1775: John Adams of the Second Congressional Congress nominates George Washington, a fellow congressional delegate and veteran of the French and Indian Wars, to lead the newly formed Continental Army. Washington is unanimously elected.
1864: Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton signs an order setting aside 200 acres of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s estate as a cemetery for fallen Civil War soldiers. Today, Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place to over 400,000 fallen military members.
1877: Former slave Henry O. Flipper is the first black cadet to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. 2nd Lt. Flipper will lead the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry during the Apache Wars.
1944: Following a three-hour Naval and air bombardment, 8,000 Marines under the command of Maj. Gen. Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith (a recipient of France’s Croix de Guerre for his actions during the battle of Belleau Wood in World War I), hit the beaches of Saipan. The Japanese war planners are caught by surprise, and by nightfall the 2d and 4th Marine Divisions have a beachhead spanning six miles and reaching inland nearly 1,500 yards. Japanese propaganda leads its people to believe that unspeakable acts await anyone unlucky enough to be captured by the U.S. military, and thousands of Japanese civilians will leap to their deaths from the cliffs of Saipan.
On July 7, some 3,000 Japanese troops charge forward in the largest banzai charge of the war, nearly wiping out two battalions of soldiers from the 27th Infantry Division. The Japanese defenders inflict 14,000 casualties on the Americans, but the island is declared secure on July 9.
1775: Following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress establishes the Continental Army. Ten rifle companies are formed: six from Pennsylvania, two from Maryland, and two from Virginia. The force is disbanded after the American Revolution, but in 1792, President George Washington forms the Legion of the United States – the nation’s first “professional” fighting force – renamed the United States Army in 1796.
1777: Congress formally declares the “Stars and Stripes” as the official flag of the thirteen United States. The declaration resolves that it consists of “thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
1863: Days after bragging that he could hold the town of Winchester (Va.) against a Confederate force of any size, Maj. Gen. Robert H. Milroy’s garrison is surrounded and defeated by a corps led by Maj. Gen. Richard S. Ewell. The Rebels capture 4,000 Union troops, hundreds of wagons and horses, and 23 artillery pieces at the cost of only some 250 casualties in the Second Battle of Winchester.
1918: During a German artillery barrage of explosive and gas shells, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Fred W. Stockton gives his gas mask to a wounded comrade, exposing himself to the deadly agent. Stockton will die eight days later from gas exposure. 20 years later, his former lieutenant during the Battle of Belleau Wood (Clifton B. Cates, who will become the 19th Commandant of the Marine Corps) and Barak Mattingly (the man Stockham saved), succeed in their efforts to award Stockham the Medal of Honor, and a destroyer is later named in his honor.
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On June 12, 1944 (D-Day + 6), Paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division capture Carentan, France after three days of heavy urban combat, finally linking the Utah and Omaha beachheads. Meanwhile, a third wave of troops and supplies land at the beaches of Normandy. Over 300,000 men, tens of thousands of vehicles, and hundreds of thousands of tons of materiel have hit the beach so far.
That same day in the Pacific, airplanes from Adm. Marc Mitscher’s Task Force 58, consisting of nine aircraft carriers and six light carriers, pound Japanese positions in the Marianas Islands in preparation for the upcoming invasions. The next day, over a dozen battleships join in the attack and being leveling the defenses of Saipan.
This week also marks the first American bombing missions of both world wars. On June 12, 1918, eight pilots of the 96th Aero Squadron conduct the first-ever American bombing mission in Europe, attacking rail yards at Etain, France. 24 years later (to the day), Col. Harry A. Halverson leads a flight of 13 B-24 Liberator bombers from Libya 1,000 miles to the Axis oil fields at Ploesti, Romania. One plane has to turn back due to mechanical issues, and the bombers inflict minimal damage to the target. Crews land at Turkey (where they are interned), Iraq, and Syria.
1775: British Gen. Thomas Gage declares that the city of Boston is under martial law until the colonists repay for the tea they destroyed during the Boston Tea Party. Gage will pardon all colonists who lay down their arms except Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who are to be hanged.
Meanwhile, British ships arrive at Machiasport (present-day Machias, Maine) to commandeer a load of lumber for the construction of barracks during the colonists’ Siege of Boston. 31 militia members, led by Jeremiah O’Brien, board the merchant ship Unity and engage the British armed sloop HMS Margaretta. After an hour of fighting, Margaretta is captured and the British flag is surrendered to the colonists for the first time. The U.S. Merchant Marine traces their roots to the Battle of Machias.
1862: Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, the new commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, orders Brig. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart to investigate the Union army’s right flank during the Peninsula Campaign. Stuart and his 1,200 troopers determine that the right flank is vulnerable, and with Union cavalry is in pursuit (led by Stuart’s father-in-law, Brig. Gen. Philip St. George Cooke), Stuart and his men ride a 100-mile circle around Gen. George McClellan’s 105,000-man Army of the Potomac – capturing soldiers, horses, and supplies. Four days later, Stuart arrives in Richmond to a hero’s welcome.
1779: Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold’s court martial begins in Philadelphia, but the trial is immediately postponed when Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton captures Stony Point, N.Y.. The Americans did not know that Arnold had already contacted Clinton about switching sides, and in July he begins to give the British intelligence on troop locations and strength.
The disaffected American officer is charged with misconduct and will be cleared of all but two minor charges in December, and 12 months later Arnold becomes a British brigadier general.
1813: The frigate USS Chesapeake – one of the United States Navy’s original six ships – clashes with British ship HMS Shannon outside Boston Harbor. After being mortally wounded by a sniper round Chesapeake captain James Lawrence’s last words to his crew are “Tell the men to fire faster and [don’t] give up the ship! Fight her till she sinks!” Shannon‘s crew boards and will capture Chesapeake, taking her crew prisoner, but Capt. Lawrence’s famous final words live on today.
1846: Three days after Gen. Zachary Taylor’s forces defeat the Mexican Army in the Battle of Palo Alto, Pres. James K. Polk tells Congress: “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.”
The Mexican-American War – already underway – is formally declared within two days.
1864: During the Battle of Yellow Tavern, Confederate Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart is shot by a dismounted Union cavalry trooper north of Richmond, Va. “The greatest cavalry officer ever foaled in America” is mortally wounded and will die the next day.
1889: An Army wagon train leaves Fort Grant loaded with $28,000 in gold and silver coins (nearly the equivalent of one million dollars today) to pay U.S. troops stationed in Arizona Territory, guarded by a dozen Buffalo Soldiers from the 24th Infantry and 10th Cavalry regiments. A band of highwaymen ambush the convoy and manage to make off with the money following a 30-minute firefight that wounds eight soldiers.
1775: The famous Vermont guerrilla force the “Green Mountain Boys”, commanded by Col. Ethan Allen, and state militiamen led by Col. Benedict Arnold catch the British troops at Fort Ticonderoga (present-day Ticonderoga, N.Y.) by surprise. The Americans charge into the fort, chasing off the lone sentry and begin disarming the sleeping defenders.
When the British commander demands to know under what authority are the men entering, Allen replies, “The Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!” The strategic fort is captured without a shot fired. The cannon and armaments are sent to Boston where they will be used to break the British siege.
1797: The 55-gun heavy frigate USS United States is launched at Philadelphia, becoming the first commissioned ship of the U.S. Navy. The warship will see action during the Quasi-War with France, the Barbary Wars (see entry below), and the War of 1812 before she is seized by Confederate forces in 1861 and re-christened CSS United States.
1801: Following Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration, Yusuf Karamanly – the Pasha of Tripoli – demands tribute from the United States to prevent the Barbary pirates from continuing their practice of taking hostages and capturing ships. President Jefferson refuses, and the Pasha declares war.
[Featured image: future top Naval ace and Medal of Honor recipient David McCampbell (right) exchanges caps with Royal Canadian Air Force pilot Jerry Smith after Smith lands his Spitfire aboard USS WASP.]
1865: After learning that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered the previous month, Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest surrenders his men at Gainesville, Ala.. Forrest orders his men to “submit to the powers to be, and to aid in restoring peace and establishing law and order throughout the land.”
The infamous cavalry officer, whom Union general William Tecumseh Sherman would refer to as “that devil Forrest,” is considered one of the most brilliant tacticians of the Civil War; a remarkable feat considering he enlisted in the Confederate Army as a private with no prior military experience.
1926: Naval aviators Lt. Commander Richard E. Byrd and Chief Aviation Pilot Floyd Bennett take off from Spitsbergen, Norway and head north. In about eight hours, they will report that they have reached the North Pole, becoming the first men to do so by air.
Congress will award both men the Medal of Honor for their flight, which remains surrounded by controversy as Byrd is reported to have said that an oil leak in their Fokker Trimotor aircraft during the nearly 16-hour flight may have caused the explorers to turn around prematurely. However in three years, Commander Byrd will – without a doubt – fly over the South Pole.
1846: In the first major battle of the Mexican War, U.S. Army forces under the command of Gen. (and future president) Zachary Taylor decisively defeat Mexican forces under Gen. Mariano Arista in the Battle of Palo Alto (Texas). The Mexicans will retreat to a seemingly more defensible position at Resaca de la Palma the following day, but Taylor will pursue and beat them badly there too.
1864: Union Army forces under the command of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate forces under Gen. Robert E. Lee clash in the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. The outcome at Spotsylvania Courthouse will be inconclusive and the casualties terribly heavy. In less than two weeks, Grant will again break contact and continue his advance toward Richmond.
1904: U.S. Marines land at Tangier, Morocco to protect the Belgian legation.
1911: U.S. Navy Capt. Washington I. Chambers places an order for two A-1 Triad floatplanes from the Curtiss aircraft company. Thus, May 8 becomes the official birthday of Naval Aviation.
1945: V-E Day: The unconditional surrender of German forces signed by Gen. Alfred Jodl at the “little red schoolhouse” (supreme allied headquarters in Reims, France) the previous day becomes official. Although clashes between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army will continue for another day, Nazi Germany has laid down their arms.
1864: Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, general-in-chief of all Union forces, moves the Army of the Potomac out of their winter encampments and 100,000 Union soldiers cross the Rapidan River in Virginia, kicking off the campaign that will set the stage for the defeat of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
Union losses in the Overland Campaign – the bloodiest in American history – are heavy, but Grant’s troops are replaceable. Lee’s are not.
1916: To avoid a diplomatic break with the United States, Germany announces it will abandon its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Rather than continuing to indiscriminately sink all vessels in the British Isles, German subs will only torpedo those found to carry war materials.
Germany will reverse course in less than a year, sparking America’s entry into World War I on April 6, 1917.