Today in military history: The Civil War begins - We Are The Mighty
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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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 Civil War 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 Civil War 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: Germany sinks the flagship of the Royal Fleet

On May 24, 1941, the United Kingdom’s flagship, the HMS Hood, was sunk by Germany’s most powerful warship during the Battle of Denmark Strait.

When the HMS Hood was christened in 1920, she was one of the largest and most powerful warships in the world. Two decades later, she was sunk to the depths of Davy Jones’ Locker during the second World War.

From the outset of World War II, ships like the Hood were charged with hunting German ships that hunted British convoys. These convoys were essential to delivering the supplies and materials to keep the United Kingdom in the fight, so they were valuable targets for the Germans. 

When a reconnaissance plane spotted the 50,000-ton Bismarck — a powerhouse of the German Navy — steaming towards a convoy, the Hood was sent to intercept, along with several other British ships.

After a brief exchange of gunfire, the Hood took a hit from a 380-mm shell in her main magazine, exploded, and sank. Only three crewmen survived the maritime disaster.

The British vowed to hunt down and sink the Bismarck, no matter the cost. The Bismarck’s last battle took place in the Atlantic on May 26-27,1941, after several phases of action that included air strikes from the British aircraft carrier Ark Royal, shadowing and harassment of Bismarck by British destroyers, an attack by the British battleships King George V and Rodney, and finally 100 minutes of fighting. 

In the end, Bismarck was sunk from damage and deliberate scuttling. Her crew of 111 survivors returned to the United Kingdom, prisoners of a long war.

Featured Image: German battleship Bismarck fires on British battleship HMS Prince of Wales in the Denmark Strait, May 24, 1941.

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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: 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: John Paul Jones takes the fight to England

On April 22, 1778, naval Commander John Paul Jones led a raid against Whitehaven, England, where 400 British merchant ships laid in anchor.

Hoping to carry the war directly to King George III’s doorstep, Jones intended to prove to the English that their homeland was not impregnable. In a memorandum outlining his “plans for expeditions,” Jones had once proposed that “three fast frigates with tenders might burn Whitehaven and its fleet, rendering it nearly impossible to supply Ireland with coal next winter”  while bringing “inconceivable panic in England. It would convince the world of her vulnerability, and hurt her public credit.” 

Charles Willson Peale may have painted his museum portrait of Jones as early as 1781. Jones wears the French Cross of the Institution of Military Merit (the gold medal hanging from a blue ribbon through the top left buttonhole). Louis XVI presented this medal to him in 1780. (Public Domain)

The Royal Navy commanded the seas and Jones knew well enough that to confront His Majesty’s ships was foolish. Instead, he planned his raid on Whitehaven for the dead of night, hoping to arrive with the ebb tide at midnight.

He had more difficulty than planned whilst rowing to the port, which was protected by two forts. They didn’t arrive until dawn, and while Jones’ boat was able to successfully take the southern fort, the other boat reportedly “heard a noise” and abandoned the mission — and the northern fort.

Jones set fire to the southern fort and continued to raid the British Isles, earning a reputation for terrorizing the British navy. His sailing and fighting exploits during the American Revolution have gone down in history as some of the most notable of all time. 

Featured Image: “First Recognition of the American Flag by a Foreign Government” by Edward Moran, 1898. The painting depicts the Continental Navy ship Ranger, commanded by Captain John Paul Jones, receiving the salute of the French fleet at Quiberon Bay, France, on Feb. 14, 1778. (National Archives)

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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)

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Today in military history: Osama bin Laden is killed

On May 2, 2011, Osama bin Laden, mastermind of 9/11 attacks, was killed by SEAL Team Six. 

After nearly a decade of hunting the world’s most wanted man, the CIA located bin Laden at a specially-built compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by following a courier.

At 1 A.M. local time on May 2, SEAL Team Six launched an assault known as Operation Neptune’s Spear, named for the trident in the Navy SEAL’s insignia. The frogmen killed bin Laden and four others at the compound while retrieving loads of valuable intelligence.

No American casualties occurred during the raid, although one Black Hawk helicopter crashed and was destroyed on-site. 

President Barack Obama announced the death of bin Laden at 11:35 PM Eastern Time on May 1 from the White House. His full remarks are in the video above. 

“Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.

For over two decades, bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies. The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.

Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must –- and we will — remain vigilant at home and abroad.” President Barack Obama

 Almost a decade after the September 11th attacks, the United States got justice.

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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: Victory in Europe is celebrated around the world

On May 8, 1945, the Allied Powers celebrated Victory in Europe after years of brutal warfare. The day would be known as V-E Day, celebrated for generations to come.

Victory over the Nazis became official when German General Alfred Jodl signed the unconditional surrender of all forces in Reim, France, just 9 days after Adolf Hitler committed suicide.

General Jodl had initially hoped to limit the terms of surrender to only the German forces still fighting the Western Allies, but General Dwight D. Eisenhower would accept nothing short of total surrender, putting an end to all fighting on the Western Front.

There were two official signings: The first was on May 7, 1945, when German Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl signed Germany’s surrender on all fronts in Reims, France. The second signing — insisted upon by Soviet Premier Josef Stalin — was by German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel the next day in Berlin. Jodl and Keitel were later found guilty of war crimes by the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, and both were subsequently executed.

On May 8, the people of Europe, who had been subjected to years of German occupation, oppression, and bombardment put out flags and banners, and rejoiced in the defeat of the Nazi war machine.

News spread quickly around the world from Moscow to Los Angeles. 

While the American military still had months of fighting ahead of them in the Pacific, the war in Europe was won, but not without grave cost.

Tens of millions of service members and civilians were killed over five years of war across the continent, including 250,000 U.S. troops who were killed in the European theater. Among the dead were also 6 million Jews who were murdered by Nazi Germany. 

While it would take another four months to defeat the Japanese threat in the Pacific, the cessation of war in Europe was cause for world-wide celebrations.

Featured Image: Crowds gathering in celebration at Piccadilly Circus, London during V-E Day on May 8, 1945.

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Today in military history: George Washington protests taxation without representation

On May 17, 1769, George Washington brought a list of resolutions to the Virginia colony legislature, subverting British taxation without representation. This act of protest would eventually lead to the armed uprising of the American Revolution.

Voicing frustration felt by many colonists at the time, George Washington brought a stack of retaliatory measures to the floor of the Virginia legislature. Largely in response to the Townshend Acts of 1767, a series of laws passed by the British government on the American colonies that placed new taxes on imports such as paper, paint, lead, glass, and tea. As the colonists had no representation in parliament, these restrictions began to chafe at the colonies.

George Washington’s “non-importation resolutions,” drafted by George Mason, proposed that Virginians should minimize their use of any of the imported goods in an attempt to force Great Britain to rethink the taxes.  

The royal governor dissolved the Virginia legislature but Washington and the other representatives simply went to the house of Alexander Hayes and passed the resolution there on May 18.

While the resolution itself was mainly symbolic, other colonies followed with their own resolutions to show solidarity with Massachusetts, where violent protests against the Townshend Acts had led to a British military occupation of Boston beginning in 1768.

The sentiment against taxation without representation would later snowball into physical protests such as the Boston Tea Party. Finally, tensions came to a boiling point and the first shots of the Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775.

Featured Image: The earliest authenticated portrait of George Washington shows him wearing his colonel’s uniform of the Virginia Regiment from the French and Indian War. The portrait was painted about 12 years after Washington’s service in that war, and several years before he would re-enter military service in the American Revolution. Oil on canvas by Charles Willson Peale.

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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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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.

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