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. But as we’ve seen over the course of many DLH years, just because the fighting stopped, doesn’t mean the motivation was gone. In the case of the Roman Senate, the fact of Carthage’s continued existence, however weakened, was unacceptable. It lead to continued agitation to solve the problem once and for all, and motivated the great orator Cato the Elder to end every one of his speeches with the phrase, “CARTHAGO DELENDA EST” which you’ve already translated as “Carthage must be destroyed!”
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.
1295: A treaty of alliance is signed between the crowns of Scotland and France, pledging that if one of them is attacked by England, the other will attack England in return. The treaty, known informally as the Auld Alliance, was formally renewed by every sovereign of the two countries through 1560, when Scotland became officially Protestant, after which the accession of Scotland’s James VI as England’s James I formally joined the two island antagonists. Interestingly, the relationship between Scotland and France remains remarkably close.
1456: Death of John of Capistrano (b.1386), Italian priest, Franciscan monk, theologian, and at age 70 (!)- a warrior accompanying the Hungarian army on a Crusade to Constantinople, and before which he personally led a military contingent that raised the siege of Belgrade. If you’re familiar with California history, you know that the Spanish Mission San Juan Capistrano, situated just north of San Diego, is the only one of the missions on El Camino Real that retains its original adobe construction on site. It is famous for the annual return of a huge flock of migrating swallows, the harbingers of Spring.
1512: Augustinian monk Martin Luther is ordained Doctor of Theology, two days later to be received into the faculty of the University of Wittenburg.
1632: Birth of the great English architect, Christopher Wren (d.1723).
1642: The first battle of the English Civil War(s) is fought to a desultory conclusion at Edgehill. It is a nominal victory for King Charles I, but does little to change the course of the deep conflict between Royalist and Parliamentarian armies.
1707 (O.S.): The Royal Navy suffers an existential shock after four ships run aground off the Isles of Scilly in dirty weather, with the loss of nearly 2,000 sailors in addition to the ships themselves. Ongoing investigations confirm that one of the crucial factors in the disaster was the inability for navigators to accurately plot their longitude. Parliament eventually passes the Longitude Act in 1714, offering an increasing level of prize money to anyone who could devise a practical way of determining longitude at sea.
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.
1721: Tsar Peter I (The Great), after defeating the Kingdom of Sweden over four Baltic provinces, declares a Russian Empire with the new city of St Petersburg as its capital. The empire eventually became the Russian Republic at the start of the 1917 revolution.
1746: The College of New Jersey receives its founding charter. It became Princeton University in 1896.
1781: Two days after asking for surrender terms, at 2:00 in the 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.
1797: In Boston, the Joshua Humphrey designed 44 gun frigate USS Constitution is launched. She remains afloat to this day, having just completed a major overhaul and renovation at the old Navy Yard graving dock.
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 without firing a shot.
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 (DLH 9/14), with his army previously depleted at the Battle of Borodino (DLH 9/8) 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.
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. It makes for a convenient place for Canadians to buy staple supplies at American prices, not to mention providing a nominal U.S. address for U.S. relatives to mail packages without all the annoyances of clearing Canadian customs. (Shhhhh. Don’t tell). 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).
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.
1836: Six months after his dramatic victory over the Mexican army at the Battle of San Jacinto, Virginia native Sam Houston is inaugurated as the first president of the Republic of Texas.
1861: President Abraham Lincoln, under the provisions of Article I, section 9 of the Constitution, suspends the writ of habeus corpus, giving the federal government the ability to hold suspected rebels indefinitely without trial. Here’s the pertinent Constitutional clause, because I know you’re curious: “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.”
1869: Birth of Ohio sportsman John Heisman (d.1936), a great player in his own right, and a better football, basketball and baseball coach for ten universities and colleges between 1892 and 1927, retiring with a football record of 186-70-18 and a baseball record of 219-119-7. The NCAA named a trophy after him.
1873: It wasn’t yet the NCAA, but Yale, Princeton, Columbia and Rutgers Universities agreed this day to set up a set of consistent rules for intercollegiate football play.
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 thick accent remains the standard against which all other Dracula accents are judged.
1884: The International Meridian Conference formally designates the Prime Meridian as running through the Naval Observatory in Greenwich, just outside of London.
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 by electric light at night, earning it the moniker of “White City” for its perpetual gleam. For an in-depth and somewhat frightening narrative of the fair’s design and construction, may I recommend “The Devil in the White City; Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America” by Eric Larson (2003). Larson not only recounts the building of the fair itself, he also uncovers the machinations of the nation’s first serial killer, who exploited the fair to isolate and destroy his victims.
1901: Birth of Arleigh “31 Knot” Burke (d.1996), American naval officer renowned during WWII for the aggressiveness of his destroyer squadron in combat.
1917: Birth of American trumpeter and Big Band leader Dizzy Gillespie (d.1993).
1925: Birth of journalistic bon vivant and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Art Buchwald (d.2007)
1931: Birth of NY Yankees slugger, Mickey Mantle (d.1995).
1937: Birth of the SF Giants’ right-hander, Juan Marichal.
1940: Birth of Brazilian soccer superstar Pele.
1944: Opening guns of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which over the course of three days became the largest naval battle in history. The battle’s first shots were actually a highly successful torpedo attack by two American submarines against a Japanese cruiser force getting underway from Brunei. Two cruisers of the force went to the bottom, forcing a Japanese reversal overnight. The primary battles took place on the 24th & 25th.
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.
1956 (a): 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 effectively crushed by the end of the year. Kimathi was tried and executed for war crimes in February, 1957.
1956 (b): Birth of Carrie Fisher (d.2016).
1962: One week after obtaining conclusive proof of Soviet nuclear missile deployments to Cuba (DLH 10/14), President John F. Kennedy gives a speech to the nation, publicly revealing the Soviet deployments, and declaring a naval quarantine around the island to prevent further Soviet military supplies from landing there. It’s worth pointing out that the term “quarantine” was carefully developed to avoid its more accurate description as a blockade, which is an explicit act of war under international law. Today’s public announcement upped the ante for the high stakes diplomacy between Washington and Moscow, buying time for both the diplomatic dance and military planning for a potential invasion and occupation of the island. The Cuban Missile Crisis is well worth the time to study the nexus of diplomacy and “diplomacy by other means” between mortal adversaries. In case the stakes of this confrontation weren’t clear, JFK made the point explicitly this night: “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
1983: The barracks of United States Marine peacekeepers at the Beirut airport is attacked by terrorists driving a suicide truck bomb, killing 241 Marines. Simultaneously, another suicide bomber attacks the French barracks nearby, killing 51 French soldiers.
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. No surprise, the executive agreement collapsed of its own weight, completely, by January, 2003. As the French say, “Plus ca change, plus les choses restes le meme.”