Today in military history: Congress authorizes Privateers to attack British vessels - We Are The Mighty
Today in Military History

Today in military history: Congress authorizes Privateers to attack British vessels

On April 3, 1776, Congress authorized Privateers to attack British vessels. 

Pop quiz: you’re the Continental Congress, and it’s 1776. There’s a bunch of British ships out there that need sinking, but you’re a young nation and you don’t have the dubloons to build a proper Navy. What do you do? You hire pirates.

Well, technically “Privateers.” What’s the difference between Pirates and Privateers? To the people they were attacking, not much… 

In a bill signed by President of the Continental Congress John Hancock, commanders of private ships or vessels of war were given authorization to capture British vessels and cargoes, with the exception of ships carrying new settlers and “friends of the American cause.”

Today in military history: Congress authorizes Privateers to attack British vessels

Fun fact: Old manuscripts such as this 18th Century declaration made use of “the long s” — written as ſ — which is a ye olde variation of the lowercase s. You have my permission to pronounce “vessels” as “veffels” as much as it pleases you, but rest assured, our forefathers weren’t lisping in such documents.

Privateers were permitted to, “by Force of Arms, attack, subdue, and take all Ships and other Vessels belonging to the Inhabitants of Great Britain, on the high seas, or between high-water and low-water Marks, except Ships and Vessels bringing Persons who intend to settle and reside in the United Colonies, or bringing Arms, Ammunition or Warlike Stores to the said Colonies, for the Use of such Inhabitants thereof as are Friends to the American Cause, which you shall suffer to pass unmolested, the Commanders thereof permitting a peaceable Search, and giving satisfactory Information of the Contents of the Ladings, and Destinations of the Voyages.” 

The privateers would still board and capture ships by force, which happened pretty often. If they captured a ship, any and all booty was split between the privateers and the government that hired them. 

The main difference between privateers and run-of-the-mill pirates is that legit privateers had a Letter of Marque and Reprisal, which was an official document stating that they were acting on behalf of the United States. 

If captured, pirates were often executed, whereas privateers that held a Letter of Marque were treated as prisoners of war, instead of criminals.

By this time, the Revolutionary War had been waging since fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Tension would continue to rise until the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 and officially separated from Great Britain.

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Today in military history: The War of 1812 begins

On June 18, 1812, the War of 1812 began.

Impressment of American sailors, a desire to expand American territory, and some good, old-fashioned high-seas fighting created enough tension between young America and Great Britain to spark the war that would almost become a footnote in the aggressors’ history books. Europeans wouldn’t even think of it as its own war — they think of the conflict as an extension of the Napoleonic Wars.

That’s not to say it wasn’t a significant conflict. Both sides suffered thousands of casualties and, notably, the White House was burned down two years after fighting began.

In 1812, Great Britain had been attempting to restrict American trade routes while also attacking and impressing U.S. sailors. No, not that kind of “impressing” — the kind of impressment that forced American men to serve in the British military.

One of the weaknesses of American society at the time was the institution of slavery, a weakness the British would attempt to exploit at every opportunity. The British Admiralty declared that any resident of the United States who wished to settle in His Majesty’s colonies would be welcome to do so. All they had to do was appear before the British Army or Navy. American slaveholders believed it was an attempt to incite a slave revolt, which it may have been. Nonetheless, the British transported thousands of former slaves back to Africa, the Caribbean, and even Canadian Nova Scotia. Some even joined the British Colonial Marines, a fighting force of ex-slaves deployed by the British against the Americans.

The war eventually ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814. All occupied territory was returned and relations between the two countries remained peaceful until their alliance in World War I joined the two countries in a bonded relationship that lasts to this day.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: Treaty of Paris formally ends Revolutionary War

On May 12, 1783, the Treaty of Paris took effect, ending the Revolutionary War and securing American independence from Great Britain.

While fighting had ended in 1781, the Treaty of Paris would take some time to complete. 

Negotiated between Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay of the United States and representatives of King George III of Great Britain over the course of a year, the treaty acknowledged the United States to be free, sovereign, and independent states (that is, the thirteen states listed) and it established the new boundaries of U.S. territory.

(Thomas Jefferson and Henry Laurens were also appointed to the negotiating committee, however Jefferson was not able to leave the United States for the treaty and Laurens had been held prisoner in the Tower of London until the end of the war, leaving Franklin, Adams, and Jay as principal negotiators.)

While England wanted to end the expensive (and failing) war, they resisted recognizing the independence of their colonies. The American delegation would accept nothing less than formal recognition of their new and independent country.

Today in military history: Congress authorizes Privateers to attack British vessels
Treaty of Paris, by Benjamin West (1783), depicts the United States delegation at the Treaty of Paris (left to right): John JayJohn AdamsBenjamin FranklinHenry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin. The British delegation refused to pose, and the painting was never completed. (Public Domain)

The eight year war resulted in tens of thousands of deaths on both sides of the conflict, and while relations between the two countries would be tentative for the next century and a half, World War I would unite them in a special relationship that has been described as the “cornerstone of the modern, democratic world.”

Featured Image: Treaty of Paris, by Benjamin West (1783), depicts the United States delegation at the Treaty of Paris (left to right): John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin. The British delegation refused to pose, and the painting was never completed.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: President Truman relieves General MacArthur of duty

On April 11, 1951, President Truman relieved General of the Army Douglas MacArthur of duty during the Korean War. 

MacArthur, a graduate of the United States Military Academy, was considered a master of the art and execution of warfare. And by many accounts, he had the ego and arrogance to match. He was best known for his brilliance in both the Pacific theater of World War II and the Korean War, but he also had his share of missteps. 

Meanwhile, Truman had had an exceptionally difficult six years in the White House, beginning with replacing the iconic Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and making the call to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. He was committed to limiting the scope of the Korean War — and that’s where the two started to butt heads. 

MacArthur, simply put, sought to win. In his mind, that meant pushing further North and bombing the MiG bases in Manchuria, even if that meant bringing in Chinese Nationalist troops.

Things came to a head when MacArthur ordered the launch of an offensive on April 5, 1951. Two days later, American ships were sent off Formosa, trolling China. After the offensive launched, Truman met with senior advisors, who agreed MacArthur had to go, but warned it would be controversial.

On April 11, Truman relieved MacArthur to preserve civilian control of the military. MacArthur would receive some hype as a possible candidate for President, but ultimately he wouldn’t run. Instead, after a speech to Congress where he said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” he went into retirement until his death in 1964.

Featured Image:  President Truman and General MacArthur shake hands at Wake Island, 15 October 1950. (Image courtesy of of the Harry S. Truman Library)

Today in Military History

Today in military history: The American Revolution begins

On April 19, 1775, the American Revolution began, with a “shot heard round the world.” 

The very first confrontation in the war for independence began with an early morning-hour standoff in Lexington. Seven hundred British soldiers had orders to confiscate a large cache of firearms and arrest Patriot leaders. They were greeted by a local militia who had no intention of handing them over.

At some point, a shot was fired from an unknown gun, triggering an exchange of fire. 

Today in military history: Congress authorizes Privateers to attack British vessels
Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, leader of the British forces at the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

The local militia at Lexington didn’t fare too well, suffering nine dead or fatally wounded at the hands of British soldiers.

But the alarm had been sent, and another British column at Concord Bridge found themselves in a much worse situation. This time, the militia was ready. In their first volley, they killed a number of British officers and sergeants. The exchange of fire ended soon after, and British troops paused to eat lunch. You know, like you do. The pause gave more militia time to arrive – and soon over 1,000 militia were in the field.

The British force soon came under some harassing fire. After a rear detachment of British troops fired in the general direction of the militia, the militia returned fire, this time with deadly effect. 

Today in military history: Congress authorizes Privateers to attack British vessels
National Park Service map showing the routes of the initial Patriot messengers and of the British expedition

By the time the day was over, the British had suffered 73 dead, 174 wounded and 53 missing. The militia’s hit and run tactics left them with far fewer casualties: 49 dead, 39 wounded and five missing.

So began the Revolutionary War – which would last six and a half years. To this day, nobody knows who fired that first shot.

Featured Image: The Battle of Lexington by William Barnes Wollen, 1910. (From the collection of the National Army Museum).

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Today in military history: US declares war on Mexico

On May 11, 1846, President James K. Polk asked Congress to declare war on Mexico.

Tensions with Mexico were on the rise since the United States annexed Texas and admitted it to the Union as the 28th state. Texas had received its independence from Mexico in 1936, but northern states were hesitant to incorporate another slave-state into the union.

On April 25, 1846, 2,000 Mexican cavalry attacked a 70-man patrol with the United States Army, leaving 11 American troops dead. Later, six more Americans were killed at the Siege of Fort Texas and the Battle of Palo Alto.

Declaring that Mexico had “invaded our territory and shed the blood of our fellow-citizens on our own soil,” Polk asked for Congress to declare war on Mexico. Polk operated with an expansionist mindset, believing that the United States had a “manifest destiny” to conquer the North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The Mexican-American War would become America’s first war fought chiefly on foreign soil. No declaration of war ever came from Mexico.

The resulting conflict would take a year and nine months, and over 13,000 American troops would die – although the Department of Defense notes only 1,733 were killed in combat. 

The United States would eventually force Mexico to cede the territory that would include Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California, and New Mexico, among other states or parts of states — nearly one third of its pre-existing territory.

Featured Image: Bombardment of Veracruz by Adolphe Jean-Baptiste Bayot. Originally published in The War Between the United States and Mexico, Illustrated, 1851.

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Today in military history: Americans and Soviets unite against Germany

On April 25, 1945, Eight Russian armies linked up with the American troops on the western bank of the Elbe river. Germany was, for all intents and purposes, Allied territory. The end of fighting on the Eastern Front of World War II was in sight.

This event signaled the first contact between Soviet and American troops after years of fierce fighting. Both forces successfully cut through multiple Wehrmacht divisions and met in the middle of Torgau, Germany.

The Allied powers had effectively cut Germany in two. 

By the 27th, the American and Soviet armies met for a photo op to reenact the meeting, and the Allied powers released statements in London, Moscow, and Washington, reassuring the world that the Third Reich was in its final days.

Although the date isn’t an official holiday, that doesn’t mean it isn’t celebrated. In 2015, 70 years after the original encounter, American and Soviet military units met up once again at the very site of the first meeting to reenact the historic event.

Happy Elbe Day!

Featured Image: In an arranged photo commemorating the meeting of the Soviet and American armies, 2nd Lt. William Robertson (U.S. Army) and Lt. Alexander Silvashko (Red Army) stand facing one another with hands clasped and arms around each other’s shoulders. In the background are two flags and a poster. (National Archives image)

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Today in military history: Winston Churchill becomes prime minister as Germany invades

On May 10, 1940, Nazi Germany invaded Western Europe while Winston Churchill became prime minister of Great Britain.

Marking the beginning of Hitler’s Western offensive, German bombers struck Allied airfields in Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, and France while paratroopers rained from the sky at critical junctures. Ground forces invaded along two main routes, a northern route that was expected by the defending armies, and a southern thrust through the Ardennes forest that was not.

The Allies did not know about the southern attack and rushed most of their defenders to the north. The southern thrust quickly broke their backs. Luxembourg fell on the first day while Belgium and the Netherlands surrendered before the end of May. France would survive until June.

The war in Europe would continue for five more brutal years.

England knew the continent was doomed and accelerated their preparations for defending the isles. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, known for his policy of appeasement, was replaced by Winston Churchill, a man known for his bulldog temperament and military vision.

Churchill would go on to serve as Conservative Prime Minister twice, from 1940 to 1945 and from 1951 to 1955. A war veteran himself, he was active in both administrative and diplomatic functions during World War II, as well as giving rousing speeches that are credited with stimulating British morale during the hardship of war.

Today in military history: Congress authorizes Privateers to attack British vessels
Churchill in 1904 when he “crossed the floor“. (Public Domain)

He would live until Jan. 24, 1965, dying at the age of ninety and receiving the first State Funeral given to a commoner since the Duke of Wellington’s death more than a century before. 

“It has been a grand journey — well worth making once,” he recorded in January 1965 shortly before his death, possibly his last recorded statement.

Featured Image: “The Roaring Lion” photograph by Yousuf Karsh depicting Winston Churchill on Dec. 30, 1941.

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Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

On May 9, 1941, the German U-boat U-110 was captured by the Royal Navy, and with it, a number of German cipher documents and an intact Enigma machine.

The Enigma was a brilliant piece of German enciphering machinery that allowed their military to send messages securely. The Germans were so efficient with Enigma that they even had a method for changing the cipher system daily. The device was exceptionally sophisticated, mechanically scrambling the 26 letters of the alphabet based on the daily cipher code. In order to decrypt an Enigma-encoded message, one would need both a machine and the daily cipher.

Later named “Operation Primrose,” the U-boats’ capture remained a secret for months while codebreakers at Bletchley Park got to work. Using the documents on board, they were able to crack a hand-cipher system that was used as a backup to Enigma. In other words, they had access to German messages in plain text and in cipher text, which allowed them to decrypt future messages.

Codebreakers at Bletchley Park, including the now-famous Alan Turing and fellow code-breaker Gordon Welchman, were able to use critical intelligence like that obtained from U-110 to invent a machine known as the Bombe, which automated much of the Enigma decryption work.

With this information, the Allies were able to strategically respond to Enigma-encrypted messages and deliver decisive blows to the Nazi war force.

The work of Bletchley Park, including Turing’s role there in cracking the Enigma code, remained classified until the 1970s, but it has been estimated that the work of the code-breakers shortened the war by several years and saved countless lives.

Featured Image: U-110 was captured by HM Ships Bulldog, Broadway, and Arbretia. (Royal Navy Photo)

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Today in military history: Paris liberated from Nazis

On Aug. 25, 1944, Paris was liberated from Nazi occupation.

In June 1940, Germany invaded France, and within two weeks, the French government fell and what remained signed an armistice with the Nazis, based in Vichy. 

However, General Charles de Gauille and Free French units who refused to join the Vichy kept fighting the good fight.

Four years later, after the Allied invasion of Normandy, de Galle convinced Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower to employ the Free French 2nd Armored Division and 4th Infantry Division to liberate Paris, even though Hitler ordered that the city be leveled before allowing it to fall into Allied hands. 

The German defenders went so far as to lay explosives under Parisian landmarks and bridges, but General Dietrich von Choltitz ultimately refused, claiming he did not want to go be remembered for destroying the “City of Light.” 

Von Choltitz was arrested and formally surrendered Paris to de Galle, who would lead France intermittently until 1969. 

During the war, Hitler spent three hours in Paris, but spent four years occupying northern France until Allied Forces liberated Paris. During his brief tour, he instructed friend and architect Albert Speer to take note of the city’s design to recreate similar yet superior German buildings.

“Wasn’t Paris beautiful?” Hitler reportedly asked Speer. “But Berlin must be far more beautiful. When we are finished in Berlin, Paris will only be a shadow.”

While sightseeing, Hitler also ordered the destruction of two French World War I monuments that reminded him of Germany’s bitter defeat. Thankfully, the Führer’s time in Paris — and on earth — came to an end.

Featured Image via German National Archive.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: The B-52 BUFF makes its first test flight

The B-52 Stratofortress, also known as the Big Ugly Fat F*cker, or BUFF, first flew all the way back on April 15, 1952.

Yeah, that’s right. Today, the B-52 is old enough to collect Medicare. It’s dropped a lot of bombs, too, during the Vietnam War, Desert Storm and the War on Terror. 

Aviation historian Joe Baugher noted that the work on the BUFF started before the plane it was designed to replace, the B-36 Peacemaker, even took flight. The original design called for six turboprop engines and even then, the initial design wasn’t quite cutting the mustard.

Boeing kept at it, with help from legendary Air Force General Curtis LeMay. The advent of practical mid-air refueling also made the task easier. After several more iterations and more feedback from LeMay, Boeing finally came up with the Model 464-67, which was the genesis for the B-52 we know today.

On Feb. 14, 1951, the contracts were issued for the XB-52. The YB-52 (the Y standing for “prototype”) made its first flight on this date in 1952, just 14 months later. 

Today in military history: Congress authorizes Privateers to attack British vessels
A U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker with the 927th Air Refueling Wing, Florida refuels a B-52 Stratofortress with the Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, on February 26, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tiffany A. Emery)

Even though the youngest B-52 in the Air Force rolled off the line in 1962, numerous upgrades have kept them flying and bombing with increased precision. The Air Force plans to keep them flying until at least 2040. 

Not bad for a Big Ugly Fat F*cker.

Featured Image: A B-52 Stratofortress assigned to the 307th Bomb Wing, Barksdale Air Force Base, La., approaches the refueling boom of a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 931st Air Refueling Group, McConnell Air Force Base (U.S. Air Force image by Airman 1st Class Victor J. Caputo)

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Today in military history: Apollo 13 returns to earth

On April 17, 1970, the Apollo 13 spacecraft safely returned to earth after suffering major malfunctions on its journey to the Moon. 

“Houston, we’ve had a problem,” Apollo 13 astronaut John “Jack” Swigert famously told the NASA Mission Control Center “Houston” during the Apollo 13 spaceflight. 

Today in military history: Congress authorizes Privateers to attack British vessels
Apollo 13 lunar module pilot Fred Haise chats with Guenter Wendt and other members of the pad closeout crew in the White Room following a countdown demonstration at Launch Complex 39A. Image Credit: NASA

200,000 miles from Earth, three astronauts and veteran test pilots were scrambling to adapt and overcome a seemingly impossible challenge. They were James Lovell — a Navy Captain and test pilot; Jack Swigert — a fighter pilot in the Air National Guard; and Fred Haise — a fighter pilot in both the Marine Corps and Air Force.

Two days into their mission to the Moon, an oxygen tank exploded, severely disrupting their supply of oxygen, electricity and water. They aborted their landing mission, and scrambled to implement creative and improvised solutions suggested by the support staff back in Houston. 

They’d have to improvise a way to make a square filter fit into a round hole. They’d conjured up a makeshift lifeboat. 

The support staff no longer cared what the spaceship had been designed to do – they had to figure out how to squeeze every bit of capability from the vehicle. 

Today in military history: Congress authorizes Privateers to attack British vessels
A perilous space flight comes to a smooth ending with the safe splashdown of the Apollo 13 Command Module (CM) in the south Pacific Ocean, only four miles from the prime recovery ship, the U.S.S. Iwo Jima. The Command Module “Odyssey” with Commander, James A. Lovell Jr., Command Module pilot, John L. Swigert Jr. and Lunar Module pilot Fred W. Haise Jr. splashed down at 12:07:44 p.m. (CST), April 17, 1970. The crew men were transported by helicopter from the immediate recovery area to the U.S.S. Iwo Jima.

Overcoming nearly impossible odds, the crew guided the spacecraft back to earth, reentered the atmosphere and touched down in the Pacific Ocean, where they were recovered by the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima. 

Featured Image: The crew of the Apollo 13 mission step aboard the U.S.S. Iwo Jima, prime recovery ship for the mission, following splashdown and recovery operations in the South Pacific. Exiting the helicopter, which made the pick-up some four miles from the Iwo Jima are (from left) astronauts Fred W. Haise, Jr., lunar module pilot; James A. Lovell Jr., commander; and John L. Swigert Jr., command module pilot. The Apollo 13 spacecraft splashed down at 12:07:44 pm CST on April 17, 1970. (NASA Image)

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Today in military history: US drops atomic bomb on Nagasaki

On Aug. 9, 1945, the United States dropped a second atomic bomb on Japan at the city of Nagasaki.

Three days earlier, the U.S. struck the Japanese city of Hiroshima with the first tactical use of an atom bomb in military history. 

Yet Japan continued to fight.

The city of Kokura was the original target but a layer of clouds concealed the area that morning, causing the B-29 Superfortress “Bockscar” to divert to its secondary target, Nagasaki, a major shipbuilding city with a large military port.

At 11:02 a.m., from 28,900 feet, Bockscar released the bomb, called “Fat Man,” destroying an area about 2.3 by 1.9 miles wide and causing massive damage. 

“Suddenly, the light of a thousand suns illuminated the cockpit,” remembered Bockscar co-pilot Fred Olivi. “Even with my dark welder’s goggles, I winced and shut my eyes for a couple of seconds. I guessed we were about seven miles from ‘ground zero’ and headed directly away from the target, yet the light blinded me for an instant.”

Somewhere between 70,000 and 80,000 people were killed, with tens of thousands more wounded. 

Finally, Emperor Hirohito gave his permission for unconditional surrender.

One man, Tsutomu Yamaguchi has the dubious distinction of having been within two miles of both blasts. 

Yamaguchi designed tankers for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. He was in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 finishing up a three-month business trip to the shipyards there when he was blown over by the blast and knocked unconscious. He woke up in time to see a pillar of fire over the city that eventually bloomed into the darkly iconic mushroom cloud shape of a nuclear explosion. He was less than two miles from the epicenter of the explosion.

He rushed to an air raid shelter where he found two of his colleagues who were on the trip with him. They rushed to grab their belongings and flee back to their hometown of Nagasaki.

He made it to the hospital in Nagasaki and was treated for the burns that covered much of his body. Despite his injuries, he reported Aug. 9 for work at Mitsubishi.

Again, Yamaguchi was less than two miles from the bomb when it detonated. The second blast blew off his bandages and severely injured the man he’d been talking to.

This time, the hospital that had treated Yamaguchi was destroyed so he simply ran home. He sheltered there, dazed by a bad fever until Aug. 15 when he heard that Japan had surrendered.

Yamaguchi went on to become an advocate against nuclear proliferation. In 2010 he died of cancer.

Featured Image: The nuclear cloud spreading over Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. (Photo: Hiromichi Matsuda via Public Domain)

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