This Day in History – February 26th

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1815 – Napoleon escapes exile on the island of Elba – Born in 1769 in Corsica, Napoleon Bonaparte rose to prominence as a military leader and politician during the French Revolution. One of his notable early accomplishments took place in October 1795 when he quelled a large Royalist riot in Paris, an event which is generally seen as the victorious end of the French Revolution. As a result, he was given command of the French Army in Italy, which he led on a series of successful campaigns into Austria and southern Germany in 1796-1797. In Egypt in 1798, seeking allies to help him invade Britain, French soldiers uncovered the Rosetta Stone, which was the key to unlocking modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Despite defeats in Egypt and Syria, Napoleon returned to France a hero. He consolidated his power and formed a dictatorship with himself in charge. He was crowned Emperor Napoleon I by the Pope in December 1804. He conquered Vienna in November 1805 and, at the Battle of Austerlitz, defeated a massive coalition of 85,000 Russian and Austrian forces united against him. He took over Spain and appointed his brother Joseph as King of Spain in 1808. By 1811, France held sway from Norway to Poland, and from Amsterdam to Rome, but also had plenty of enemies. The next year, Napoleon commenced a misguided invasion of Russia, inflicting hundreds of thousands of casualties on the Russians, but losing as many or more of his own forces. Sure that he could still win, in late 1813 he turned down a peace offer by those allied against him that would have left him as Emperor, but would have meant giving up a great deal of his conquered territory. French leaders in Paris surrendered to the coalition in March 1814. He abdicated his throne the following month and, by the Treaty of Fontainebleau, was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba near Tuscany, apart from his wife and son, who were in Austria. After surviving a suicide attempt, on this date in 1815 along with a force of about 700 men, he escaped Elba. He landed on the French mainland two days later and began marching north to Paris. He arrived there on March 20, with over a half million soldiers from Great Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia already committed to end his second reign as emperor, popularly known as the Hundred Days. He was vanquished by the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815 and lived out the rest of his life in exile on the island of Saint Helena off the west coast of Africa. He died there May 5, 1821.

1829 – Levi Strauss, founder of the fashion company Levi Strauss & Co, is born – Levi Strauss, who founded the first company to manufacture blue jeans, was born in Buttenheim, Germany on this date in 1829. At the age of 18, Strauss, his mother and two sisters travelled to the United States, where his brothers Jonas and Louis had started a dry goods business in New York City. Going into business with them, he moved to Kentucky to sell their wares, becoming an American citizen in early 1853. As the California Gold Rush of 1849 was still in full effect at this time, the Strauss’ decided to open up a branch of their business on the west coast, in San Francisco. Levi was chosen by the family to head west, and arrived in San Francisco in March 1853. He opened his dry goods wholesale business as Levi Strauss & Co., importing fine dry goods including clothing, bedding, combs and purses from his brothers in New York. While there, he met a Latvian immigrant and tailor named Jacob Davis who regularly bought denim cloth from Strauss. As his customers often brought him torn pants, Davis got the idea to reinforce sections of pants with copper rivets. Davis suggested he and Strauss go into business together making and selling these tough working pants. They received a patent May 20, 1873 and created their first pair of “Levis 501 Jeans” in the 1890s, a style that went on to become among the world’s best selling clothing items. Strauss died Sept. 26, 1902, in San Francisco at the age of 73. At the time, his fortune was estimated at around 6 million dollars, or closer to $164 million today. Some other wealthy and successful businessmen who rose to prominence in the 19th Century were also born on this date, including travelling Wild West showman “Buffalo” Bill Cody, in 1846, and the Canadian-born founder of the Dow Chemical Company Herbert Henry Dow, in 1866. Today would also have been country music pioneer Johnny Cash’s 84th birthday.

1935 – Adolf Hitler violates the Treaty of Versailles by ordering the reformation of Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe – After the end of the First World War, on May 8, 1920, the air arms of Germany’s army and navy were ordered to be disbanded. Terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed June 28, 1919, stated that Germany was forbidden to have any air force. However, during the years that followed, German military pilots continued to train in violation of the treaty, under the guise of training at civil aviation schools, and sometimes secretly in conjunction with the Soviet Union. After Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in Germany, a former German flying ace with 22 victories, Hermann Göring, became National Kommissar for aviation and, in April 1933, the Reich Air Ministry was established. That organization was in charge of developing and producing aircraft. On May 15, all military aviation organizations, among the largest being the “National Socialist Flyers Corps,” were merged into the Reich Air Ministry, essentially establishing the Luftwaffe and providing it right away with a strong Nazi affiliation. The announcement of the formation of the Luftwaffe took place on this date in 1935, in blatant defiance of the Versailles Treaty. Luftwaffe fighter pilots in the “Condor Legion” fought on the side of the Franco regime in the Spanish Civil War, gaining experience and learning lessons that made their air force one of the most sophisticated, technologically advanced and battle-experienced air forces in the world, when war began in Europe in 1939. During World War II, the Luftwaffe saw action in Poland, the Soviet Union, North Africa and across Western and Southern Europe. Though they took part in the Battle of Britain, causing severe damage to the Royal Air Force’s infrastructure and British cities during the “Blitz,” they did not achieve victory there. They are known to have committed war crimes, including strafing groups of civilian refugees and conducting human experiments. The Luftwaffe was disbanded in 1946.

1993 – A truck carrying a bomb explodes below the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing six and injuring hundreds – On this date in 1993, a bombing at the World Trade Center in New York shocked America, leaving six dead and injuring scores more. “We all have that feeling of being violated,” said the governor of the state of New York Mario Cuomo. “No foreign people or force has ever done this to us. Until now we were invulnerable.” The explosion left a gaping hole in a wall above an underground walkway where most of those who died were crushed by the ceiling. It ripped through three floors of concrete, scattering ash and debris and set off a fire that sent choking smoke and flames up through one of the 110-story “Twin Towers,” trapping office workers who were forced to smash windows for air. At the time, around 100,000 people worked in and visited the 1,700 ft towers every day. The explosion was caused by a 1,336 pound urea nitrate-hydrogen gas device that had been intended to send the North Tower (Tower 1) crashing into the South Tower (Tower 2), which would have brought both towers down and killed tens of thousands. In May 1994, four men – Mohammed Salameh, Nidal Ayyad, Mahmud Abouhalima and Ahmad Ajaj – were sentenced to life for bombing the World Trade Center. The charges included conspiracy, explosive destruction of property, and interstate transportation of explosives. In October 1995 Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind cleric who preached at mosques in Brooklyn and Jersey City, was sentenced to life for masterminding the bombing. In November 1997, two more were convicted: Ramzi Yousef, another organizer of the bombings, and Eyad Ismoil, who drove the truck carrying the bomb. Rahman’s organisation, the Islamic Group, is believed to have had links to Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, who masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that succeeded in bringing down the towers, killing almost 3,000 people.

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