This Week in American Military History:
Jan. 17, 1781: Continental Army forces — including infantry, cavalry, dragoons (horse-mounted infantry), and militia – under the command of Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan, clash with a better-equipped, more-experienced force of British Army regulars and Loyalists under the command of Lt. Col. Banastre “Bloody Ban” Tarleton in a sprawling pastureland known as Hannah’s Cowpens in the South Carolina upcountry.
Celebrated today as the Battle of Cowpens, the engagement ends in a decisive victory for Morgan – who defeats Tarleton in a classic double-envelopment – and a near-irrevocable loss of men, equipment, and reputation for the infamous Tarleton and his “British Legion.”
Tarleton’s boss, Gen. Sir Charles Cornwallis, will abandon South Carolina and in less than two months chalk up a pyrrhic victory at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse (N.C.). Meanwhile, word of Morgan’s victory will spread like wildfire throughout the Carolinas and up into Virginia where – at Yorktown – Cornwallis’ entire army (including Tarleton and his feared green-jacketed horsemen) will surrender to the combined American-French forces of Generals George Washington and Comte de Rochambeau on October 19, almost nine months to the day after Cowpens.
Jan. 17, 1991: Two-hundred-ten years to the day after the Battle of Cowpens; American, British, and French forces – this time all three on the same team – kick off what Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein predicted would be “the Mother of all Battles” with a series of blistering air attacks aimed at destroying the Iraqi Air Force, Iraq’s air-defense forces and overall command and control. It is day one of Operation Desert Storm.
Jan. 18, 1911: Flying over San Francisco Bay in his Curtiss Pusher Model “D” aircraft, pioneer aviator Eugene B. Ely approaches the anchored cruiser USS Pennsylvania and manages to land onto a special platform fitted with a makeshift tailhook system aboard the ship. Upon landing, he purportedly says, “It was easy enough. I think the trick could be successfully turned nine times out of ten.”
Ely’s landing is the first-ever airplane landing aboard a ship. Ely already had become the first man to take off from a ship in November. In July, he will be commissioned a second lieutenant in the California National Guard. In October, he will be killed in a crash during an aerobatic demonstration in Macon, Georgia.
Jan. 19-20, 1770: The little-known but historically significant Battle of Golden Hill erupts in New York City between a group of angry Manhattan patriots and a contingent of British soldiers.
The clash begins when members of the patriot organization “Sons of Liberty” snatch a few of the King’s men, who are cutting down wooden “liberty poles” (symbols of resistance against British rule) which had been erected by the “Sons.” The redcoats also were reportedly posting bills condemning the Sons of Liberty as “the real enemies of society.” A struggle ensues. Redcoats from the nearby barracks respond, and a bayonet charge is ordered. Several are wounded on both sides, and one civilian is killed.
Less than seven weeks before the Boston Massacre, the Battle of Golden Hill is considered by some historians as the first armed clash of the American Revolution.
Jan. 20, 1914: Nearly three years to the day after Eugene Ely lands his airplane on USS Pennsylvania, “the cradle of Naval aviation” is born at Pensacola, Florida.
According to the American Naval Historical Center: “The aviation unit from Annapolis [Maryland], consisting of nine officers, 23 men, seven aircraft, portable hangars, and other gear, under Lieutenant J. H. Towers” arrives at Pensacola aboard the battleship USS Mississippi and the bulk-cargo ship USS Orion “to set up a flying school.”
Jan. 21, 1903: The Militia Act of 1903 – also known as the “Dick Act” (Congressman and Maj. Gen. Charles Dick authored much of the legislation) – is passed, establishing federal standards and greater federal control over state militias, essentially creating the modern National Guard.
Jan. 21, 1954: First Lady Mamie Eisenhower breaks a bottle of champagne across the bow of USS Nautilus in Groton, Connecticut, launching the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. The following year, Nautilus gets underway, begins breaking numerous sea-travel records, and becomes the first “ship” to cross the North Pole.
Nautilus is the U.S. Navy’s sixth vessel bearing the name. The first Nautilus, a schooner built in 1799, saw action against the Barbary pirates and in the War of 1812.
Jan. 22, 1944: Allied forces, including the U.S. VI Corps under the command of Maj. Gen. John P. Lucas (of Lt. Gen. Mark Clark’s Fifth Army), begin a series of landings along a stretch of western Italian coastline in the Anzio-Nettuno area. Codenamed Operation Shingle, the Allies achieve complete surprise against – and encounter little initial resistance from – the Germans. But the landings kick off what will become one of the most grueling campaigns of World War II.
It is during the subsequent fighting (which continues for several months) that a dead German officer’s diary is found, a portion of which reads:
“American parachutists – devils in baggy pants – are less than 100 meters from my outpost line. I can’t sleep at night; they pop up from nowhere and we never know when or how they will strike next. Seems like the black-hearted devils are everywhere.”