1157: Birth of Richard I (d.1199), son of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England. His prowess in battle earned him the nickname of “Lionheart,” usually pronounced Coeur de Lion due to his deep French roots.
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.
1504: After three years of labor, the 26 year old sculptor Michelangelo unveils his stunning rendition of David in the central piazza of Florence. A style note you may not have heard before: the Medici-commissioned statue was positioned such that his warning stare was aiming straight at Rome.
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. The estimable Wikipedia describes his impact this way: “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.
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.
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.
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.
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 that was 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”
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,
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). If you haven’t read War and Peace- admit it, you talk about it like you did– you should. Once you finally figure out all the names and characters, the novel ushers you into the mind of Marshall Kutuzov (DLH 9/7) and the people around him, leading you to understand the depth of despair as Napoleon entered Moscow, and the stoic joy of Russia’s eventual repulse and destruction of the Grande Armee.
1850: California, flush with fresh gold from the Sierra Nevada, is admitted as the 31st state of the Union.
1900: A category 4 (estimated) hurricane slams ashore at Galveston, Texas, obliterating virtually the entire city, and killing an estimated 8-12,000 residents.
1901: Death of French post-impressionist painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (b.1864). As with our friend Bruegel above, you would recognize his work, which has become iconographic for the Belle Epoch of late 19th century Paris.
1901: Death of President William McKinley (b.1843), felled by an assassin’s bullet
1917: The Russian parliament officially declares itself a republic. The February Revolution earlier this year was something less than a resounding success, but the Karinski government kept bumbling along up to this point. The communists who will turn the country upside down next month had been agitating for a full-on socialist revolution since April, and this month began throwing down markers that could only be met with violence.
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.
1925: Birth of actor Peter Sellers.
1929: Birth of the American golfer Arnold Palmer
1934: Enroute between Havana and NYC, a fire breaks out aboard the passenger ship SS Morro Castle. The crew fails to contain the fire and within 30 minutes the entire ship is ablaze, drifting without power off the New Jersey coast. 135 passengers and crew are killed out of 549 aboard. The burned out hulk eventually drifts ashore just off the Asbury Park Convention Center pier, where it becomes something of a macabre tourist attraction, even to the extent of postcards being made of the wreckage. It lingers as a pop culture touchstone through the 1940s. From the practical perspective, the disaster led to a number of mandated improvements to ship construction, damage control, and crew training. On the last point, it lead directly to the establishment of the US Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, NY.
1935: US Senator from Louisiana, Huey “Kingfish” Long, is gunned down on the steps of the Louisiana capitol building.
1944: London hears for the first time a double sonic boom just prior to being hit by the first of 1358 V-2 ballistic missiles launched from Nazi Germany between now and the end of the war the following May. The barrage ends up killing 2754 and injuring 6523 Britons. One laconic version of the casualty figures tagged it as “2 people per rocket,” although the same note went on to state that this number merges all of the zero casualty shots along with the more deadly ones, including an attack that killed nearly 550 when the machine fell into a theatre. Interestingly, as the accuracy of the attacks became more evident, British intelligence leaked out word that the rockets were overshooting the city by a number of miles. The “information campaign” was sufficiently effective to create a long period where the rockets fell harmlessly short of their intended destinations. Norwich was the target for another 43 V-2s, and Ipswich absorbed another. England did not bear all of the attacks: 1664 flew against Belgium, 76 against France, and 19 against the Netherlands. The core of the V-2 design remains the basis for the widely exported SCUD missile systems today.
1966: First broadcast of Star Trek, the sci-fi series that creator Gene Roddenbury pitched to the suits as a “…western set in outer space,” with the added benefit of Swift-ian morality tales infused into the subtext.
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. Pliticians 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 with 44 votes (.36%) in favor of the return, and 12,138 (99.19%) against; (55 ballots (.45%) were spoiled and not counted).
1974: President Gerald Ford grants a full pardon to former president Richard Nixon for any crimes he may have committed while serving as President. This act of grace likely cost Ford the Presidency in the 1976 election.
1976: Death of Mao Tse Tung.
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, and now they and the rest of their medieval thugs are being systematically crushed like the vermin they are. Note: After being evacuated from work at Ft. Belvoir in Alexandria, I took the back way home and stopped off at Anthony’s in Falls Church, bought a cheese steak sub and went home. I sat in the backyard with my dog Lucy, and I remember thinking how blue the sky was that day. And not a plane in the sky.