Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Battle of Trenton

At approximately 8 a.m. on the morning of December 26, 1776, General George Washington's Continental Army reaches the outskirts of Trenton, New Jersey, and descends upon the unsuspecting Hessian force guarding the city. Trenton's 1,400 Hessian defenders were still groggy from the previous evening's Christmas festivities and had underestimated the Patriot threat after months of decisive British victories throughout New York. The troops of the Continental Army quickly overwhelmed the German defenses, and by 9:30 a.m.Trenton was completely surrounded.

Although several hundred Hessians escaped, nearly 1,000 were captured at the cost of only four American lives. However, because most of Washington's army had failed to cross the Delaware the previous day, he was without adequate artillery or men and was forced to withdraw from the town.

Although the victory was minor from a strategic perspective, it bore tremendous significance for the future of the Continental Army. Washington needed a success before his solders' enlistments expired on December 31--without a dramatic upswing in morale, he was likely to lose the soldiers under his command and be unable to recruit new men to replace them. The victories at Trenton and a few days later at Princeton proved to the American public that their army was indeed capable of victory and worthy of support.

The image of ragged farm-boy Patriots defeating drunken foreign mercenaries has become ingrained in the American imagination. Then as now, Washington's crossing and the Battle of Trenton were emblematic of the American Patriots' surprising ability to overcome the tremendous odds they faced in challenging the wealthy and powerful British empire.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

"White Christmas"

White Christmas," written by the formidable composer and lyricist Irving Berlin receives its world premiere on this day in 1941 on Bing Crosby's weekly NBC radio program, The Kraft Music Hall. It went on to become one of the most commercially successful singles of all time, and the top-selling single ever until being surpassed by Elton John's "Candle in the Wind 1997."

"White Christmas" took its first steps toward becoming a bedrock standard in the American songbook when Crosby first performed it publicly on Christmas Day, 1941. The song's success couldn't have surprised Berlin, who despite having already written such songs as "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Cheek To Cheek" and "God Bless America," had raced into his Manhattan office in January 1940 and asked his musical secretary to transcribe "The best song I ever wrote...the best song anybody ever wrote." It was nearly two years later, however, that Crosby finally premiered the song on live radio, and a year after that that Crosby's recording of "White Christmas" became a smash pop hit.

Crosby's October 1942 recording of "White Christmas" received heavy airplay on Armed Forces Radio as well as on commercial radio during its first Christmas season, becoming an instant #1 pop hit. It also returned to the Hit Parade pop chart in every subsequent Christmas season for the next 20 years. Unlike other perennial holiday hits, however, "White Christmas" strikes a mood that isn't necessarily jolly. As Jody Rosen, author of the 2002 book White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, told National Public Radio, "It's very melancholy....And I think this really makes it stand out amongst kind of chirpy seasonal standards [like] 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' or 'Let It Snow.'....I think that's one of the reasons why people keep responding to it, because our feelings over the holiday season are ambivalent."

This was certainly true of the immigrant Russian Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin. Though he did not celebrate Christmas, it was a day that held special meaning to Berlin, who had spent each Christmas Day visiting the grave of his late son, Irving Berlin, Jr., who died at just 3 weeks old on December 25, 1928. As Jody Rosen has suggested about a beloved song of great emotional complexity, "The kind of deep secret of ["White Christmas"] may be that it was Berlin responding in some way to his melancholy about the death of his son."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Continental Congress creates the Continental Navy

On Friday, December 22, 1775, the Continental Congress creates a Continental Navy, naming Esek Hopkins, Esq., as commander in chief of the fleet.

Congress also named four captains to the new service: Dudley Saltonstall, Abraham Whipple, Nicholas Biddle and John Burrows Hopkins. Their respective vessels, the Alfred, Columbus, Andrew Doria and Cabot, became the first ships of the Navy's fleet. Five first lieutenants, including future American hero John Paul Jones, five second lieutenants, and three third lieutenants also received their commissions.

The new Admiral Hopkins, as he was dubbed by George Washington, was a Rhode Islander of some standing. His brother was Stephen Hopkins, the state's governor. Esek Hopkins had married well and used his wife's fortune to buy a ship. It proved a wise investment. He added to his wealth working as a privateer during the Seven Years' War. In his new position, Congress promised to pay him 125 dollars per calendar month; they also informed that he could look forward to some share of the prizes allotted to the captors. Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina designed Hopkins' personal standard, which flew from the first navy fleet. The yellow flag bore the image of a coiled snake and the Patriot motto, Don't Tread on Me.

Hopkins' first assignment was to assess the feasibility of an attack on British naval forces in the Chesapeake Bay. After sailing south with his meager force of eight ships, Hopkins decided that victory in such an encounter was impossible. He sailed to the Bahamas instead, where he attacked the British port of Nassau, a decision for which he was relieved of his command upon returning to the continent.

Friday, December 17, 2010

It's a bird, no it's a plane!

Near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright make the first successful flight in history of a self-propelled, heavier-than-air aircraft. Orville piloted the gasoline-powered, propeller-driven biplane, which stayed aloft for 12 seconds and covered 120 feet on its inaugural flight.

Orville and Wilbur Wright grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and developed an interest in aviation after learning of the glider flights of the German engineer Otto Lilienthal in the 1890s. Unlike their older brothers, Orville and Wilbur did not attend college, but they possessed extraordinary technical ability and a sophisticated approach to solving problems in mechanical design. They built printing presses and in 1892 opened a bicycle sales and repair shop. Soon, they were building their own bicycles, and this experience, combined with profits from their various businesses, allowed them to pursue actively their dream of building the world's first airplane.

After exhaustively researching other engineers' efforts to build a heavier-than-air, controlled aircraft, the Wright brothers wrote the U.S. Weather Bureau inquiring about a suitable place to conduct glider tests. They settled on Kitty Hawk, an isolated village on North Carolina's Outer Banks, which offered steady winds and sand dunes from which to glide and land softly. Their first glider, tested in 1900, performed poorly, but a new design, tested in 1901, was more successful. Later that year, they built a wind tunnel where they tested nearly 200 wings and airframes of different shapes and designs. The brothers' systematic experimentations paid off--they flew hundreds of successful flights in their 1902 glider at Kill Devils Hills near Kitty Hawk. Their biplane glider featured a steering system, based on a movable rudder, that solved the problem of controlled flight. They were now ready for powered flight.

In Dayton, they designed a 12-horsepower internal combustion engine with the assistance of machinist Charles Taylor and built a new aircraft to house it. They transported their aircraft in pieces to Kitty Hawk in the autumn of 1903, assembled it, made a few further tests, and on December 14 Orville made the first attempt at powered flight. The engine stalled during take-off and the plane was damaged, and they spent three days repairing it. Then at 10:35 a.m. on December 17, in front of five witnesses, the aircraft ran down a monorail track and into the air, staying aloft for 12 seconds and flying 120 feet. The modern aviation age was born. Three more tests were made that day, with Wilbur and Orville alternately flying the airplane. Wilbur flew the last flight, covering 852 feet in 59 seconds.

During the next few years, the Wright brothers further developed their airplanes but kept a low profile about their successes in order to secure patents and contracts for their flying machines. By 1905, their aircraft could perform complex maneuvers and remain aloft for up to 39 minutes at a time. In 1908, they traveled to France and made their first public flights, arousing widespread public excitement. In 1909, the U.S. Army's Signal Corps purchased a specially constructed plane, and the brothers founded the Wright Company to build and market their aircraft. Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever in 1912; Orville lived until 1948.

The historic Wright brothers' aircraft of 1903 is on permanent display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Monday, December 13, 2010

And ya think Bill Clinton had trouble with his women......

On this day in 1776, American General Charles Lee leaves his army, riding in search of female sociability at Widow White's Tavern in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.

General George Washington had repeatedly urged General Lee to expedite his movements across New Jersey in order to reinforce Washington's position on the Delaware River. Lee, who took a commission in the British army upon finishing military school at age 12 and served in North America during the Seven Years' War, felt slighted that the less experienced Washington had been given command of the Continental Army and showed no inclination to rush.

Famed for his temper and intemperance, the Mohawk had dubbed Lee Boiling Water. Lee was an adopted tribesman through his marriage to a Mohawk woman, but his union apparently failed to quell his interest in prostitutes. Lee rode to Widow White's tavern with a minimal guard and it was there that Banastre Tarleton and the 16th Queen's Light Dragoons captured him on the morning of December 15.

The former comrades were now captor and captive. After being disappointed in his efforts to acquire a lucrative royal appointment, Lee had retired to the colonies in 1773 and quickly joined the Patriot cause. Tarleton had sworn in a London club that he would hunt down the traitor to the crown and relieve him of his head. Fortunately for Lee, Tarleton failed to keep his promise, although the vain general may well have preferred a quick end to the humiliation of being led from Widow White's tavern to New York City in his nightdress.

The British rejoiced at the capture of the Patriots' best-trained commander, while Washington fruitlessly negotiated for his release. Meanwhile, Lee enjoyed his captivity, even drafting a battle plan for his captors from plush accommodations in which his personal servant maintained his three rooms and no doubt served his food and wine in a most civilized fashion. The British did not act upon his plan, and Lee reported to Valley Forge upon his release in May 1778. After a series of arguments with Washington, Lee was suspended from the army in December 1778 and dismissed in 1780.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sinking of the USS Cairo

On 12 December 1862, a Confederate demijohn torpedo (mine) placed by Zere McDaniel and his fellow torpedo operators, sank the iron-clad river gunboat Cairo in the Yazoo River. Her wreck was recovered in 1965, but was badly damaged during the salvage efforts. The gunboat and its artifacts can now be seen at the USS Cairo Museum, Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Remember today...."a date which will live in infamy"

At 7:55 a.m. Hawaii time, a Japanese dive bomber bearing the red symbol of the Rising Sun of Japan on its wings appears out of the clouds above the island of Oahu. A swarm of 360 Japanese warplanes followed, descending on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in a ferocious assault. The surprise attack struck a critical blow against the U.S. Pacific fleet and drew the United States irrevocably into World War II.

With diplomatic negotiations with Japan breaking down, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisers knew that an imminent Japanese attack was probable, but nothing had been done to increase security at the important naval base at Pearl Harbor. It was Sunday morning, and many military personnel had been given passes to attend religious services off base. At 7:02 a.m., two radio operators spotted large groups of aircraft in flight toward the island from the north, but, with a flight of B-17s expected from the United States at the time, they were told to sound no alarm. Thus, the Japanese air assault came as a devastating surprise to the naval base.

Much of the Pacific fleet was rendered useless: Five of eight battleships, three destroyers, and seven other ships were sunk or severely damaged, and more than 200 aircraft were destroyed. A total of 2,400 Americans were killed and 1,200 were wounded, many while valiantly attempting to repulse the attack. Japan's losses were some 30 planes, five midget submarines, and fewer than 100 men. Fortunately for the United States, all three Pacific fleet carriers were out at sea on training maneuvers. These giant aircraft carriers would have their revenge against Japan six months later at the Battle of Midway, reversing the tide against the previously invincible Japanese navy in a spectacular victory.

The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, President Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of Congress and declared, "Yesterday, December 7, 1941--a date which will live in infamy--the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan." After a brief and forceful speech, he asked Congress to approve a resolution recognizing the state of war between the United States and Japan. The Senate voted for war against Japan by 82 to 0, and the House of Representatives approved the resolution by a vote of 388 to 1. The sole dissenter was Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana, a devout pacifist who had also cast a dissenting vote against the U.S. entrance into World War I. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war against the United States, and the U.S. government responded in kind.

The American contribution to the successful Allied war effort spanned four long years and cost more than 400,000 American lives.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The game is afoot!

In 1887 the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, appeared in Beeton's Christmas Annual.

Read more: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle —