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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APRIL 8: Today in military history: The Japanese take Bataan

On April 8, 1942, the Japanese captured the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines. The next day, the U.S. surrendered the peninsula to the Japanese, leaving the approximately 75,000 Filipino and American troops on Bataan to the mercy of their captors, who forced the brutal 65-mile trek to prison camps known as the Bataan Death March.

The Japanese Imperial Forces’ attack on Pearl Harbor in Dec. 1941 is perhaps the most infamous attack of a much larger campaign unleashed on U.S. and Allied Forces across the Pacific. The day after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese launched an invasion against the Philippines, capturing the capital within a month. 

Over the following months, U.S. forces fought desperately to hold the islands, but by April 6, they were fighting against overwhelming odds as defensive lines were destroyed or ordered to withdraw before they could be fully occupied. Crippled by disease, starvation, and lack of supplies, the U.S. defense was deteriorating.

On the morning of April 8, the U.S. was fortifying new positions on the Alangan River in an attempt to form one last safe space from which to fight when Japanese planes began hitting the line and forced the withdrawal of the infantry and tanks on the right side of the line.

That night, the U.S. dug a final line of defense at the Lamao River only to discover that the Japanese already held ground on their flank. 

Forces were redistributed to try and stem the tide, but U.S. Navy sailors were sent to destroy the remaining stockpiles of ammunition and other material before it could be captured. The siege of Bataan was essentially over — and the Japanese had won.

The next day, U.S. forces surrendered and the Japanese forced the survivors, including 12,000 Americans, on the cruel march to the prison camps in San Fernando. Thousands of prisoners died along the way at the hands of their captors, who starved, beat, and bayoneted the marchers. Thousands more would die from disease, abuse, and starvation in the prison camps.

Featured Image: This picture, captured from the Japanese, shows American prisoners using improvised litters to carry those of their comrades who, from the lack of food or water on the march from Bataan, fell along the road.” Philippines, May 1942.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: CIA launches mind-control program MKULTRA

On April 13, 1953, CIA director Allen Dulles launched the psychedelic mind-control program Project MKULTRA.

During the Korean War, the U.S. learned that some American troops captured in Korea were being subjected to rudimentary mind control techniques in order to make them more susceptible to interrogation.

Worried that the U.S. would fall behind in the next frontier of interrogation and espionage, the CIA’s Technical Services Staff began the MK-ULTRA project. MK-ULTRA sought to explore how drugs, especially LSD, could affect enemy soldiers during interrogations.

But the program didn’t stop there. It expanded and expanded, eventually encompassing 149 sub-projects that looked at everything from hypnosis to sleight of hand, from the best ways to buy drugs to methods of controlling the actions of animals.

Sidney Gottlieb approved of a letter about mind-control program
Sidney Gottlieb approved of an MKUltra sub-project on LSD in this letter from June 9, 1953.

While MK-ULTRA is well-known for being the CIA’s crazy drug program, people in the 60s and 70s knew it best for its flagrant ethics violations. Many subjects were drugged without their knowledge or consent, some mental patients and drug addicts were used as test subjects, and at least a few people died from bad reactions to the drugs.

In one particularly outlandish scheme, the CIA hired prostitutes to administer the drugs to Johns without their knowledge and then agents watched the results through two-way mirrors. 

The program was shut down in 1964 and in 1973 then-Director of the CIA Richard Helms ordered that all surviving documents related to MK-ULTRA be destroyed. A few documents escaped the purge because they had been misfiled, but the extent of the human experimentation under the project is still unknown.

Featured Image: Sidney Gottlieb, the American chemist and spymaster best known for his involvement in MKULTRA. Sept. 21, 1977.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: The US enters WWI

On April 6, 1917, the United States of America finally entered World War I. After years of a formal position of neutrality, the United States declared war against Germany in response to their aggressive naval tactics, including Germany’s policy of unrestricted warfare against all ships that entered the waters surrounding the British Isles. 

The naval attacks began in 1915, including the sinking of the William P. Frye, a private American vessel; the sinking of the Luisitania on May 7, 1915, where 1,198 passengers were killed, including 128 Americans; and the sinking of an Italian liner in August 1915, which killed 272 people, including 27 Americans. 

Public opinion began to turn against Germany and by early 1917, President Woodrow Wilson was preparing Congress to strike. On Feb. 3, 1917, the U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Germany. A few hours later, the American liner S.S. Housatonic was sunk by a German U-boat — although the German commander politely ordered the Housatonic’s crew to abandon the ship first, sparing their lives.

On Feb. 22, Congress passed a $250 million arms appropriations bill in order to prepare the U.S. for war and by April four more U.S. ships had been sunk by Germany’s naval fleet. On April 2, President Wilson called for war. 

Four days later, Congress approved his request. U.S. troops would land in France by June in a war that would continue for another year and a half, killing nearly 20 million people across the globe including 2 million Americans.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: NATO is established

On April 4, 1949, the North Atlantic Alliance was founded in the aftermath of World War II. The Alliance served three main purposes: to deter Soviet expansionism, to promote peace and deter nationalist militarism in Europe, and to encourage European political integration. 

“The aftermath of World War II saw much of Europe devastated in a way that is now difficult to envision. Approximately 36.5 million Europeans had died in the conflict, 19 million of them civilians. Refugee camps and rationing dominated daily life. In some areas, infant mortality rates were one in four. Millions of orphans wandered the burnt-out shells of former metropolises. In the German city of Hamburg alone, half a million people were homeless,” reports official declassified NATO records.

Meanwhile, Communism was gaining momentum as history pointed toward the impending Cold War and the Soviet Union turned its attention on the weakened German capital of Berlin. Europe depended on strong North American support — and luckily, the U.S. was abandoning its former tendency of diplomatic isolation.

In April, 1949, several Western European democracies came together to implement various projects for a peaceful and stable European continent. The North Atlantic Treaty was the first step in this process, wherein the Allies agreed “an armed attack against one or more of them… shall be considered an attack against them all” and that following such an attack, each Ally would take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force” in response.

This would be put to the test during the Korean War from 1950-1953, where NATO members coordinated defenses and integrated attacks through a centralized headquarters. Throughout the 1950s and the Cold War, the threat of the United States’ nuclear arsenal helped deter large-scale nuclear attacks and perhaps even mitigated some Soviet aggression within Europe.

The Alliance started with 12 member countries in 1949 and today boasts 29 members, remaining the largest peacetime military alliance in the world. 

Today in Military History

Today in military history: John Paul Jones sets out to raid British ships

On April 10, 1778, the Father of the American Navy John Paul Jones set out to raid British ships.

An accomplished merchant sailor, John Paul Jones volunteered for Continental Navy service in 1775. He was commissioned as an officer and quickly placed as lieutenant and second-in-command of Esek Hopkins’ flagship Alfred. Jones was extremely successful in early cruises, capturing 16 British vessels in a single cruise after taking command of the Providence.

But Jones had an ambitious plan for the young Continental Navy. Rather than fighting on the American coastline, ensuring that Britain would send additional ships to America where they could provide support to land commanders, he would sail to Europe and fight British ships there, forcing them to pull ships in the Americas back to England.

On April 10, 1778, Jones set his plan into action and sailed from France for the British Isles and the Irish Sea. Jones and his men attacked the British port of Whitehaven Harbor and then his former home in Kirkcudbright Bay, Scotland.

In Scotland, he attempted to abduct the local Earl, but contented himself with stealing the silver instead when he discovered that the Earl wasn’t home. The legend says he even stole the Earl’s teapot from his wife with her morning tea still inside.

Jones went on to fight legendary battles for the U.S., including his victory against two British warships escorting gold from the West Indies to Britain. He is remembered as the “Father of the American Navy” and is buried at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

Featured Image: John Paul Jones seizing the silver plate of Lady Selkirk (Henry Davenport Northrop, Library of Congress)

Today in Military History

Today in military history: 3rd US Infantry troops enter Baghdad

On April 5, 2003, on the 18th day of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 3rd Infantry Division entered the city of Baghdad in a show of force that would leave hundreds of enemy soldiers dead and smoldering ruins of Iraqi vehicles and weaponry in their wake.

The 3rd Infantry Division, nicknamed “The Rock of the Marne” for its steadfast defense in the face of numerically superior enemy forces in France during World War I, was sent to the border of Iraq on March 20, 2003, and then served as the vanguard unit in the invasion of Iraq. Over the ensuing weeks, U.S. troops systematically dismantled the military of Iraq President Saddam Hussein in what is known as the Battle of Baghdad.

On April 3, the 3rd ID assaulted Baghdad International Airport as American forces prepared to seal off the city and make their final assault on Hussein’s last citadel, while Baghdad residents fled on foot or in packed cars.

On April 5, the historic division entered Baghdad through a series of coordinated attacks meant to “dismember the city zone by zone so that each of these zones [would fall] under the control of the U.S. Army,” according to CNN Correspondent Walter Rodgers. The footage of tanks and fighting vehicles entering the city were broadcast around the world.

Today in military history: Congress authorizes Privateers to attack British vessels
(The statue of Saddam Hussein topples in Baghdad’s Firdos Square on April 9, 2003.)

Days later, coalition forces tore down an iconic statue of the Iraqi dictator and continued pushing their way into the city.

For the next few days, the men and women of the 3rd ID and other U.S. forces enacted a siege of the city and hunted down the military resistance. By April 9th, the coalition was occupying the city, instead of sieging it.

While the city had fallen, a war with a criminal insurgency was just beginning and would rage until the U.S. withdrawal in 2011.

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

APRIL 9: Today in military history: General Robert E. Lee Surrenders

On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, effectively ending the American Civil War.

America’s bloodiest war had raged for almost four years, and things were looking grim for Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Robert E. Lee

A week earlier, Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant had made a breakthrough at Petersburg, forcing Lee to make a desperate run to try to link up with Confederate General Joe Johnston, who had a substantial force.

The problem was that Lee’s 28,000 men had been chased by Grant’s force of about 150,000. Things had gotten worse when three supply trains had been burned by Union cavalry under George Armstrong Custer. Lee’s only hope was to fight his way to Lynchburg, Virginia.

Grant was not about to let Lee get there. He had already asked Lee to discuss terms of surrender twice. Lee had refused both times.

Grant was ready for another fight. However, Major General Phil Sheridan’s cavalry was already blocking Lee’s escape, and two more Corps raced to join them.

On the morning of April 9, Lee’s army realized they had been surrounded after a brief skirmish. 

He told one of his officers, “There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths,” Lee said in response. He then asked Grant to meet to discuss terms. Within hours, the two generals met at Appomattox Court House.

General Grant famously told his officers, “The war is over. The Rebels are our countrymen again.” It would be another two months before word reached Texas, where people were still enslaved in spite of the Emancipation Proclamation nearly two and a half years before.

After four violent years, the Civil War had ended, with over 624,500 Americans dead.

Featured Image: Lee’s surrender 1865. ‘Peace in Union.’ Reproduction of a painting by Thomas Nast, which was completed thirty years after the surrender.

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)

Today in Military History

Today in military history: Admiral Yamamoto, Pearl Harbor mastermind, is shot down

On April 18, 1943, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was shot down by American pilots.

American forces have begun to turn the tables in the Pacific. Midway had seen the decimation of the Japanese carrier fleet, and the Japanese Navy had failed to cut off American Marines at Guadalcanal. Admiral Yamamoto planned an inspection tour of various bases in the Solomon Islands, and his itinerary was radioed to the bases he would visit.

Admiral Yamamoto
Portrait of Admiral Yamamoto

But it turns out American codebreakers were also listening. The Japanese Admiral’s travel plans made it into the hands of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, and before long the 347th Fighter Group was on their way to rain on Yamamoto’s parade. 

A squadron of P-38s led by Captain Thomas G. Lanphier and Major John W. Mitchell took off from Guadalcanal. They soon intercepted the Japanese formation of two Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers and six Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighters.

Today in military history: Congress authorizes Privateers to attack British vessels
Replica of Mitsubishi A6M3 Zero Model 22 (NX712Z) (Commemorative Air Force / American Airpower Heritage Flying Museum)

Yamamoto’s Betty was shot down by Captain Lanphier, who also claimed to have shot down a Zero. Lieutenant Rex Barber shot down the second Betty carrying many of Yamamoto’s senior staff officers. Barber and Lieutenant Besby Holmes also each claimed to have shot down Zeroes as well. The last pilot from the “killer flight,” Lieutenant Raymond Hine, never returned to base.

The mission, code-named Operation Vengeance, had been a success. Pearl Harbor had been avenged.

Featured Image: U.S. Air Force P-38 Lightning similar to those flown by Captain Thomas G. Lanphier.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: The Civil War begins

On April 12, 1861, the American Civil War began.

By April of 1861, the U.S. was in a state of deep crisis. Many Southern states were inflamed by the election of President Abraham Lincoln and other leaders who were seen as likely to limit the power of slave states if they did not abolish the practice entirely. They had already declared secession from the country and both the Union and the Confederacy were gearing up for armed conflict.

One of the greatest potential flashpoints for the coming war was the Union Fort Sumter in the bay at Charleston, South Carolina. The small fort was running out of supplies and sat within range of Confederate batteries surrounding Charleston harbor.

On April 11, a delegation from Confederate Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard was sent to Fort Sumter to demand the surrender of the fort. 

The Confederacy gave Anderson good terms for the surrender, but Anderson refused anyway, citing his honor and his obligation to the federal government. He promised to surrender the fort if he received no word from the Army or resupply before April 15.

But the Confederacy knew it couldn’t wait that long and so the delegation told Anderson that they would begin bombardment at 4:30 a.m. if he did not surrender. On the morning of April 12, 1861, they did so. 

Over the next four days, the Confederacy fired over 3,000 shells at the fort, plunging America into a Civil War that would last four years and claim 1.5 million casualties.

Featured Image: Battle of Antietam by Thure de Thulstrup.

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