The World Turned Upside Down

It so often happens along the inexorable March Of History that great changes and meaningful events are the result of violence – usually massed violence in the forms of wars and battles, occasionally individual violence as murder and assassination – but sometimes potent change comes about in more appealing and productive ways. Many notable historical occurrences that have an impact upon the United States of America took place on 19 October, some violent, some not so much so.

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In 1864, on 19 October, Union General Philip Sheridan rallied his panicked forces to turn the tide of the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, ending once and for all the Confederate threat to invade the Union. The victory was decisive, but desperately costly. It did not end the conflict – that was still more than six months away – but from that point forward, the outcome of the war was inevitable: the Union would triumph. An important result of this victory, too, was that it served as a major boost for Abraham Lincoln’s campaign for a second term as President.

* * *

And it was on this day in 1781 that British General Lord Cornwallis surrendered his force of nearly 9,000 men to General George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia. Though the war did not officially end for two years, this surrender marked the effective end of British efforts to retain the Colonies by force. American independence was secured and the new nation could concentrate on rebuilding.

General Cornwallis had initially insisted on surrendering to the French, but General Rochambeau insisted that he was only there to assist Washington, and refused to accept Cornwallis’ proposal.

Washington’s forces at Yorktown included some 5,000 French Army regulars, and Yorktown’s seaward approaches were guarded by French Admiral De Grasse’s heavily armed fleet. Washington told the French General Rochambeau: “This could not have been achieved without your participation. The United States are for ever in your debt.”

* * *

Yet small and peaceful events can have an immense impact upon history as well, so it is apt that I observe that it was on this day, 19 October 1469, that a small and secret wedding took place that produced an impact that resonates even today. It is a story that seems more likely to have been written as a fairy tale than a chronicle of history: a beautiful teenaged princess rejected eligible suitor after eligible suitor, finding no man quite to her liking, until, at long last she stealthily eloped to secretly marry the carefully disguised teenager whom she first intended to marry, he himself a handsome prince; the marriage united their two kingdoms and the royal lovebirds and their two kingdoms prospered and they all lived happily ever after.

Well, the reality is rather more complex and nuanced than that quick spin, yet the basics are found in the historical record. Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon were indeed secretly married on this day in 1469. The secrecy was needed because the political implications of the two largest and most powerful kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula being conjoined in matrimony was immense. For a generation or more prior to this marriage, the whole of Iberia had been rent by war and rebellion and a succession of indifferent or incompetent monarchs among various kingdoms and principalities had resulted in civil unrest and economic decline across the region. A marriage between Castile and Aragon threatened to fundamentally shift the power in Iberia, and so it did. From this small and secret wedding ultimately arose the greatest global superpower history had seen to that time, and Spain dominated European power politics for more than a century.

Though Spain was not a single nation during their lives, under the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, Emperor Charles V, a unified Spanish nation was realized, and Spain’s conquest and plundering of the New World permitted unimagined wealth to flood into the formerly cash-poor lands of Iberia. As heir to the Habsburg domains as well, Emperor Charles V ruled over what was then the most extensive empire in history, stretching across half the globe.

And, of course, as ever schoolchild knows, this empire was the result of Queen Isabella’s investment in a modest adventure proposed by an Italian navigator. In 1492, Queen Isabella sponsored the voyage of Christopher Columbus to develop a western passage to Asia. The fact that Columbus never came close to reaching his intended destination notwithstanding, his arrival in the Caribbean indeed changed everything that followed. The indigenous inhabitants of the New World were extirpated or marginalized, and over the next four centuries Europe rushed in, reshaping the global economy, and permanently altering the course of history. This change most certainly was not accomplished without violence and bloodshed, but the spark that touched off the conflagration of change was indeed just a simple, secret, and very private wedding in the unprepossessing city of Valladolid, in a modest realm of the Iberian Peninsula.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You’re a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree.

— Michael Crighton

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