On the 9th April 1865, after four years of Civil War, approximately 630,000 deaths and over 1 million casualties, Confederate States Army General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. This triggered a series of other surrenders across the south, and marked the beginning of the end of the American Civil War.
Prior to the surrender, Lee’s army had been forced to abandon the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, and was retreating with the hope of joining with other Confederate forces in North Carolina. However, the Union army managed to cut them off with cavalry and infantry and so – with his army surrounded and his men weak and exhausted – Lee had no option but to surrender.
Lee and Grant sent a series of messages that led to them meeting in the village of Appomattox Courthouse, where they signed the surrender documents in the parlour of a house owned by Wilmer McLean. The terms were as generous as Lee could hope for, the Union wanting to avoid any possible excuse for an uprising. All officers and men were pardoned and allowed to return home with their private property including their horses. Furthermore, all Confederate officers would be allowed to keep their side arms, and Lee’s troops would be fed with Union rations.
With the surrender signed, Grant is reputed to have stepped outside and declared, “The war is over. The Rebels are our countrymen again.”
On the 7th March 1936, the German Army under control of Adolf Hitler violated international agreements by remilitarising the Rhineland. Although Germany had retained political control over the area following the Treaty of Versailles, it had been banned from stationing armed forces there. France reacted with horror, but they didn’t take any action.
The Rhineland area of Germany, which lay on the border with France, had been banned under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles from containing armed forces within a 50km-wide strip. This had later been confirmed by Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann in the Locarno Treaties of 1925. However, by 1936 Hitler had come to power and had begun to break the terms of Versailles by increasing the number of German weapons beyond the agreed limits and reintroducing conscription.
The Western powers had failed to respond to these moves with anything more than diplomatic grumbling, so Hitler felt emboldened to further test the limits of the Versailles settlement. After France and Russia signed the 1935 Franco-Soviet Pact, Hitler chose to send three battalions, or approximately 22,000 German troops, into the Rhineland on the morning of the Saturday 7th March in what he claimed was a defensive move against ‘encirclement’. His own generals were expecting retaliation from France, and Hitler had even ordered an immediate withdrawal if the French army made a move. But it didn’t – France refused to act without the support of Britain, which had been severely weakened by the impact of the Great Depression, distracted by the unfolding Abyssinia Crisis, and sympathised – to an extent – with the German desire to defend its own border.
Earlier in 1826, the academy’s strict superintendent Colonel Sylvanus Thayer had banned the purchase, storage and consumption of alcohol due to concerns about drunkenness among the cadets. However, the new rules were ignored by cadets who sought to continue the annual tradition of drinking homemade eggnog on Christmas Eve.
Late on the 22 December three cadets crossed the Hudson River and bought whiskey from Martin’s Tavern. Having paid the security guard at the academy to ignore their smuggling efforts, they hid the alcohol in one of their rooms in the North Barracks while another cadet successfully obtained another gallon from another local tavern.
The party began at around 10pm on the evening of 24 December in North Barracks room No. 28, followed by another party in room No. 5. Jefferson Davis, who was later elected President of the Confederate States of America, was one of the cadets in attendance.
The party continued without much incident until around 4am, when noise from the increasingly drunken revellers woke teaching officer Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock who went to investigate and ordered the cadets back to their rooms. Incensed, at least 70 drunken cadets instead launched the infamous riot in which they brandished weapons, broke windows, and assaulted two officers.
Of the rioters, only 19 of them faced disciplinary action. Beginning on 26 January 1827, the trials resulted in guilty verdicts for all the defendants although eight of them were saved from expulsion.
The origin for the scandal lay in the discovery of a ripped-up letter in a waste basket at the German Embassy in Paris. Having been handed by the cleaner who found it to French counter-espionage, it was found to contain French military secrets and was determined to have been leaked by someone within the General Staff.
Alfred Dreyfus, who had been born into a Jewish family in the Alsace region before its annexation by Germany, had been promoted to the rank of captain by 1889. He joined the General Staff in 1893 but, following the discovery of the letter known as the bordereau, was arrested after his handwriting was compared to that in the letter.
Dreyfus’ trial began on 19 December, but was preceded by weeks of anti-Semitic articles in the right-wing press. The trial itself was conducted in a closed court, where the seven judges unanimously found him guilty of treason after being handed a secret dossier during their deliberations. They declared their verdict on 22 December, and sentenced him to life imprisonment preceded by military degradation. This involved the insignia being torn from his uniform and his sword broken, before being paraded in front of a crowd stirred up by the press shouting, “Death to Judas, death to the Jew.”
Dreyfus was transported to Devil’s Island in French Guiana, but in France new evidence began to emerge that another officer was the real traitor. With support from the Dreyfusards including the novelist Emile Zola, a retrial in 1899 reduced the sentence while the President of the Republic granted a pardon. However, it wasn’t until 1906 that Dreyfus was finally exonerated and readmitted to the army.
At 7:48 on the morning of the 7th December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack against the United States’ Hawaiian naval base at Pearl Harbor. Sixteen US Navy ships were sunk or damaged by 353 Japanese fighter, bomber and torpedo planes. Nearly 2,500 American servicemen were killed, with another 1,000 injured. The Japanese lost just 64 men.
Japan chose to attack Pearl Harbor in order to prevent the U.S. Pacific Fleet from becoming involved in Japan’s advance into Southeast Asia, particularly British-controlled Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Although the United States was not involved in the Second World War at the time, it had previously provided financial support to the Republic of China in the Sino-Japanese War and stopped selling equipment such as aeroplanes, parts and aviation fuel to Japan in1940. Remaining oil shipments were stopped in July 1941.
Japan’s military commanders became convinced that the USA would eventually intervene as they advanced further into Southeast Asia. On the 26th November, the main Japanese attack fleet left port for Pearl Harbour. However, Emperor Hirohito only gave final approval for the attack on the 1st December. By this point most Americans expected imminent war with Japan, but the attack on Pearl Harbour caught everyone by surprise.
At 7:48am on the 7th December the first wave of Japanese planes began their attack. The entire assault was over within 90 minutes. The following morning, President Franklin D. Roosevelt described it as “a date which will live in infamy” and called for Congress to declare war on the Empire of Japan. They did so less than an hour later.
Davis was born in Washington D.C. and, although his army records and gravestone claim that he was born in 1877, his biographer has found a census document that suggests he was actually born three years later and falsified his birth year in order to join the army.
Davis first entered military service following the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, and later served as Professor of Military Science and Tactics at both Wilberforce University in Ohio and Tuskegee University in Alabama as well as serving tours of duty around the world. Having been assigned to the 369th Regiment, New York National Guard in 1938, he later took command of the unit and was promoted to brigadier general by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on 25 October 1940.
During the Second World War, Davis was an influential member of the Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies. Having been tasked with improving race relations and securing the morale of black soldiers in the European theatre, he lobbied to end segregation and introduce full racial integration. Davis was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) on 22 February 1945 for his ‘wise advice and counsel’ that ‘brought about a fair and equitable solution to many important problems which have since become the basis of far-reaching War Department policy.’
Benjamin O. Davis Sr. died on 26 November 1970 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His son, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., had already followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming the first African-American general in the United States Air Force.
At around 11pm on the 20th August 1968, troops from the USSR, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary entered Czechoslovakia in an invasion that brought the Prague Spring to an end. The invasion, known as Operation Danube, led to almost half a million soldiers crossing the border to bring Alexander Dubček’s reforms to an end.
The Prague Spring began in early January, shortly after Dubček became the leader of Czechoslovakia. Keen to push forward with de-Stalinisation within the country, he granted greater freedom to the press and introduced a programme of ‘socialism with a human face’ by which he intended to decentralise parts the economy and introduce some limited democratic reforms.
This new openness saw open criticisms of the Czechoslovakian government begin to appear in the press, which concerned the other Warsaw Pact countries. János Kádár, the leader of Hungary who came to power after the fall of Imre Nagy in 1956, even warned that the situation in Czechoslovakia seemed “similar to the prologue of the Hungarian counterrevolution”.
Concerned that Dubček’s reforms might spread to other Eastern Bloc countries and threaten the USSR’s security, the Soviet leader Brezhnev chose to open negotiations with the Czechoslovakian leadership that lasted into August. The talks ended in compromise, but Brezhnev continued to be unhappy with the situation and began to prepare military intervention.
Overwhelmed by the military invasion, Dubček asked his people not to resist. 72 Czech and Slovak soldiers and 108 civilians were killed, with a further 500 civilians injured. It later emerged that members of the Czechoslovakian government had asked for Soviet assistance against Dubček’s reforms.
On the 19th August 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev, the President of the Soviet Union, was placed under house arrest in what is known as the August Coup. Opposed to Gorbachev’s reforms, the leaders of the coup believed that the new Union of Sovereign States, which had been approved in a union-wide referendum, threatened the complete disintegration of the USSR. A number of individual states had already declared their independence, but the New Union Treaty would devolve much of the Soviet Union’s remaining power to individual states.
It was while Gorbachev was on holiday in Foros, a resort in the Crimea, that the coup was launched. On the 17th August, the coup’s leaders met with Gorbachev and demanded that he either declare a state of emergency or resign. Although the specific details of the conversation are unclear, the outcome was that Gorbachev refused.
Gorbachev was placed under house arrest, and the leaders of the coup – known as the Gang of Eight – created the State Committee of the State of Emergency to govern the USSR due to Gorbachev suffering from an “illness”. The changes in government were announced on state media on the morning of the 19th but, having chosen not to arrest Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the coup faced a blow when he began speaking against it. Two days later, the military supporting the coup failed to take control of the Russian parliament building in the face of civil resistance.
The coup collapsed on the 21st August, but the USSR was left seriously weakened. Just over four months later the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.
On the 16th August 1819, the Peterloo Massacre occurred at St Peter’s Field in Manchester when a group of over 60,000 protesters were charged by cavalry. An estimated 15 people died, and approximately 700 others were injured.
The protesters had gathered to hear the radical speaker Henry Hunt demand parliamentary and social reform. Britain was caught in the midst of economic depression and the textile industry, concentrated in the industrial centres of northern England, was particularly badly hit. Factory owners cut wages by as much as two-thirds which, combined with the increased price of grain due to the Corn Laws that imposed tariffs on cheaper imports, led to workers facing famine as they could no longer afford to buy food.
They also lacked political representation. The millions of people who lived in the Lancashire mill towns were represented by just two Members of Parliament due to out-of-date constituency boundaries and, due to the limitations of voting rights, they weren’t eligible to vote anyway. These inequalities became a target for radicals, who quickly gained working class support.
Contemporary accounts say that the crowds were peaceful and in good spirits when they assembled on the morning of the 16th August. However, the chairman of the magistrates was concerned by the enthusiastic reception when Henry Hunt arrived, the ordered the local Yeomanry to arrest him. Caught in the crowd, the cavalry began hacking with their sabres. The melee was interpreted by the magistrates as the crowd attacking the yeomanry, and more cavalry were sent in. The crowd dispersed within ten minutes, but eleven people died on the field.
On the afternoon of 26th April 1937, the Basque town of Guernica experienced what is seen by many as the first large-scale modern air raid against a civilian population.
By the Spring of 1937, Guernica was just 30km away from the front line fighting of the Spanish Civil War, and lay within the focal area for the Nationalist army’s advance on the city of Bilbao. The town was also a Republican communication centre, and was the location of a weapons factory. Documents released in the 1970s show that the attack was part of a larger Nationalist strategy in the north, in which roads and bridges would be destroyed in order to upset Republican troop movements.
However, as historian César Vidal Manzanares notes, the level of destruction was disproportionate to the town’s strategic value. At first, five waves of bombers attacked Guernica over a period of 90 minutes. Further waves came in the early evening, along with a number of fighter planes that strafed the roads leading out of the devastated town, increasing the civilian death toll as people tried to escape the burning ruins.
The number of civilian casualties from the attack has never been fully determined. However, figures in excess of a thousand that were cited until the 1980s are now known to have been exaggerated. Historians now accept that between 170 and 300 civilians were killed in the bombing, although it’s likely that many more died from their injuries.