completed in time for the public opening the following May. The exteriors were painted white with dark trim accents, and the entire park was illuminated at nighty by electric light, earning it the moniker of “White City” for its perpetual gleam.
1901: Birth of Arleigh “31 Knot” Burke (d.1996), American naval officer renowned during WWII for the aggressiveness of his destroyer squadron in combat.
1914: Birth of Mohammad Zahir Shah (d.2007), the last King of Afghanistan.
1917: Birth of American trumpeter and Big Band leader Dizzy Gillespie (d.1993). He’s the one that every other Gillespie on the planet is named after.
1926: Birth of American guitarist Chuck Berry (d.2017)
1928: The massive rigid airship Graf Zepplin completes its first Trans-Atlantic crossing.
1931: The Chicago gangland murderer, crime boss Al Capone is convicted of tax evasion and sent to prison for an 11 year sentence.
1933: Physicist Albert Einstein flees the burgeoning Nazi unrest in his native Germany, arriving in San Diego, and eventually settling in Princeton, New Jersey.
1934: The Soviet Republic of China– the nascent communist workers’ paradise- collapses as the Kuomintang army under Chaing Kai Shek triumphantly enters Ruijin, forcing the communists under Mao Tse Tung to begin their storied “Long March” to the mountain fastness of the interior, where they will re-organize and plot their eventual return to power.
1931: Birth of the great NY Yankees Mickey Mantle (d.1995).
1937: Birth of the SF Giants’ right-hander (pitcher), Juan Marichal.
1938: Birth of motorcycle daredevil Evil Kenievil (d.2007).
1947: Opening gavel for the House Un-American Activities Committee, a multi-administration exercise in detecting and black-listing Communists in the entertainment industry (there were lots of them), the State Department (ibid.), and other influential public and quasi-public organizations.
1951: First broadcast of I Love Lucy, starring Lucille Ball, Dezi Arnez, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley.
1956: British colonial forces capture rebel Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi, effectively collapsing the brutal Mau Mau Rebellion that terrorized Kenya from 1952 until this day. The insurgency was effectively crushed by the end of the year. Kimathi was tried and executed for war crimes in February, 1957.
1966: Inspired by ongoing Leftist dissent against the Vietnam War, black radicals Huey Newton and Bobby Seals form the Black Panther Party.
1994: The United States signs the “Agreed Framework” with the regime of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) in which the DPRK agrees to shut down its nuclear program in consideration of the US delivering annually 500,000 tons of heavy petroleum, making arrangements for construction of two light water reactors, providing a formal “no first use” of nuclear weapons statement, and moving toward full diplomatic and economic recognition of the DPRK. The NORKS, for their part will “freeze” their graphite modulate reactors, remain within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, “take steps” to implement the de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and dismantle the graphite reactors after the LW reactors are completed. The executive agreement collapsed by January, 2003.
1997: The Thrust SSC, driven by British fighter pilot Anthony Green, sets a land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats, marking the first time a wheeled vehicle passes the supersonic threshold.