Today in military history: The American Revolution begins - We Are The Mighty
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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: The American Revolution begins
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: The American Revolution begins
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: Union victory at the Battle of Shiloh

On April 7, 1862, Union forces defeated the Confederates at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in what was then the bloodiest battle in American history with more than 23,000 dead and wounded.

The day before, Confederate forces under General Albert Sidney Johnston caught Union forces under Major General Ulysses S. Grant by surprise. Their plan had been to back the Union against a series of swamps. Instead, the Union army rallied, fighting a series of defensive stands from Shiloh Hill to what survivors would call “the Hornets’ Nest” — an impenetrable oak thicket. 

The Southern attack began to lose its advantage, its coordination, and, in a fatal bullet wound, its commander. Johnston was hit behind the knee and bled to death, which former Confederate President Jefferson Davis would later refer to as “the turning point of our fate.”

On the night of April 6, nearly 21,000 reinforcements had arrived for the Union, giving Grant 45,000 troops to face off against no more than 28,000 under Confederate General Pierre G. T. Beauregard. 

On April 7, Grant launched his counterattacks at dawn, pushing the Confederates back. By the end of the day, the Union had recovered the ground it had lost.

Over 13,000 Union troops were killed, wounded, missing, or captured. The shockingly high casualty count of the battle caused many to call for Grant’s replacement. Abraham Lincoln would refuse, saying, “I cannot spare this man; he fights.” Grant’s victory would allow him to launch a massive operation in the Mississippi Valley later that year and capture Vicksburg, the last Confederate-controlled area along the Mississippi River.

Grant would go on to take command of the Union Army and force Robert E. Lee to surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. Learn more about the Battle of Shiloh in the video below.

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Today in military history: The Red Baron is killed in action

On April 21, 1918, the Red Baron was killed in action.

Manfred von Richthofen, known to allies and enemies as the Red Baron, was a dog-fighting legend in a time when planes were made of wood, fabric, and aluminum.

After joining the German army as a cavalryman, the Barron quickly switched to the Imperial Air Service in 1915, and took to the skies over the western front by 1916.

Between 1916 and 1918, the Red Baron downed 80 enemy aircraft, easily surpassing all flying-ace records of the time.

While many Ace pilots of the era were known for risky and aggressive aerial acrobatics, the Baron was a patient tactician and expert marksman. He preferred to dive upon his enemies from above, often with the sun at his back. His two most famous aircraft, the Albatros D.III and Fokker Dr. I, were painted bright red to honor his old cavalry regiment. 

On April 21st, while hunting British observation aircraft, the Red Baron and his squadron ventured deep into Allied French territory. They quickly got into a tussle with an Allied squadron, and the Baron began to stalk a Canadian Air Force plane.

In the heat of the chase, the Baron flew too low to the ground, and was fired upon from below. Sources differ on who fired the shot, but the kill is often credited to an Australian machine gunner using a Vickers gun. 

The Baron was struck in the chest by a single .303 bullet. Even as he died, he still managed to make a rough landing. By most accounts, his plane was barely even damaged.

He was buried by Allied forces with full military honors.

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Today in military history: Germans ambush allies during secret Normandy landings practice

On April 28, 1944, German E-boats ambushed allied forces during a secret dress rehearsal for the historic Normandy landings called “Exercise Tiger.” 

Exercise Tiger was one of the largest scale training operations for the D-Day invasion, and for obvious reasons, it was a major hush-hush operation.

Still, nine German E-boats caught sight of the exercise in the early morning hours of April 28th and opened fire. 

They attacked a convoy of eight large tank landing ships, or LSTs, the vessels the allies would use to deliver vehicles and landing troops on D-Day. Only one of the two ships assigned to protect the convoy was present. The other was undergoing repairs.

The German E-Boats attacked four LSTs before they were driven away. 749 allied servicemen were killed in the attack. For perspective, only 197 servicemen were killed on Utah Beach during the actual D-Day landing. 

Additionally, ten officers involved in the exercise had intimate knowledge of the D-Day plan, but luckily, none were captured by the Germans.

Despite the tragic loss of life, many historians believe that lessons learned from the surprise ambush at Exercise Tiger contributed to the eventual success of the June 6th D-Day landing.

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Today in military history: Union issues conduct code defining laws of combat for Civil War

On April 24, 1863, President Lincoln issued “General Orders No. 100: Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the Field.” Commonly referred to as the “Lieber Code” after its primary author Francis (Franz) Lieber, it dictated how soldiers should conduct themselves in wartime. The main sections concerned martial law, military jurisdiction, and the treatment of spies, deserters and prisoners of war.

Today in military history: The American Revolution begins

The Lieber Code remains the basis of most regulations for the laws of war for the United States and many other countries who used it as a template for the codification of laws of war. Before the Lieber Code, the conduct of countries and combatants was mostly based on customs, which could vary widely from country to country. The Lieber Code is the first modern attempt to codify agreed upon laws of armed conflict and humanitarian law.

The Lieber Code was prepared by international lawyer Franz Lieber, who emigrated from Germany to the United States after being imprisoned as an “enemy of the state” due to his liberal nationalist views. In the United States, he became a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina, where he soon began to feel like an outsider due to his opposition to slavery. He moved to New York to teach at Columbia University and Columbia Law School, where he lectured on constitutional questions relating to times of war.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, President Lincoln wanted to provide instructions to Union officers about the treatment of Confederate soldiers. He turned to Lieber for guidance about issues such as whether Confederates should be treated as traitors subject to the death penalty or as prisoners of war as well as the treatment of “fugitives” fleeing enslavement.
Lieber and a committee of four generals came together to draw up a manual to address these concerns; the instructions were endorsed by Lincoln on April 24, 1863, and distributed to all Union commanders in the field. According to historical records, the Confederate government would also adopt some of the rules in the Lieber Code as well.

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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. 

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Today in military history: Crusader control of Holy Land ends

On May 18, 1291, Acre, the last Crusader stronghold in the Middle East, fell to the Muslim Mamluks, ending Crusader control of the Holy Land.

European Christian Crusaders had been reeling from Sala-a-din’s conquest of Jerusalem in 1187. The Third Crusade recaptured Acre (in modern-day Israel) for the next 100 years. But in that time, one by one, Crusader cities would fall to the Mamluk Sultanate.

The Muslim Mamluks came to power in the region in 1250, marking a shift in the balance of power in the region. The Muslims were then able to compete with the heavy cavalry of the Crusader knights – and they did. 

Crusader cities in Caesarea, Haifa, Galilee, and Antioch sparked more Crusades from Europe, but they were largely ineffective. Latakia fell in 1278, Tripoli in 1289. Acre was surrounded. 

The Crusaders hoped for either an army from Italy or an unlikely alliance with the Mongols. Neither materialized and the Mamluks laid siege to Acre on April 5, 1291. By May 18, Al-Ashraf Khalil’s 222,000-strong army entered the city and killed its Crusader defenders, ending the last Crusader control of the region.

The Siege of Acre, also known as the Fall of Acre, marked the end of further crusades to the Levant. With the fall of Acre, the Crusaders lost their last major stronghold of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and by 1302 with the loss of Ruad, they were no longer control any part of the Holy Land.

Featured Image: Siège d’Acre (1291) by unknown 14th century French artist (Gallica Digital Library)

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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.

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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: The American Revolution begins
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: 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: 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: The American Revolution begins
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: The American Revolution begins
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: 173rd Airborne Brigade deploys to Vietnam

On May 3, 1965, the 173rd Airborne Brigade deployed to South Vietnam. They were the first U.S. Army ground unit committed to the war that would rage on for eight divisive and deadly years for the United States and ten more years for Vietnam

In the 1950s, tensions were rising between the United States and Communist countries like the Soviet Union and North Korea. Working under the “domino theory,” which held that if one Southeast Asian country fell to communism, many other countries would follow, in 1961 President John F. Kennedy provided aid to South Vietnam and stopped just short of military intervention on the peninsula. 

After the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson was hard-pressed to avoid war — he ordered retaliatory strikes against North Vietnam and deployed Operation Rolling Thunder, a series of air strikes, the following year.

Finally, on May 3rd, 1965, the Airborne Brigade deployed to Vietnam from Okinawa. Their mission was to hold off Communist forces from reaching the Saigon-Bien Hoa complex. Over the next several months, the 173rd was involved in numerous airborne operations and fought a major battle at Dak against an entrenched N.V.A. Army Regiment on Hill 875 – capturing it on Thanksgiving Day. The victory earned them the Presidential Unit Citation for bravery in action. The Brigade withdrew from combat operations in country six years later.

Leader of173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam
U.S. Taiwan Defense Command Commander Vice Admiral Melson (left) and the officer presiding over the Tien Bing No. 4 exercise, General Williamson (right), are having a conversation on stage.
(Public Domain)

They suffered 1,606 killed in action while 12 of their paratroopers earned the Medal of Honor.

More than 3 million people (including over 58,000 Americans) were killed in the Vietnam War, and more than half of the dead were Vietnamese civilians. 

Featured Image: 173rd Airborne Brigade Paratroopers along the Song Be near War Zone D, March 1966.

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Today in military history: The M16 comes under fire in Vietnam

On May 23, 1967, the M16 went under fire for letting troops down in Vietnam.

The Army began to issue M16s to infantry units in 1965, but the rifle routinely failed when troops needed it most. The crisis gained national attention when Congressman James J. Howard went to the floor of the House of Representatives to read a letter from a Marine in Vietnam.

The letter claimed that many of the casualties suffered during the Battle of Hill 881 were due to malfunctions of the M16 rifle.

The resulting controversy spurred a Congressional investigation. The Army soon found many of the rifles were delivered without cleaning kits and that soldiers and Marines were told that the rifle was “self-cleaning.” The rifle had also received new powder in its 5.56mm cartridges that also caused problems. 

Troops hated the M16 so much, they started calling it the Mattel 16 “because it was made of plastic,” said Marine veteran Jim Wodecki. “At that time it was a piece of garbage.”

“We hated it,” added Marine veteran John Culbertson. “Because if it got any grime or corruption or dirt in it, which you always get in any rifle out in the field, it’s going to malfunction.”

The troops started using cleaning kits from other weapons to unjam their rifles.

“The shells ruptured in the chambers and the only way to get the shell out was to put a cleaning rod in it,” said Wodecki. “So you can imagine in a firefight trying to clean your weapon after two or three rounds. It was a nightmare for Marines at the time.

The M16A1 fixed the problems with a chrome-plated chamber among other improvements. The new rifles were even shipped with a comic-book style manual by legendary graphic novelist Will Eisner.

The improved model proved incredibly reliable, and the M16A4 is in service with our troops today.

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