This Day in History
1856 — Treaty of Paris. This treaty ended the Crimean War. The war pitted Russia against an alliance of the Ottoman Empire, England, France and the Republic of Sardinia. (Republic of Sardinia?) The Ottoman Empire, or Turkey, was weakening and the war, East versus West, was over who would gain control in the region. Russia lost and the treaty forbid it from having warships or fortifications on the Black Sea. The Crimean War is notable for the emergence of Florence Nightingale, a humanitarian nurse on the fields of battle. She in turn inspired Clara Barton, who was a nurse during the U.S.’s Civil War and a founder of the Red Cross. The Crimean War is also known for the Charge of the Light Brigade, an ill-advised charge by British cavalry against a fortified Russian artillery position. Lord Tennyson wrote a famous poem about it.
Ah yes, The Charge of the Light Brigade, a romantic glorification of bravery in battle. Six-hundred horsemen, armed with sabres and spears, charging across an open field into the mouths of cannons. I guess that kind of carnage was looked upon as inspiring.
1867 — Purchase of Alaska. Secretary of State William Seward agreed to Russia’s offer of 7.2 million dollars to buy Alaska on this date. Russia, suffering from financial difficulties and reeling from defeat in the Crimean War first offered it for sale in 1859. (History does connect.) The Civil War in the U.S. delayed negotiations until 1867. When first announced the purchase was derided and it became known as Seward’s Folly. That all changed when gold was discovered in the Klondike and Alaska became the gateway for the gold rush. Alaska was admitted into the union as 49th state in 1959. Militarily it wasn’t until WWII that the strategic importance of the region was realized. Since then it has guarded America’s interests in the northern Pacific.
In fact it was deemed so militarily strategic that yours truly was stationed in Alaska. Based solely on the misery of my thirteen months up there I still view it as Seward’s Folly.
1945 — Mahnmal Bittermark. In the Bittermark city park in the city of Dortmund, Germany, the Gestapo killed 289 supposed “anti-fascists.” The victims were forced laborers from a number of countries as well as some German citizens who had displayed an improper attitude. Their crime? From en.wikipedia.org: “The dissemination of the opinion about the futility of the war.” Three weeks later the U.S. Army captured Dortmund and discovered the bodies. A month later Hitler was dead.
The war was obviously lost yet the Gestapo was still carrying out its mindless and evil obedience. Stating the obvious cost some people their lives, guilty of speaking truth to power at the wrong time.
1853 — Vincent van Gogh. Artist. Born in the Netherlands van Gogh didn’t take up painting until his late twenties. Besides suffering from mental issues, he neglected his physical health and drank heavily. He lived his life in poverty, occasionally supported financially by a brother. His art led him to Paris in 1886 and there he met fellow painter Paul Gaugin. They worked together, lived together in Aries, and van Gogh had dreams of starting an art collective. However his mental instability caused Gaugin to want to leave. There was an altercation over this issue in which van Gogh wielded a razor and it was later in the evening, with Gaugin no longer present, that he severed his ear. Later van Gogh had no memory of committing this act of self mutilation. Gaugin took leave from van Gogh after this incident and the two never saw one another again, although they continued to correspond. For the rest of his life van Gogh was in and out of mental hospitals and at age 37 committed suicide. Considered a madman he attained no commercial success in his lifetime despite producing about 860 paintings. Only after his death was his art appreciated and did his fame and reputation grow.
Sad, but even if he had been successful while alive I doubt he would have had a peaceful existence.
1960 — Bill Johnson. Olympic Gold Medalist. Johnson won the downhill skiing competition at the 1984 Winter Olympics at Sarajevo. He was the first man from a non-alpine country to win the downhill. In doing so Johnson managed to annoy his fellow competitors with his brashness. He boasted beforehand he would win the gold medal and then he went out and did it. Johnson reveled in his bad boy image that earned him the monicker “Billy the Kid.” He was quoted as saying, “I like to drive cars faster than 100. I like to go over bumps in my car and get airborne. I like to drink. I chase girls full time, but I only drink part time.”
His post Olympic career was less successful. Injuries and a loss of form cost him a spot on the 1988 Olympic team. By 1990 he was no longer a competitive athlete. He lost a son to a drowning accident and a marriage failed. At age forty, broke and living in a motorhome, he made an attempt to make the Olympic team again. He fell during a training run and suffered permanent brain damage. He suffered a stroke in 2010 that left him unable to even sit up without help and in 2015, at age 55, Johnson died in an assisted living facility.
I remember him as setting himself apart, brash and bold, a meteor that flashed ever so brightly and briefly across the Olympic sky.
1970 — Secretariat. Triple Crown winner in 1973. In any discussion over the greatest race horse of all time, Secretariat has to be included. A large, beautiful chestnut, he won 16 out of 21 races and was retired to stud after his 3 year old season. He set time speed records in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont that still stand and he probably set one in the Preakness also but the official timing device malfunctioned. He won the Belmont by a record 31 lengths and him thundering down the stretch is one of the grandest spectacles in racing history.
In the Sport of Kings, the king was a horse that day.