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.
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.
1569: Death of the Flemish painter Peter Bruegel the Elder (b.1525), whose work is some of the most interesting you’ll ever see, particularly from this time period. Wikipedia describes his work: “His earthy, unsentimental but vivid depiction of the rituals of village life—including agriculture, hunts, meals, festivals, dances, and games—are unique windows on a vanished folk culture and a prime source of iconographic evidence about both physical and social aspects of 16th century life.”
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.
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.
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 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. It is currently in the Smithsonian, and is the second-most viewed object of art in the world, after the Mona Lisa.
1813: American sea-dog Oliver Hazard Perry confronts and defeats a superior British naval squadron in the Battle of Lake Erie. As I noted on the occasion of his death (DLH 8/23), he scratched out a victory message to General William Henry Harrison that was deliciously brief: “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”
1818: Birth of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy.
1919: A disgruntled and discharged Corporal Adolf Hitler of the Imperial German Army, joins the German Workers Party.
1922: First formal day governance in the British Mandate of Palestine. This particular 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
1901: Death of French post-impressionist painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
1936: Birth of Yankee Roger Maris (d.1985), who broke Babe Ruth’s 60 home run single-season record.
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.
1976: Death of Mao Tse Tung (now PC-ized to Mao Zedong) (b.1893), thirty (or more) years too late for the long suffering people of China.
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.