1297: A Scottish army under the command of William Wallace defeats a numerically superior English army at the Battle of Sterling Bridge. In a dramatic case of using terrain for tactical advantage, the Scots established themselves on relatively high ground overlooking a narrow bridge over the River Forth, whose road was flanked on both sides by nearly impassable, boggy ground. Exercising exceptional discipline, the Scots held back their attack until about half of the English vanguard of knights and heavy infantry, with some cavalry, crossed the bridge (often only one or two wide due to its narrowness), and began to re-form for battle. Wallace then hurled his outnumbered Scots against the still-disorganized English, immediately capturing the bridge and thus cutting the enemy into two trapped elements. Without organization, without leadership, and without an escape route, the English were completely routed by the fiery Scottish partisans. Over half of the English infantry were killed outright, and while an unknown number of Scots perished, it was rightly celebrated as a resounding victory. It was also notable regarding the ability of the lightly armed Scots to overcome- by tactics and motivation- superior weights of numbers and armament of the English force.
1492: Italian navigator, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Christopher Columbus departs from La Gomera harbor in the Canary Islands, the last stop before sailing his little fleet of three ships (Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria) off the edge of the known world.
1522: Three years after its departure as part of Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet of exploration, the Spanish ship Victoria makes port in San Lucar de Barrameda, Spain under the command of Sailing Master Juan Sebastian Elcano. He and only 17 others are the sole surviving members from the original five ships and 235 men. They did not originally plan on circumnavigating, but after the dangers and loss of getting their small fleet through the southwest Pacific islands, Elcano chose to continue westward across the Indian Ocean to follow the coast of Africa back to Spain. [Himself; Spanish training ship named after Elcano.
1608: John Smith is elected Council President of the Jamestown colony. After the disastrous “starving time” winter of 1607-08, Smith set out on an extensive exploration of the Chesapeake Bay, where he found not only good hunting and fishing grounds, but also extensive trading relationships with many of the Indian tribes who lived and farmed nearby. On his accession to the Council, Smith was adamant that everyone must work- even the “gentlemen”- or they would not eat. His leadership set the colony on the direct path to sustainability and growth.
1609: Continuing his northerly exploration of the New World coastline, English explorer Henry Hudson, working for the Dutch East India company, discovers the island of Manhattan.
1620: After completing nominal repairs to the Speedwell in Dartmouth (see DLH 8/5), and again in Plymouth, the Pilgrims finally sell the leaky ship. They crowd into Mayflower and on this day finally depart England, enroute to the new Massachusetts Bay Colony.
1754: Birth of William Bligh (d.1817), Royal Navy sailing master under the tutelage of the great Captain James Cook; later commissioned Lieutenant and Commanding Lieutenant in command of HMS Bounty during her ill-fated 1789 voyage to the South Pacific. Bligh was an irascible leader who made up for his deficiencies of personality by the exercise of extraordinary seamanship capabilities. I noted in DLH 4/28 about the 3600 mile post-mutiny journey in an open boat with himself and 18 loyal crew, only one of whom did not survive the six week transit to Timor. After being exonerated by Court Martial, Bligh was promoted to Post Captain and went on to 10 individual ship commands and two turns as Commodore, retiring as Vice Admiral of the Blue in 1814.
1757: Birth of the Marquis de Lafayette (d.1834), George Washington’s right hand man during the Revolutionary War.
1776: American inventor David Bushnell’s Turtle makes the world’s first submarine attack in his one-man submersible, with Sergeant Ezra Lee at the controls. He hand-cranks his way out to HMS Eagle in New York harbor to affix a black powder time bomb to the hull of the ship, but the auger bit fails to penetrate the stout English oak; with dawn approaching he abandons the attempt and makes good his escape.
1777: Battle of Brandywine– The Continental Army, under the command of George Washington, sets up a defense of Philadelphia along several fords of Brandywine creek, about 50 miles SW of the city. It looks like a strong defensive position against the recently landed forces of British General Lord William Howe, who transported his army by ship around the Eastern Shore in an attempt to make a less direct approach to the American capital than a frontal assault across the Delaware River. Howe analyzes Washington’s dispositions, and orders his Hessian General Wilhelm von Knyphauesen to create a demonstration across the entirety of Washington’s front. Howe, meanwhile, leads his 15,000 Redcoats wide around Washington’s right and attacks the American’s completely exposed flank. Quick responses by three American divisions prevent it from becoming a complete disaster, but by the end of the day the Continentals are a shattered force who could not hold the field. The decisive British victory meant the road to Philadelphia was wide open, and after a few days of desultory moves and counter-moves by the armies, the Continental Congress abandoned its capital, and Lord Howe continued his march northward to occupy the city.
1792: With both the French King and Queen now in prison, and the French Revolutionary government undergoing its usual machinations, a group of thieves break into the Garde-Meuble (the Royal Storehouse) and steal the crown jewels, including the famous 69 carat French Blue, a.k.a. the Hope Diamond. Although most of the other jewels were recovered, the French Blue was not. It vanishes from history until 1812, when a substantially smaller (45.5 carat) version surfaces in a London shop.
1812: Napoleon Bonaparte achieves his final victory in the Russian campaign at the Battle of Borodino, but at a loss of over 35,000 of his own men, the single bloodiest day in the entire campaign. The Russian army under Marshall Mikhail Kutuzov not only suffers a similar casualty rate, but ends the day with shattered leadership and battlefield organization, making it ripe for a complete rout. Inexplicably, with the opportunity within his grasp, Napoleon fails to follow up on the nominal victory to completely destroy the Russians. Kutuzov and his men retreat into the deep Russian hinterland, forming the core of the force that will eventually drive the Grande Armee out of Russia.
1813: American sea-dog Oliver Hazard Perry confronts and defeats a superior British naval squadron in the Battle of Lake Erie. He scratched out a victory message to General William Henry Harrison: “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”
1816: Birth of Carl Zeiss (d.1888), who pioneered and perfected the art of wide-aperture lens making.
1818: Birth of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (d.1910).
1850: California, flush with fresh gold from the Sierra Nevada, is admitted as the 31st state of the Union.
1906: French (Brazilian emigre) aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont successfully flies his airplane 14-bis for the first time.
1921: Planned with the express intention to extend the summer season at the Jersey Shore, the first Miss America contest is held in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
1922: First formal day governance in the British Mandate of Palestine. This offshoot of the Versailles Treaty had the full blessing of the “international community” through the auspices of the League of Nations.
1929: Birth of the American golfer Arnold Palmer.
1936: Birth of Yankee slugger Roger Maris (d.1985), who broke Babe Ruth’s homer record with his 61st home run in the 1961 season.
1940: First night of what will end up become 76 consecutive nights of the London Blitz. By the time the German bombing campaign ends in May, 1941, over 43,000 civilians are killed, with a million houses destroyed, to say nothing of the infrastructure losses at the dockyards and factories in London and elsewhere. The nightly raids severely tested the stiff upper lips of the population, many of whom evacuated to Scotland or set up residence in the Underground.
1958: Birth of Jeff Foxworthy.
1967: Under the terms of UN General Assembly Resolution 2070, the residents of the Gibraltar Peninsula conduct a plebiscite on whether or not to abrogate the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) and return to Spanish sovereignty. I’m sure the genius politicians* in the UN and Spain were shocked at the outcome: on this day, the British subjects of the British colony of Gibraltar vote to remain British subjects. 44 souls of the electorate (0.36%) voted in favor of the return, while 12,138 (99.19%) voted against; (55 ballots (.45%) were spoiled and not counted).
1968: Swaziland becomes an independent kingdom. I actually met the King of Swaziland, Mswati III, when I was on the Joint Staff in the early 90s. I should try to dig out the picture of us together in the Flag Room. He wore a very nice silk suit and had huge hands.
1976: Soviet Air Force pilot Victor Belenko lands his MiG-25 at Hakodata airbase in Japan and requests political asylum in the United States.
2001: Islamic radicals, acting under the direction of Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, hijack four US airliners and precipitate the most deadly attack on US soil in history, with the expressed intent of triggering a war to re-establish the Islamic Caliphate over the infidel West. They got half of it right: they got their war.