Today in History, July 1:
A day for important battles.
1863 – The Union and the Confederates first clash at The Battle of Gettysburg, and both send reinforcements. The first day went badly for the Union, but the largest battle in North America had three more days to go, and would become a major turning point in the Civil War.
1898 – The Battle of San Juan Hill becomes a major victory for the US in the Spanish-American War as the US Army’s Fifth Corps takes the heights over Santiago de Cuba. It also set the stage for Colonel Theodore Roosevelt to become President as he became famous for leading his Rough Riders up Kettle Hill (not San Juan).
1916 – The Battle of the Somme in France; after a week’s bombardment with over 250,000 shells, the British launch an attack into no-man’s land. The Germans had retained many machine guns despite the bombardment, and the British soldiers were slaughtered. With 20,000 dead and 40,000 wounded in one day, it was one of the worst defeats for the British military’s history.
1942 – The Battle of El Alamein; In North Africa Erwin Rommel’s army had routed the British and their allies, driving them back so quickly that they had to leave much of their equipment behind. But on today’s date the British Army, resupplied by Americans and reorganized, turned the tide back on Rommel at El Alamein.
Today in History, June 13, 1777:
A 19-year-old boy, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, Marquis de Lafayette, arrives at North Island, Georgetown, South Carolina from his native France. He had been a commissioned officer in the French Army since he was 13.
I’m sure Lafayette seemed somewhat ridiculous to many in the Continental Army at first, but he was dedicated to the American cause and soon gained the confidence of Gen. George Washington. He served with distinction in several battles, including the siege of Gen. Cornwallis at Yorktown. His influence as a French aristocrat gained vital support for the US cause from the French King and populace.
Americans were thoroughly impressed with him, and he idolized Washington…his only son would be named George Washington Lafayette. He would go on to be a key figure in the French Revolution, penning “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” with the assistance of Thomas Jefferson.
Today in History, May 28, 1503:
King James IV of Scotland and Margaret Tudor of England marry, fulfilling an international agreement which had been sanctioned by the Pope, The Treaty of Perpetual Peace between England and Scotland.
As it turns out, “perpetual” peace is good for about 10 years. In 1513 James declares war on England in support of France, who Scotland had a previous treaty with…and England had declared war on France.
The Pope would excommunicate James IV for going back on his word, and he would soon die during the Battle of Flodden Field, becoming the very last Monarch of the British Empire to die in battle.
Today in History, November 26, 1942:
The motion picture “Casablanca” premieres in New York City. The movie that would become a screen classic would be released to theaters in the remainder of the country on January 23, 1943.
The film was set in Casablanca, Morocco in December, 1941. This time frame is important to the viewer if not the players. Rick Blaine is an exiled American who owns a high-end bar. Between continuously matching wits with the local French authorities and Nazis, Rick manages to barter for immigration papers for those fleeing the Nazis and to deal with an old romance interest who re-enters his life…Ilsa. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
The film is at heart a romance, but at the same time a gritty war thriller. Humphrey Bogart was well accustomed to playing the heavy, and did so well. Ingrid Bergman did an excellent job playing the femme fatale, but by the time the show is over, one is hard pressed not to find Claude Rains’ portrayal of Captain Louis Renault to be the most compelling.
The plethora of one-liners definitely added to place Casablanca at the top of any “greatest” list, even 75 years later. Near the end of the film, Rick and Louis are caught at the airport by Nazi SS Major Strasser. Louis ends up shooting the Major. As Louis’ troops rush up in response to the shot, Louis says hastily, “Major Strasser’s been shot. Round up the usual suspects.”
It is important to note the film was released less than a year after the Pearl Harbor attack at a time when the question of who would be victorious was still a very open discussion. Those viewing the movie most likely had fathers, brothers and sons fighting on a steaming, miserable island named Guadalcanal or on ships in the same theater. Less than a month earlier (November 8) American soldiers and sailors took part in the landings of Operation Torch assaulting French North Africa. This would include fighting the Nazis and the Vichy French (French sympathetic to or under the thumb of the Nazis.) These battles would include Morocco and the Naval Battle of Casablanca between Allied, German and Vichy French naval forces.
All of this was the backdrop for the premiere of Casablanca. How much more real, how much more emotion, must have been involved seeing it for the first time in 1942.
Today in History, October 22, 1797:
– Can you imagine being the very first person to decide dropping from a high altitude supported by a canopy of silk was a good idea? On this date in 1797 André-Jacques Garnerin was that person as he ascended to a height of 3200 feet with a hydrogen balloon then cut himself loose to drift over Paris with a parachute he designed.
Today in History, July 14, 1919:
US Airman Quentin Roosevelt, youngest son of President Theodore Roosevelt, dies when he is shot down over France in WWI.
He and his brothers, who all served in WWI were very competitive in the voracity of their service, trying to live up to their father’s exploits…a father who also wanted to serve but was refused due to President Wilson’s fear that TR’s service might lead to a run for President in 1920. TR wouldn’t live that long…and he spent his last years heartbroken over the loss of his youngest son.
TR Jr. would die of a heart attack just weeks after leading his division in the Normandy invasion of 1944…again living up to his father’s legacy. A family of immense wealth; several generations of which dedicated their lives to service to their country.
Today in History, June 19, 1864:
The Battle off Cherbourg. In 1861 the screw sloop CSS Alabama was launched in England, which was just the beginning of the intrigue involving the Confederate cruiser that wreaked havoc on Union shipping until her demise on this date in 1864.
The British gov’t had ordered no ships be built or sold to the rebels, but the company that built the Alabama did so clandestinely. During the intervening years the Alabama, which had both steam engines and sails, circled the globe sinking Union merchant shipping (60 at least) and a Union warship.
She had put in at Cherbourg, France for much needed repairs, but was rebuffed. Before she could leave, the Union screw sloop USS Kearsarge arrived outside the harbor.
Capt. Charles Pickering and many other Union Captains had been searching for the infamous Alabama and Capt. Raphael Semmes for years. Semmes set out to engage the Kearsarge, firing the first shot. The two ships parried, but the Kearsarge had some advantages; powerful new “Dahlgren” guns and chains draped over her sides for protection. Within an hour the Kearsarge’s crew sent the Alabama to the bottom. Semmes escaped on a passing British ship to England with 41 of his crew.