This Day in History – August 5th

1620 – The Mayflower leaves Southampton, England on its first attempt to reach North America – April showers bring May flowers, but what do Mayflowers bring? Pilgrims. But we all know that. Here are a few details about the Pilgrims’ journey from England to what is now the United States, fleeing religious persecution from King James, that you might not have heard before. There were originally supposed to be two ships bringing them across the Atlantic. The second was the ill-fated Speedwell, which departed from Southampton, England with the Mayflower on this date in 1620. Right away, the Speedwell was found to be taking on water, so they stopped at Dartmouth for repairs. On their second attempt, they had not even sailed 200 miles west when the Speedwell sprung another leak. The two ships turned around and docked back at Plymouth, England. The Pilgrims decided to cross in only the Mayflower. They departed once more from Plymouth on Sept. 6, on what was this time a successful oceanic crossing. In command of the ship’s 102 passengers and roughly 30 crew members was Captain Christopher Jones. He had already sailed as far away as Greenland and to the Mediterranean. Still, it was a gruelling journey, fighting off choppy seas and strong westerly winds – with two people dying on the way – before they sighted land on Nov. 9. The weather forced them to anchor at modern day Cape Cod, Massachusetts, far off course from where they intended to settle in the colony of Virginia. Almost half of the settlers in Plymouth died in their first winter, however within a decade Plymouth Colony was home to 300 settlers. Over 7,000 people called it home by 1691 when it was incorporated into the Province of Massachusetts Bay. It was one of the earliest successful colonies to be founded by the English in North America, and the first large, permanent English settlement in New England.

1864 – In the U.S. Civil War, a Union fleet led by Rear Admiral David G. Farragut is victorious in the Battle of Mobile Bay – Following the loss of New Orleans in 1862, Mobile, Alabama remained the most important port still in Confederate hands along the Gulf of Mexico east of the Mississippi River. However, by 1864, a Union blockade was tightening all along the eastern coast of the United States. It was on this date in 1864 that Union naval forces, led by Rear Admiral David G. Farragut, and around 1,500 members of the Union Army launched an attack on the forts guarding entry into Mobile Bay. The Confederacy had three forts at the mouth of the bay with almost 1,500 soldiers between them, and some artillery. On the water, they had laid out a mine field of torpedoes, and also had a number of gunboats. Most impressive was the CSS Tennessee, a steam-powered ironclad – a nearly impenetrable state-of-the-art floating fortress. One of the most famous episodes of the battle involves Farragut ordering his ships to run through the minefield, thereby staying out of range of the forts’ artillery. When asked ‘what about the torpedoes?’ He is said to have barked back, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” As the Confederate ships were battered and sunk, the CSS Tennessee’s commander James D. Johnson decided to take on the remaining Union fleet single-handedly, as opposed to seeking shelter. It doled out more damage than it received, until finally the sputtering steamship was unable to navigate and they were forced to surrender. The siege of the Confederate forts continued until Aug. 23, when they surrendered (with help from the captured and newly restored USS Tennessee). Complete control of lower Mobile Bay passed to the Union forces.

1930 – Neil Armstrong, first man on the Moon, is born – Today would be American astronaut Neil Armstrong’s 86th birthday. Armstrong (1930-2012) was born near Wapakoneta, Ohio, the oldest of the three siblings. When he was two, his father took him to the Cleveland Air Races and, in July 1936, he experienced his first flight in an air plane. These were some of the major early events that inspired in him a love of flying. He went on to become a Navy pilot during the Korean War, flying his first jet Jan. 5, 1951. He flew almost 80 missions over Korea for a total of 121 hours in the air, receiving a number of medals. After the war, he studied aeronautical engineering at Purdue University, and began working as a test pilot, logging over 900 flights. In 1957, he first flew in a “rocket plane,” later flying the experimental Bell X-1 plane at an altitude of 207,500 feet (over 63 km high). In June 1962, Armstrong’s application to join NASA’s Apollo program arrived a few days late, but his friend Dick Day slipped it into the pile before anyone could notice. On March 16, 1966, aboard Gemini 8, Armstrong made his first spaceflight. However, it’s his second and final trip into space that is generally seen as more memorable. Armstrong was commander of Apollo 11, the first manned Moon landing, which launched July 16, 1969. On July 21, 1969 Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. So far, only 11 others have accomplished this feat. Armstrong died in Cincinnati on Aug. 25, 2012, less than a month after his 82nd birthday, due to complications from coronary artery bypass surgery.

1940 – The Soviet Union annexes Latvia – For a long time throughout its history, the Baltic nation of Latvia, which has land borders with Estonia, Lithuania, Russia and Belarus, was dominated by larger nations. In medieval times, Crusaders from Western Europe ruled over the country and Riga, its capital, which, due to its location on the shore of the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the Daugava River, was a strategically important link between east and west. Over the years, its much larger Eastern European neighbours, the Pols, the Swedes, and the Russians, took turns ruling over it. This came to an end when the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the end of hostilities in the First World War created a power vacuum, which Latvian leaders seized. On Nov. 18, 1918, the People’s Council of Latvia proclaimed independence for their new country. In the late 1930s however, Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia met to decide how they would carve up Eastern Europe. Under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed Aug. 24, 1939, Latvia fell under the Soviet “sphere of influence” along with Finland and Estonia, meaning basically that, for Russia, these places were “up for grabs,” and that would be okay with Germany. A week later Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. Later that year, Russia compelled Latvia to permit about 25,000 Soviet troops into Latvian territory. In the months that followed, the Latvian government was purged and replaced by Russian puppets whose sole objective was petitioning for membership in the Soviet Union. On this date in 1940, Latvia became the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, dominated by Russia once more. Germany was the only western nation to recognize the annexation as legitimate. Russia recaptured Latvia in October 1944 from Germany. In all, during World War II, 200,000 Latvian citizens died, including 75,000 Jewish Latvians. It wasn’t until Aug. 21, 1991, during the dissolution of the USSR, that Latvia finally achieved independence as a democratic parliamentary republic once more. More recently, tensions are high in Latvia, which is now a member of NATO and the European Union, that Russia may have ideas about re-annexing its Baltic neighbour sometime soon.

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