Today in 1861 Jefferson Davis, received word he was selected president of the new Confederate States of America by the Confederacy’s constitutional convention in Montgomery, Alabama. Davis was at his plantation, Brierfield, when a messenger arrived from nearby Vicksburg, Mississippi. The presidency was not a position Davis wanted, but he accepted it out of a sense of duty. Varina Davis wrote of her husband’s reaction to the news: “Reading that telegram he looked so grieved that I feared some evil had befallen our family. After a few minutes he told me like a man might speak of a sentence of death.”
Davis drew sharp criticism during the Civil War. Alexander Stephens, the vice president, said Davis was “weak and vacillating, timid, petulant, peevish, obstinate.”
Davis remained president of the Confederacy until its government was dissolved on May 5, 1865. Less than a week later, he was captured by the Union and jailed for two years. He died at age 81 in New Orleans in 1889.
Today in1962, Francis Gary Powers was released by the Soviets in exchange for Soviet Colonel Rudolf Abel, a senior KGB spy. The two men were brought to separate sides of the Glienicker Bridge, which connects East and West Berlin. Powers and Abel crossed the border into freedom at the same moment. (Frederic Pryor–an American student held by East German authorities since August 1961–was released to American authorities at another border checkpoint.)
Powers piloted one of the high altitude U-2 spy planes developed by the United States in the late-1950s. On May 1, 1960, Powers’ U-2 was shot down by a Soviet missile. He and much of the plane were captured. In retaliation, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev called off a scheduled summit with President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
On June 21, 1957, Rudolf Ivanovich Abel was arrested in Manhattan. He was tried in a federal court in Brooklyn and in October found guilty on three counts of espionage and sentenced to 30 years imprisonment.
Upon returning to the United States, Powers was cleared by the CIA and the Senate of any personal blame for the U-2 incident. He published a book, Operation Overflight (1970), about the incident and in 1977 was killed in the crash of a helicopter that he flew as a reporter for a Los Angeles television station.
Abel returned to Moscow, where he was forced into retirement by the KGB, who feared that during his five years of captivity U.S. authorities had convinced him to become a double agent. He was given a modest pension and in 1968 published KGB-approved memoirs. He died in 1971.
The Soviet Union declared that its release of Powers was motivated by “a desire to improve relations between the Soviet Union and the United States.” The exchange was part of the ongoing diplomatic dance between Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy. Both men seemed earnestly to desire better relations, and the exchange was no doubt part of their efforts. Just a few months later the Cuban Missile Crisis erased the memory of these diplomatic overtures and brought the two powers to the brink of nuclear conflict.
Today in 1763 the Seven Years’ War, a global conflict known in America as the French and Indian War, ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris by France, Great Britain, and Spain.
In the early 1750s, France’s expansion into the Ohio River valley repeatedly brought the country into armed conflict with the British colonies. In 1756, the British formally declared war against France. By 1760, the French had been expelled from Canada, and by 1763 all of France’s allies in Europe had either made a separate peace with Prussia or had been defeated. Spanish attempts to aid France in the Americas had failed, and France also suffered defeats against British forces in India.
In the Treaty of Paris, France lost all claims to Canada and gave Louisiana to Spain, while Britain received Spanish Florida, Upper Canada, and various French holdings overseas. The treaty ensured the colonial and maritime supremacy of Britain and strengthened the 13 American colonies by removing their European rivals to the north and the south. Fifteen years later, French bitterness over the loss of most of their colonial empire contributed to their intervention in the American Revolution on the side of the Patriots.
Today in 1846 Mormon leader Brigham Young, successor to Joseph Smith, abandoned Nauvoo, Illinois, and began leading 1,600 Mormons west across the frozen Mississippi in subzero temperatures to a temporary refuge at Sugar Grove, Iowa. Young planned to make the westward trek in stages, and he determined the first major stopping point would be along the Missouri River opposite Council Bluffs. He sent out a reconnaissance team to plan the route across Iowa, dig wells at camping spots, and in some cases, plant corn to provide food for the hungry emigrants. The mass of Mormons made the journey to the Missouri River, and by the fall of 1846, the Winter Quarters were home to 12,000 Mormons.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had been persecuted for their beliefs ever since Joseph Smith founded the church in New York in 1830. In1839, Smith hoped his new spiritual colony of Nauvoo would provide a permanent safe haven for the Saints, but anti-Mormon prejudice there proved virulent. Angry mobs murdered Smith and his brother in June 1844 and began burning homes and threatening the citizens of Nauvoo.
After a hard journey across the western landscape, Young and his followers emerged out onto the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. That year, some 1,600 Mormons arrived to begin building a new civilization in the valley. The next year, 2,500 more made the passage. By the time Young died in 1877, more than 100,000 people were living in the surrounding Great Basin, the majority of them Mormons.
Young, however, had not escaped the troubles that plagued the Church in the East. By early 1848, the Mormons’ haven became a U.S. territory after the American victory in the Mexican War. The Mormons had finally found a permanent home along the Great Salt Lake, but its isolation and freedom from persecution was short-lived.
Today in 1916 Lindley M. Garrison resigned his position as secretary of war as a result of bitter disagreements with President Woodrow Wilson over America’s national defense strategies.
After the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, Garrison clashed repeatedly with many in the Wilson administration, including the president himself, who regarded the secretary as notably hawkish with respect to America’s national defense. At the time, Wilson favored a policy of strict neutrality—he would be reelected later that year on a platform promising to keep America out of the war—and he objected to Garrison’s belief that a full-time reserve army should be created as a foundation for national defense and, more immediately, for support in case the U.S. entered the European war.
Newton D. Baker took over as secretary of war upon Garrison’s resignation. Chosen by Wilson for his pacifist leanings, Baker would nonetheless help the president reach the decision to enter the war in April 1917, submit a plan for universal military conscription to Congress and preside over the mobilization of some 4 million American soldiers.
Today in 1942 the first Medal of Honor during World War II was awarded to 2nd Lt. Alexander Nininger (posthumously) for heroism during the Battle of Bataan.
Today in 1967 the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, clarifying the procedures for presidential succession in the event of the disability of a sitting president.
Rest in peace Laura Ingalls Wilder, author, who died today in 1957 at Mansfield, Missouri at the age of 90.
Laura Wilder was born February 7, 1867, in a log cabin near Pepin, Wisconsin. As child, her family moved to Indian Territory in Kansas, farming communities in Minnesota and Iowa and finally settled at De Smet, South Dakota.
As a wife, she and her husband traveled by covered wagon to Mansfield, Missouri, and established a family farm. It was not until she was in her 60′s that Wilder published Little House in the Big Woods (1932), an autobiographical account of her pioneer life. She published seven more novels based on her experiences growing up on the American frontier. These books, include Little House on the Prairie (1935), On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937) and The Long Winter (1940). A ninth novel, The First Four Years, (1971) was published posthumously, as were several other books based on Wilder’s journals and letters.
The “Little House” books have been translated into dozens of languages and continue to be read by legions of fans. The books also inspired a hit TV series, “Little House on the Prairie,” which originally aired from 1974 to 1982.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s longtime Missouri home, Rocky Ridge Farm, became a museum. She is buried in nearby Mansfield, Missouri.