It’s Friday! TGIF! Did You Know…
* 1813 – War of 1812 – American Invasion Fleet Captures York – Burns the Parliament.
No day in Toronto history has more drama — or consequence — than Saturday 205 years ago, when the Battle of York raged, the city was lost and a huge explosion destroyed Fort York.
It’s hard to imagine today but the place we call Toronto was once brutally invaded by a foreign power, looted and its public buildings burned. That was the penalty for defeat in the Battle of York, 205 years ago today. But destruction didn’t end there. A thirst for revenge ultimately resulted in the burning of the White House in Washington.
Enemy troops began rowing ashore in the early morning, landing just west of where the Canadian National Exhibition stands now. They were met by a small force of Indian warriors, which they pushed aside. Then British regular troops attacked, desperately trying to stem the invading tide. At one point they resorted to a bayonet charge, but to no avail.
In a controversial decision the British commander, Major Gen. Roger Hale Sheaffe, concluded that resistance was hopeless. He withdrew his regulars and had them retreat to Kingston. A wooden bridge over the Don River was set ablaze in their wake and the militia and residents of York were left to their fate.
Finally, with Fort York on the verge of capture, an order was given to detonate its huge supply of gunpowder. The resulting blast was heard on the other side of Lake Ontario. Stones, timber and other debris were flung almost half a kilometer with devastating effect.
About 40 Americans were killed, including the commander of the landing force, Brigadier Gen. Zebulon Pike, a famous explorer for whom Pikes Peak in Colorado is named. And more than 200 invaders were wounded. (Here’s proof that anyone who thinks Canadian history is boring simply doesn’t know the topic.)
York was captured despite these losses and beginning the next day the town was plundered. Homes were looted and buildings housing the Legislative Assembly, at Front and Parliament Sts. were burned before the Americans sailed away on May 8.
Outrage over that wanton destruction inspired British forces to invade and despoil Washington a year later, including setting fire to the White House. And it had another, more important effect. Anger over the fate of York and the heartless burning of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) in December of that year galvanized Canadian resistance in the War of 1812.
Some southern Ontario settlers, especially those with roots in the United States, had been inclined to welcome American troops. Not after York and Newark. “Any idea that the Americans were liberators was long gone,” writes James Laxer in Tecumseh & Brock, his compelling book on the war. “Upper Canadians were becoming a people in their own right.”
* 1978 Afghan president is overthrown and murdered
Afghanistan President Sardar Mohammed Daoud is overthrown and murdered in a coup led by pro-communist rebels. The brutal action marked the beginning of political upheaval in Afghanistan that resulted in intervention by Soviet troops less than two years later.
Daoud had ruled Afghanistan since coming to power in a coup in 1973. His relations with the neighboring Soviet Union had grown progressively worse since that time as he pursued a campaign against Afghan communists. The murder of a leading Afghan Communist Party leader in early April 1978 may have encouraged the communists to launch their successful campaign against the Daoud regime later that month. In the political chaos that followed the death of Daoud, Nur Mohammed Taraki, head of the Afghan Communist Party, took over the presidency. In December 1978, Afghanistan signed a 20-year “friendship treaty” with the Soviet Union, by which increasing amounts of Russian military and economic assistance flowed into the country. None of this, however, could stabilize the Taraki government. His dictatorial style and his decision to turn Afghanistan into a one-party state alienated many people in the heavily Moslem country. In September 1979, Taraki was himself overthrown and murdered. Three months later, Soviet troops crossed into Afghanistan and installed a government acceptable to the Russians, and a war between Afghan rebels and Soviet troops erupted. The conflict lasted until Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew the Soviet forces in 1988.
In the years following the Soviet intervention, Afghanistan became a Cold War battlefield. The United States responded quickly and harshly to the Soviet action by freezing arms talks, cutting wheat sales to Russia, and boycotting the 1980 Olympic games in Moscow. Tension increased after Ronald Reagan became president in 1981. The United States provided arms and other assistance to what Reagan referred to as the “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan. For the Soviets, the Afghanistan intervention was a disaster, draining both Soviet finances and manpower. In the United States, commentators were quick to label the battle in Afghanistan “Russia’s Vietnam.”
* 1865 Union soldiers die in steamship explosion
The steamboat Sultana explodes on the Mississippi River near Memphis, killing 1,700 passengers including many discharged Union soldiers.
The Sultana was launched from Cincinnati in 1863. The boat was 260 feet long and had an authorized capacity of 376 passengers and crew. It was soon employed to carry troops and supplies along the lower Mississippi River.
On April 25, 1865, the Sultana left New Orleans with 100 passengers. It stopped at Vicksburg, Mississippi, for repair of a leaky boiler. R. G. Taylor, the boilermaker on the ship, advised Captain J. Cass Mason that two sheets on the boiler had to be replaced, but Mason ordered Taylor to simply patch the plates until the ship reached St. Louis. Mason was part owner of the riverboat, and he and the other owners were anxious to pick up discharged Union prisoners at Vicksburg. The federal government promised to pay $5 for each enlisted man and $10 for each officer delivered to the North. Such a contract could pay huge dividends, and Mason convinced local military authorities to pick up the entire contingent despite the presence of two other steamboats at Vicksburg.
When the Sultana left Vicksburg, it carried 2,100 troops and 200 civilians, more than six times its capacity. On the evening of April 26, the ship stopped at Memphis before cruising across the river to pick up coal in Arkansas. As it steamed up the river above Memphis, a thunderous explosion tore through the boat. Metal and steam from the boilers killed hundreds, and hundreds more were thrown from the boat into the chilly waters of the river. The Mississippi was already at flood stage, and the Sultana had only one lifeboat and a few life preservers. Only 600 people survived the explosion. A board of inquiry later determined the cause to be insufficient water in the boiler–overcrowding was not listed as a cause. The Sultana accident is still the largest maritime disaster in U.S. history.
* 1667 John Milton sells the copyright to Paradise Lost
Blind poet John Milton sells the copyright to his masterpiece Paradise Lost (1667) for a mere 10 pounds.
Milton was born and raised the indulged son of a prosperous London businessman. He excelled at languages in grammar school and at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he took a bachelor’s and a master’s, which he completed in 1632. He then decided to continue his own education, spending six years reading every major work of literature in several languages. He published an elegy for a college classmate, Lycidas, in 1637 and went abroad in 1638 to continue his studies.
In 1642, Milton married 17-year-old Mary Powell, who left him just weeks later. Milton wrote a series of pamphlets arguing for the institution of divorce based on incompatibility. The idea, however mild it seems today, was scandalous at the time, and Milton experienced a vehement backlash for his writing.
Milton’s wife returned to him in 1645, and the pair had three daughters. However, he continued espousing controversial views. He supported the execution of Charles I, he railed against the control of the church by bishops, and he upheld the institution of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, for which he became secretary of foreign languages.
In 1651, he lost his sight but fulfilled his government duties with the help of assistants, including poet Andrew Marvell. His wife died the following year. He remarried in 1656, but his second wife died in childbirth. Four years later, the commonwealth was overturned, and Milton was thrown in jail, saved only by the intervention of friends. The blind man lost his position and property.
He remarried in 1663. Blind, impoverished, and jobless, he began to dictate his poem Paradise Lost to his family. When the poem was ready for publication, he sold it for 10 pounds. Once printed, the poem was immediately hailed as a masterpiece of the English language. In 1671, he wrote Paradise Regained, followed by Samson Agonistes. He died in 1674.
* 1963 High school freshman Little Peggy March earns a #1 hit with “I Will Follow Him”
On April 27, 1963, Margaret Annemarie Battavio’s very first single, “I Will Follow Him,” reached #1 on the U.S. pop charts. With her 15th birthday only six weeks behind her, and three more years of high school ahead of her, the singer better known as Little Peggy March became the youngest female performer ever to top the Billboard Hot 100, but she’d never crack the top 10 again. Financial exploitation by an unscrupulous manager and a string of disappointing singles thwarted Peggy’s efforts to capitalize on her early success, but if this sounds like the familiar start of a depressing episode of VH1’s Behind the Music, think again. Her domestic career may have peaked while she was still in pigtails, but Little Peggy March pulled herself up by her bootstraps to build a career of impressive proportions in the parallel universe of Europop.
Little Peggy March went on to score hits in Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Japan, but the place that really made her career was Germany. Maybe it was because she learned their language, or maybe it was because “I Will Follow Him” pushed some kind of button in their national psyche, but whatever the reason, the Germans went bonkers for Peggy March. Songs like “I Wish I Were A Princess,” “My Teenage Castle (Is Crumbling Down)” and “Johnny Cool” fell flat commercially in America. But over in Germany, where the magician David Copperfield is revered as a Sex Gott and David Hasselhoff was the first human invited to sing on the toppled Berlin Wall, little Margaret Battavio from Lansdale, Pennsylvania, spent the 1960s and 70s scoring hits like “Telegram aus Tennessee,” winning the Baden-Baden Shlagerfestspiele and raking in the deutsche marks with albums like Hey, Das Ist Musik Für Mich. And if those accomplishments alone do not impress, consider this: In the 1980s, Peggy March also wrote songs that got Europeans to spend money on records by Audrey Landers (of Landers Sisters fame) and by the duo of Jermaine Jackson and Pia Zadora.
After spending the better part of two decades living in Germany, Peggy March eventually returned to the United States where she continues to perform regularly and where she still holds the record for youthful chart achievement that she set on this day in 1963.
* Canadian History Timeline – Canada’s Historical Chronology http://canadachannel.ca/todayincanadianhistory/index.php
* This Day In History – What Happened Today http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/