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.
1776: Guarding the northernmost portions of Alta California, Spain establishes the Presidio of San Francisco on the tip of land that borders the entrance to San Francisco Bay. It remained in Army hands until the BRAC rolled through. The facility was turned over to the National Parks Service in 1994 as mixed use historic, recreational, and commercial sector of the City. One if Presidio’s distinguishing features was its lack of a perimeter fence.
1789: Representatives from the Several States, in congress, after over two years of intense discussion and negotiation, sign The Constitution of the United States in Philadelphia, and send the document to the States themselves for ratification.
1793: George Washington lays the first cornerstone for the capitol building in the District of Columbia.
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
1835: HMS Beagle arrives in the Galapagos Islands with naturalist Charles Darwin aboard.
1850: As part of the Compromise of 1850 (DLH 1/29) Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Act, which holds that authorities in non-slave states are obligated to arrest runaways and return them to their owners. The act had the not unexpected effect of further hardening the sectional lines in a nation already bitterly divided over the morality of Southern slavery, and it set up free blacks in the Northern states for kidnapping and sale to Southern slave markets. Note: I recently finished the 1853 documentary book “12 Years a Slave,” by the New York born freeman Solomon Northup of Saratoga Springs. If I had any lingering doubts about the pernicious effects of chattel slavery, this book knocked them out of me. Hard. As soon as you start reading it, you’ll not only recognize the lugubrious 19th Century prose that makes it a kind of time capsule, you’ll also recognize the hard truths of the story as the narrative unfolds.
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: The Union Army of the Potomac halts Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s first foray into the northern states a the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg), the single bloodiest day of combat in American history, with 23,000 casualties (10,000 Union, 13,000 Confederate).
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 .
1905: Birth of Swedish screen goddess Greta Garbo (d.1990). Even as the most famous face in the movies, she was remarkably reticent about the demands of off-screen publicity. You may remember that she was famous (or infamous) for a line in the movie Grand Hotel about what it was she really wanted in life. The answer (with a husky Swedish accent) that entered the popular mind was “I vaunt to be alone.” After making her last movie in 1941, she remarked, “I never said ‘I want to be alone,’ I only said, ‘I want to be let alone.’ There is all the difference.” Although she was never a recluse, she lived a very private life from her Central Park suite until her death at age 84.
1916: After two and a half months of unrelenting combat in the Battle of the Somme (DLH 7/1 and Addendum), 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.
1917: The Russian parliament officially declares itself a republic.
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.
1929: Birth of Sir Stirling Moss (d.2020), often referred to as the “greatest driver never to win the World Driving Championship.”
1908: On an Army demonstration flight at Fort Meyer, Virginia, the Wright Brothers’ first commercial aircraft Model A, piloted by Orville Wright, crashes when one of the propellers breaks, slicing a guy wire and severing the rear control surfaces of the machine. Wright is severely injured by the plunge into the ground, and his passenger, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge dies, becoming the world’s first aviation fatality.
1939: First broadcast by Nazi propagandist Lord Haw Haw, who railed against British combat and diplomatic activities across the European continent.
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.
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.
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.
1970: Death of guitarist Jimmie Hendrix (b.1942).
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. You might consider it ironic in the extreme that the group’s first attacks were against the internationally recognized Palestinian state of Jordan, but that would mean that you would be using logic to evaluate the situation.
1975: Kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst is arrested a year after her inclusion on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
1977: Death of the great bel canto soprano, Maria Callas (b.1923).