From Burgoyne's Surrender to the First Carrier Takeoff

This Week in American Military History:

Oct. 17, 1777: After having been decisively defeated by Continental Army Gen. Horatio Gates at Second Saratoga (see Oct. 7), British Gen. John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne surrenders his entire army, between 5,000 and 7,000 men. 

Oct. 17, 1922:  Lt. Commander Virgil C. Griffin, piloting a Vought VE-7SF bi-winged fighter, makes the first-ever “official” takeoff from a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, USS Langley – a coaling ship which had been converted into America’s first aircraft carrier – in York River, Virginia.

Though Griffin is indeed the first man to takeoff from a “carrier”, he is not the first to takeoff from a warship. That distinction belongs to Eugene B. Ely who took-off from a platform affixed to a cruiser in 1910.

Oct. 18, 1859:  U.S. Marine Lt. Israel Greene and a detachment of Marines – under the overall command of U.S. Army Col. (future Confederate general) Robert E. Lee – storm the now-famous fire-engine house at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Inside the building, abolitionist John Brown and his raiders have barricaded themselves following a failed attempt to spark a slave uprising in the town.

The signal for Greene’s Marines to attack is a simple waving of U.S. Army Lt. (future Confederate general) James Ewell Brown “J.E.B.” Stuart’s plumed hat, after Stuart (Col. Lee’s aide and the designated negotiator) fails to persuade Brown to surrender.

Signal given, the Marines rush forward. Two leathernecks attempt to batter down the door with sledgehammers. Greene then orders 10-12 men to break through the door by ramming it with a wooden ladder. They do, and Greene leads his Marines into the breach.

According to Greene’s report:

“I brought my saber down with all my strength upon his [John Brown’s] head. He was moving as the blow fell, and I suppose I did not strike him where I intended, for he received a deep saber cut in the back of the neck. He fell senseless on his side, then rolled over on his back. He had in his hand a short Sharpe’s cavalry carbine. I think he had just fired as I reached Colonel [Lewis] Washington [a hostage], for the Marine who followed me into the aperture made by the ladder received a bullet in the abdomen, from which he died in a few minutes…

“Instinctively as Brown fell I gave him a saber thrust in the left breast. The sword I carried was a light [dress] uniform weapon, and, either not having a point or striking something hard in Brown’s accouterments, did not penetrate. The blade bent double.”

Greene, whose blade strikes Brown’s belt-buckle, goes on to describe his Marines as “tigers,” adding “a storming assault is not a play-day sport.”

The Marines overwhelm Brown’s men and retake the building in three minutes.

Brown will be hanged. Greene will rise to the rank of major in the yet-to-be formed Confederate States Marine Corps.

Oct. 19, 1781:  British Gen. Sir Charles Cornwallis surrenders his entire army to the combined American-French forces of Generals George Washington and Comte de Rochambeau at Yorktown, Virginia.

Oct. 19, 1950:  United Nations forces – primarily the U.S. Eighth Army under the command of Gen. Walton Harris Walker – enter and seize Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. 

Oct. 20, 1944:  U.S. Army Gen. and Medal of Honor recipient Douglas MacArthur makes good on his promise to “return to the Philippines,” landing at Leyte, and declaring: 

“By the grace of Almighty God our forces stand again on Philippine soil … 

“Rally to me. Let the indomitable spirit of Bataan and Corregidor lead on. As the lines of battle roll forward to bring you within the zone of operations, rise and strike. Strike at every favorable opportunity. For your homes and hearths, strike! For future generations of your sons and daughters, strike! In the name of your sacred dead, strike! Let no heart be faint. Let every arm be steeled. The guidance of divine God points the way. Follow in His Name to the Holy Grail of righteous victory!”

Within days, the great sea battle of Leyte Gulf will open.

Oct. 22, 1962:  As the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolds, Pres. John F. Kennedy directs a “quarantine” – essentially a Naval blockade – of Cuba.

In an address to the nation, Kennedy says, “The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are; but it is the one most consistent with our character and courage as a nation and our commitments around the world. The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.”

Oct. 23, 1983: A Jihadist terrorist driving a bomb-laden truck crashes into and detonates inside the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 243 American military personnel.