490BC: Athenian Hoplite warriors, using a highly developed phalanx formation, defeat the Persian army at the Battle of Marathon. The battle decisively halted the hitherto-inexorable advance of Darius I and his Persian army into the Doric peninsula, and brought an exceptional measure of confidence to the nascent city-state of Athens, which had long been under the shadow of the more militant Sparta. The rise of the Athenian Empire of the Classical period is dated from this victory. NOTE on tactics: the Athenian phalanx consisted of armored soldiers (bronze helmets & breastplate) lined up with overlapping shields providing a solid wall of protection against arrows, with offensive weaponry consisting of long-shafted iron spears thrust out from behind the shields. As the phalanx advanced, it was virtually unstoppable by anything except another phalanx; in many respects it was the “heavy armor” of the day. At Marathon, 9-10,000 Athenians, reinforced with a thousand Plataens, faced a Persian army of nearly 100,000 light infantry, including nearly 1,000 cavalry and 600 ships. For five days the Athenian force blocked the two exits from the Marathon plain, ostensibly waiting for the arrival of reinforcements from Sparta. But when it became clear that the Persians were about to move against them, the phalanxes formed up at night and moved first. As they began their attack, the Hoplites fended off the fusillades of Persian archery, and as the distance continued to close, the Athenians broke into a run while maintaining formation. The phalanx crushed the defending lines of Persian infantry, beginning with the wings and moving toward the center, causing complete pandemonium and destroying Darius’ ability to re-organize his force. At the end of the day, over 6,400 Persians lay dead on the battlefield, at the cost of 192 Hoplites. Darius withdrew back into Anatolia, and Persia did not make another foray into the region for over ten years.
122AD: Roman Emperor Hadrian begins construction of a massive wall across the borderlands between present-day Scotland and England.
1254: Birth of Venetian explorer Marco Polo (d.1324).
1715: Death of French Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Perignon (b.1638), widely credited with inventing the process of producing sparkling wines in the Champagne province of France.
1741: German-born English composer George Frederic Handel completes his magnificent oratorio Messiah, after a mere 24 days of composition.
1752: The British Empire adopts the Gregorian Calendar as its standard, replacing the historic Julian Calendar. This act has the unusual effect of causing eleven days to vanish into thin air. In early American texts and many other documents referencing the 18th century, you will see the annotation “O.S.” which designates the date as using the “Old Style” calendar. Thomas Jefferson’s birth date is shown on his grave site as April 2, 1743 (O.S.), but if you look in most biographies, they show it as April 13th.
1812: A week after his victory over the Russian army at Borodino, Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grande Armee enter Moscow and take possession of the Kremlin.
1812: A day after Napoleon’s entry into Moscow, a series of fires begin just after midnight, spreading and building into a three day firestorm that consumes nearly ¾ of the mostly wooden city. The French evacuate until the fire is contained, but remain in occupation of the Russian capital.
1814: Georgetown lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key, held overnight as a prisoner aboard HMS Tonnant in Baltimore Harbor, observes with trepidation the all-night British bombardment of Fort McHenry. Not knowing the outcome of the American defense from the British assault, he waits on deck, and as the dawn breaks, the 15-star flag of the United States remains aloft over the fort. He scratches down a few notes, and after returning home, completes a four-stanza poem called The Defense of Fort McHenry, set to the tune of a popular English drinking song. We know it, of course, as the Star Spangled Banner.
1818: Birth of Richard Gatling (d.1903), American firearms inventor.
1835: HMS Beagle arrives in the Galapagos Islands with naturalist Charles Darwin aboard.
1851: Birth of U.S. Army physician and biologist Walter Reed (d.1902), whose research and identification of tropical diseases, particularly mosquito-borne Yellow Fever, permitted substantial control of the disease and allowed the U.S. to continue work on the Panama Canal.
1862: As part of the plan exposed by Robert E. Lee’s “lost dispatch”, a Confederate detachment under Stonewall Jackson captures the town of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, snagging with it a huge number of U.S. forces (12,419 Federals), the largest ever capture of American soldiers until the Japanese overwhelmed Bataan in 1942.
1862: Union Corporal Barton W. Mitchell of the 27th Indiana Volunteers, picking through debris in a recently abandoned Confederate encampment, finds three cigars wrapped in a sheet of paper. Unrolling it, he reads Special Order 191, from General Robert E. Lee, detailing for his Corps commanders their routes and objectives in the opening phases of the Maryland campaign. The order quickly makes its way into the hands of Union General George McClellan, who exclaims, “Now I know what to do!” He adds, “Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.” The intelligence gained from the order proves crucial in setting up the coming confrontation between the armies near Sharpsburg, Maryland.
1875: Birth of James C. Penny (d.1971), who opened his first dry-goods store in Kemmerer, Wyoming, in 1902. In 1940, visiting one of his stores in Iowa, he trained a young employee named Sam Walton how to tie a package with a minimal amount of ribbon.
1891: Birth of Karl Donitz (d.1980), German submariner and intellect behind the highly effective “Wolfpack” strategy in World War II. Donitz had the dubious distinction of being named in Hitler’s will as his successor as head of the Third Reich. As such, he issued the surrender order to the German armed forces after a week in office, carefully working the timing of the event so that the bulk of the German armed forces would fall under the control of the Western Allies instead of the Soviet Union.
1901: Death of President William McKinley (b.1843), felled by an assassin’s bullet.
1914: Birth of famous author of children’s books, Robert McCloskey (d.2003).
1916: After two and a half months of unrelenting combat in the Battle of the Somme, British forces introduce the “tank” to the battlefield. The machine is impervious to barbed wire and rifle & machine-gun fire, but is very slow-moving (3 mph) and notoriously unreliable. That being said, it does the job of creating a clear path for supporting infantry to break through German defenses in several portions of the battle line.
1919: A disgruntled and discharged Corporal Adolf Hitler of the Imperial German Army, joins the German Workers Party.
1919: Congress officially authorizes U.S. veterans of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), fresh from their victorious return from the Great War, to incorporate The American Legion as a veterans support group under Title 36 U.S.C.
1938: Six months after the Austrian anschluss, and after six months of nationalist agitation, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler uses the language of Versailles in an incendiary speech demanding “self-determination” and “autonomy” for the German-speaking population of the Sudetenland, a narrow two-part enclave of ethnic Germans inside the borders of the new Republic of Czechoslovakia. The Czech government responds by reinforcing its Bohemian border with Germany & Austria, but it is clear that a crisis is afoot.
1940: The most active day of the Battle of Britain– the first day of Germany’s final “decisive” air assault on England.
1945: Opening assault in the brutal Battle of Pelileu in the South Pacific. The recent HBO mini-series The Pacific centered its narrative on 1st Marine Division that spearheaded this campaign.
1948: The North American Aviation F-86 Sabrejet sets a world speed record of 671 mph. The design, particularly the swept-back wings, was derived from captured German aerodynamic research dating from 1940.
1914: Two months into the Great War, with the German juggernaut threatening the environs of Paris itself, the Allied armies of France and Great Britain launch a massive counter-attack at the Marne River on the 5th of September that knocks the over-extended Germans into their own series of massive retreats. The week-long battle is known as the Battle of the Marne, or more popularly as the Miracle on the Marne, as it reversed for the first time the deadly efficiency of the Von Schlieffen Plan. On this day, a week into advance, the morning fog burned off to find the advancing Allies lightly dug in on exposed ground near the Aisne River, with the Germans occupying well-defended heights above. The First Battle of Aisne that opened this day raged for nearly two weeks, with neither side gaining an advantage, and both sides digging ever deeper into defensive trenches. By the 28th it was clear that the period of rapid movement of the Schlieffen plan, and the tactical flexibility of careful retreats and counter-attacks by the Allies, was permanently stalled. Both sides suddenly shifted their objectives toward attempts to outflank the other, which led to a period known as the Race to the Sea, which by November resulted in a continuous line of defensive trenches running from Belgium’s North Sea coast all the way to the Swiss border, a line that would move little over the course of the next four years.
1917: The Russian parliament officially declares itself a republic.
1948: Margaret Chase Smith is elected Senator from Maine, becoming the first woman to be both Representative and Senator.
1950: After nearly four months of catastrophic defeats and retreats at the hands of communist North Korea’s juggernaut, and with the entirety of his active forces engaged holding onto the Pusan perimeter by their fingernails, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur orders up his final reserves (1st Marine Division and Army 7th Infantry Division) to make an amphibious landing at Inchon, Korea, the west coast port city just a few miles from the conquered capital city of Seoul, and hundreds of miles behind the North Korean front to the south. The invasion, timed to arrive between thirty foot (true) tide cycles and covering three separated landing areas, caught the NORKS completely unawares and overwhelmed by the naval and military power suddenly thrust into the strategic heart of the peninsula. The attack broke the back of North Korean logistics support to their overstretched and exhausted forces battling at Pusan, and within weeks the UN forces began rounding up over 135,000 NORK prisoners, followed by dramatically launchng into a counter-attack that pushed the communist armies all the way back the border with China on the Yalu river. MacArthur’s strategic sense and gambler’s timing overcame strong opposition from USN and Army leadership and gave the UN (make no mistake, it was overwhelmingly a US battle) forces a military and moral victory at the point when it appeared all was lost. After this day, it was not.
1956: Introduction of the first computer disc storage system, IBM’s RAMAC 305.
1970: Jordan’s King Hussein declares martial law in response to an attempted fedeyeen coup against his Hashemite throne. The conspirators, organized around Yassir Arafat’s Fatah movement, vow revenge over their failure and form a new militant group known as Black September Organization in memory of this day. Two years later, the Black September kidnapped and assassinated eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich, ensuring that the terms “Palestinian” and “terrorist” would be forever linked.