This Day in History – April 15th

1861 – President Abraham Lincoln calls for the United States to assemble 75,000 volunteer troops to quell insurrection in South Carolina – Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States on Nov. 6, 1860. By February 1861, seven slave-owning states in the Deep South had seceded from the Union – before he had even taken office. Also before he had taken office, at the end of 1860, South Carolina demanded that the US Army abandon its forts and other facilities in Charleston Harbor. Rebel militias in the state proceeded to prevent the resupplying of Fort Sumter, which was the US Army’s largest fort in the area. American Major Robert Anderson refused an ultimatum by South Carolina governor Francis W. Pickens to abandon the fort and, early in the morning of April 12, 1861, Confederate forces began bombarding Fort Sumter until Anderson agreed to surrender and evacuate. It was on this date in 1861, that President Lincoln put out a call to the remaining States for a 75,000-man militia that would serve for three months to reclaim Charleston and prevent any similar actions from being taken by the South. Some Northern states filled their quotas quickly. For instance, there were so many volunteers in Ohio that in just over two weeks they would have met the call for 75,000 men by themselves, however Lincoln requested a specific amount of volunteers from each state. Some border state governors, such as Missouri and Kentucky, refused to send men to fight against their “sister Southern states.” Further South, Lincoln’s call for troops resulted in four additional states declaring their secession from the union, bringing the total in the Confederacy to 11. 75,000 men was not enough. By May, Lincoln had put out another call for an additional 42,000 men. By July, the U.S. Congress had authorized an additional 500,000 volunteers. As fate would have it, four years later on this date in 1865 – six days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender, Lincoln died, about nine hours after having been shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre during a performance of “Our American Cousin.”

1945 – British and Canadian troops liberate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany – BBC field journalist Richard Dimbleby described what he witnessed on this date in 1945, as the 11th Armoured division rolled into the walled compound of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp near Hanover, Germany. “The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life… This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.” Prior to that point, the Western Allies had heard little more than rumours of what the Red Army had encountered at similar camps in Poland. Canadian troops fighting in the division were among the first forces to witness the horrifying piles of dead and rotting corpses, strewn amongst thousands of sick and starving prisoners, including women and children, in the filthy and severely overcrowded camp. In fact, it was because so many of the inmates were diseased that Germany had agreed to surrender the camp to the Allies. There was no running water in the camp, and the conditions had led to epidemics of typhus, typhoid and tuberculosis. It was estimated about 30,000 had died in the previous few months, most due to starvation. The camp commandant, Josef Kramer, was placed under arrest, saying he was unashamed of the camp’s conditions. Captured German guards were made to dig mass graves for the prisoners, some holding as many as 5,000 corpses. Meanwhile, around 500 prisoners continued to die each day of disease and starvation immediately following the liberation. Mass evacuation of the camp began on April 21, and the last hut on the camp was burned to the ground a month later. Today, a landscaped park stands in its place. Camp commandant Kramer was later found guilty of war crimes and hanged in December 1945.


1947 – Jackie Robinson makes his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers – Through the first few decades of the 20th century, no Major League Baseball team employed a black player. Denied the chance to show off their skills to a national audience, African American baseball players – including all-time greats like Satchel Paige – played instead in the “Negro Leagues” and on touring “barnstorming” teams. Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey, a Methodist and a smart businessman, fought to change this system. He scouted out Jackie Robinson, then in his mid-20s playing for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League. Robinson was already a track star graduate from UCLA who had served in the military, and Rickey thought he would be an ideal player to break baseball’s colour barrier. As Rickey put it, he needed an athlete “with guts enough not to fight back” against the slurs and prejudice he would encounter from fans and players alike. Robinson made his professional debut with the Montreal Royals – the Dodgers’ farm club – on April 18, 1946. He went four-for-five and his first hit was a three-run home run. He also stole two bases in a 14-1 Montreal victory. The following year, six days before the start of the 1947 season, the Dodgers called Robinson up to the major leagues and he made his debut on this date. That season, he won the Rookie of the Year award, which has since been renamed in his honour. In the next 10 seasons, the Dodgers won the pennant six times, winning the World Series in 1955 thanks in part to Don Newcombe, who became the first black major league pitcher to win 20 games in a season. Robinson retired from baseball at age 37 on January 5, 1957. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility. He died of a heart attack on Oct. 24, 1972 at the age of only 53. In 1997 on this date, now known as Jackie Robinson Day, his jersey number, 42, was retired throughout the MLB. His role in the integration of professional baseball is seen as an important landmark in the American civil rights movement.

1989 – In Sheffield, England, 96 football fans at an FA Cup Semi-Final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest are killed – On this date in 1989, 96 people were killed and over 750 more were injured when they were crushed in an overcrowded standing terrace area at Hillsborough Stadium. The FA Cup, an annual knockout competition between English football clubs, has been played since 1871, making it the oldest association football competition in the world. Twenty-eight teams qualified for the first round of the tournament and, by April 1989, only four teams remained: Everton, Norwich City, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The semi-final between Everton and Norwich City proceeded as normally on this date in 1989, with Everton winning 1-0 in Birmingham. However, in Sheffield on the same date, tragedy struck during the match between Liverpool and Nottingham. It was later found that too many Liverpool fans had been allowed into the back of an already full “standing terrace.” Over 2,000 people were still pushing to get in the gates when the match started at 3:00 pm, so police ordered the gates to be opened to prevent a dangerous crush from happening outside the stadium. But as fans rushed in, those already there were pushed forward and crushed against tall safety fences. It took more than five minutes for authorities to realize the problem, as distressed fans began slipping onto the field and being lifted into nearby seats. A policeman ran onto the field and ordered the game to be stopped. Liverpool went on to beat Nottingham 3-1 at a re-scheduled semi-final on May 7, and later topped Everton 3-2 in that year’s FA Cup Final. The findings of a 1990 inquiry led to the elimination of standing terraces at all major football stadiums in England, Wales and Scotland. It remains the United Kingdom’s worst sporting or stadium-related disaster.

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