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Today in History: September 18-20
Constantine defeats his final rival, an Arab army captures Damascus, and more
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September 18, 324: In a battle near the city of Chrysopolis in Anatolia, the armies of Roman emperors Constantine and Licinius meet in what proves to be the final battle of the Roman Tetrarchy multiple civil wars. Constantine, who had already handed Licinius serious defeats at the Battle of Adrianople and the naval Battle of the Hellespont in July, routed Licinius’s forces with an all-out frontal attack. Licinius fled to Nicomedia and then appealed to his wife Constantia, Constantine’s half-sister, to intercede on his behalf. After initially agreeing to spare him, Constantine had Licinius executed in 325. In winning at Chrysopolis, Constantine made himself the first sole emperor of Rome since Diocletian elevated Maximian to the status of Augustus in the west in 286. It was also after this battle that he decided to build a new capital on the site of a town called Byzantium, which he refounded as Konstantinoupolis or Constantinople.
September 18, 1810: The Government Assembly of the Kingdom of Chile, or the “First Government Junta,” takes power in the colony by pledging allegiance to the deposed King Ferdinand VII of Spain and rejecting Napoleon’s imposition of his brother, Joseph, on the Spanish throne, thus kicking off the Chilean War of Independence. Though it was supposed to be temporary, the junta continued fighting after Ferdinand’s restoration and didn’t stop fighting until Chile became an independent nation in the 1820s. Commemorated as Chilean Independence Day.
September 18, 1947: The National Security Act goes into effect, drastically reshaping the US national security bureaucracy. The previously cabinet level Department of War (renamed the Department of the Army) and Department of the Navy were subsumed into a new Department of Defense. The US Air Force was split from the Army into its own military branch, also under the new Defense Department. Outside the Pentagon, the act created the National Security Council within the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency, the first US peacetime intelligence agency. And we all lived happily ever after.
September 19, 634: The siege of Damascus ends with the Arabs conquering the city, one of the most important in the Byzantine Empire at the time. One of the first major victories of the Arabs’ 7th century conquests, primary sources say that the siege ended when the Arab commander, Khalid ibn al-Walid, took advantage of a celebration inside the city to exploit an undefended portion of the wall. To that point the siege had more or less stalemated as the Arabs lacked proper siege machinery. It’s suggested that Khalid was tipped off by a Monophysite Damascene priest, which if true highlights the sectarian problem that the Byzantines faced throughout the Levant and Egypt.
September 19, 1356: An English-Gascon army under Edward, the Black Prince, defeats a substantially larger French army under King John II at the Battle of Poitiers. John’s initial assaults broke on a strong English defensive line, and his final attempt was routed after the appearance of a small English cavalry unit. The battle ended with John a captive of the English army. Edward brought him to London where protracted, fitful negotiations with English King Edward III—sandwiched around England’s (largely unsuccessful) Reims campaign in northern France in 1359—eventually produced the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360. That pact ceded about a third of modern France to the English along with a very large ransom for John’s return, in return for which King Edward gave up his claim on the French throne. The treaty was meant to be decisive and indeed ended the “Edwardian” phase of the Hundred Years’ War, but fighting resumed (the “Caroline” phase) in 1369.
September 20, 1519: Ferdinand Magellan sets sail with a small fleet intending to circumnavigate the globe. Magellan became the first European to encounter what would later be dubbed the “Strait of Magellan,” cutting through the southern tip of South America. Hostile natives killed Magellan in a battle on the island of Mactan (today part of the Philippines), so he didn’t survive the voyage. But one of his ships—the Victoria—did, arriving in Spain in September 1522 under the command of Juan Sebastián Elcano and becoming the first vessel to successfully circle the Earth.
September 20, 1792: At the Battle of Valmy in northeastern France, a French revolutionary army defeats the invading Prussians under the Duke of Brunswick. The battle is also known as the “Cannonade of Valmy” because it never advanced beyond the opening artillery duel. The professional French gunners held their own with their Prussian counterparts and Brunswick abruptly called off his attempted infantry advance and retreated despite there having been only around 500 casualties on both sides. The importance of Valmy probably cannot be overstated, as it prevented the Prussians from marching on Paris and potentially snuffing out the French Revolution before it really began. As a test of the revolution’s concept of a “citizen army,” the French victory—their first in the War of the First Coalition—was a tremendous boost to morale, even if the role of “citizen soldiers” in the French army may have been a tad overblown (the French artillery corps, the key to the battle, was largely professional military). After the battle and partly because of it, the French National Convention abolished the monarchy on September 21 and the French Republic was born.
September 20, 2001: George W. Bush, in an address to Congress, declares war on Terror. And we all lived happily ever after.
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