History Happenings July: Neil Armstrong, WWII, Civil War | Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours

History Happenings July: Neil Armstrong, WWII, Civil War

Neil Armstrong on the moonSince it is mid-summer, in this month’s History Happenings, we thought we would start with some lighter items and save the history heavy-lifting for a few paragraphs later. From National Drive-Thru Day to the famous von Stauffenberg plot to kill the Fuhrer to the story behind Stonewall Jackson’s moniker, you will find that July is an interesting month for history. But first, a shout out to Neil Armstrong, who became the first man on the moon on 20 July 1969!

Lighthearted History

24 July is National Drive-Thru Day. Of course, drive-thru is a service provided by a business that enables customers to purchase products without the inconvenience of leaving their cars. The format was pioneered in the U.S.  by Jordan Marti in the 1930s and before long became a service banks could offer their customers. 

Louisiana, sometimes thought to be behind the times in some areas, has been very progressive in this field. Some states offered drive-thru beer sales where legal, but in Louisiana, one can find “Drive-thru Daiquiri” bars. Not limited to simple daiquiris (lime, rum and shaved ice), the selections can range from White Russian to Peach Bellini and everything in between.  Why go inside when there is so little time between bars?  In the rush of mid-summer partying, just pick up a quick one en route.  Remember, it’s only open container when you have the straw inserted through the top!

One more item.  It is certainly no coincidence that 24 July is also National Tequila Day!

Galla Bayramy, the wheat festival, is a holiday based on primordial traditions and the importance of wheat and reverence for bread as symbols of prosperity.  In Turkmenistan, the traditional observance is on the third Sunday of July.

World War II


22 July – London. Labor MP Hugh Dalton the minister of economic welfare announced the creation of SOE (Special Operations Executive).  The goal was to form a team that would, as Winston Churchill said, “set Europe alight.”  MI6 was not in favor, they felt that with their own special ops teams that came under their bailiwick.  The old territorial issue that often surfaces among govt. agencies and branches of the military—in all countries. 

“Regular soldiers,” Dalton said, “are not the men to stir up revolution, to create social chaos or to use all those ungentlemanly means of winning the war which come so easily to the Nazis.”


17 July – USSR. SS Gruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich gave the orders for four SS Einsatzgruppen to follow the Wehrmacht into the Soviet Union with the invasion. Their purpose was not tactical nor military, but part of Nazi party ideology. They were to exterminate Jewish and Roma/Sinti or Gypsy communities as well as any political opposition. This especially meant any communist party members. 

One of the effective players in this operation was Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski. He would fly from town to town and have his aides gather up records from city halls. There they would find a listing of officials as well as classification by ethnicity of local citizens. The good record keeping made the job much easier for the SS.


31 July – Moscow. As the German armies pushed toward Stalingrad and into the Caucasus, Stalin gave the orders that no Red Army units were to retreat.  “Not one step backwards,” the orders read. “Commanders, commissars and political workers who abandon a position without an order from higher headquarters are traitors to the Motherland and will be treated accordingly.”  The communist party news organ, Red Star, emphasized that any soldier who fails and does not do his duty “on the battlefield instead of standing to the death will be condemned as a traitor selling his country into Germany slavery.”

“Accordingly” apparently translates a “shot” in the original Russian. This brings to mind the quote from Joseph Stalin, “It takes a brave man to be a coward in the Red Army.”

Leningrad was already in the eleventh month of its 900-day siege. It began on 8 September 1941 and lasted 2 years, 4 months, 2 weeks and 5 days, until 27 January 1944.


17 July – Solomons Islands. In the Pacific, the Allies staged a heavy 12-hour air raid on Japanese naval and air positions. Wave after wave of Liberators and Flying Fortresses bombed the Kahili airfield and paralyzed or destroyed the enemy planes on the ground. Torpedo bombers, the Avengers, attacked ships at Bougainville while their support fighters tangled with the Japanese Zeros. The Allies sunk seven ships in the harbor, including a light cruiser and two destroyers. After shooting down nearly fifty Japanese aircraft, all but six Allied planes returned safely home.


20 July – Wilczy Szaniec or Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair in NE Poland, what was East Prussian, was the scene of the famous von Stauffenberg plot to kill the Fuhrer. At 12:42 pm in the Conference center of the compound, Hitler was poring over maps with his General staff when a huge explosion blew the room apart. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg had been in the meeting and left his explosive-laden briefcase strategically placed under the conference table.  By all logic, this should have done the trick. 

Von Stauffenberg had excused himself from the meeting and had plans to proceed to Berlin to carry out the plot. In the meantime, one of the officers moved the valise, having accidentally hit it with his foot. Although four officers died from the explosion, Hitler was relatively unscathed considering the impact. He was left with temporary deafness and physically shaken, but was able to receive his ally, Benito Mussolini, later that day. The famous photo shows the two inspecting the aftermath of the blast together.

Now, going back to the 19th Century


Following its ratification by the necessary three-quarters of U.S. states, the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing to African Americans citizenship and all its privileges, was officially adopted into the U.S. Constitution. Two years after the Civil War, the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 divided the South into five military districts, where new state governments, based on universal manhood suffrage, were to be established. Thus began the period known as Radical Reconstruction, which saw the 14th Amendment, which had been passed by Congress in 1866, ratified in July 1868. The amendment resolved pre-Civil War questions of African American citizenship by stating that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States…are citizens of the United States and of the state in which they reside.” The amendment then reaffirmed the privileges and rights of all citizens, and granted all these citizens the “equal protection of the laws.

American Civil War


23 July – Henry Wager Halleck, “Old Brains,” took the reins as General of the U.S. Army. Dr. Stephen Ambrose’s doctoral dissertation was on Halleck and he turned it into his first book.


The first major battle of the Civil War took place within a day’s ride of Washington, DC. Weeks before any military action, Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune had been urging the Federal army to move on Richmond. They had to take the Confederate capital before the 20th of the month to prevent “The Rebel Congress” from meeting there as scheduled. The lead characters involved are, in many respects, as interesting as the battle itself.

16 July – The shooting started at Fort Sumter in April and three months later, the assumption in the Union War Department was that the army could crush the Confederacy quickly and with minimal casualties. Evidence of this was the strategy behind General of the Army Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan. This baseless overconfidence prompted Union Commander General Irvin McDowell to initiate a mission to seek out and destroy Confederate forces in Northern Virginia.

McDowell moved his 35,000 troops out of the Washington area toward Manassas Junction, Virginia, 30 miles to the west. There, General P.G.T. Beauregard was encamped with his Confederate force of 22,000 men. Farther west, near Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley, General Joseph E. Johnston was prepared to move toward the action with another 9,000 men. Neither side had seen any action and McDowell himself admitted that he crossed the Potomac River with “everything green,” and was “obliged to organize and discipline, and march and fight, all at the same time.” Additionally, McDowell did not know that Joe Johnston had moved his men up by train to reinforce Beauregard. The sides were then more evenly matched.

There were many civilians who gathered on hillsides to cheer on their side. Some road out from Washington and others from nearby Virginia to regard the spectacle as if a game. The war was still young and the carnage and mayhem that lay ahead was about to strike home.

The battle began when Union divisions crossed Bull Run, the substantial creek by which the Northerners would name the battle. Early on, they drove back the Confederates to Henry House Hill. This was a tactically strong location where Beauregard had positioned his defenses anchored by a brigade of Virginia infantry under General Thomas J. Jackson. As the Confederates retreated in some confusion before the oncoming Federals, South Carolinian General Barnard Bee fell mortally wounded but rallied his men shouting, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!” Thereafter, the moniker stuck. He was “Stonewall” Jackson and he led the Stonewall Brigade.

Later in the afternoon, using some of Johnston’s fresh troops from the Valley, Beauregard ordered a counterattack on the exposed Union right flank. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry captured some Union artillery and the Confederates charged and broke McDowell’s line. The Union men at first made a hasty but orderly retreat across Bull Run but it soon became an unorganized rout in which soldiers dropped their arms and packs and mingled with civilians fleeing the fight. Their equipment littered the road back to Washington and the Confederates did not mount a serious pursuit. The Federal losses were 460 killed, 1124 wounded and 1312 missing for a total of 2896. Confederate casualties were 1982 with 387 killed and 1582 wounded and virtually no one was missing in action. After the battle, Major General George B. McClellan received command of the Union army and McDowell remained a division commander.

The scale of this bloodshed horrified not only the frightened spectators at Bull Run but also the U.S. government in Washington, which was faced with an uncertain military strategy in quelling the “Southern insurrection.” Beauregard, a Louisianan whose first language was French, graduated second in his West Point class of 1838 and served with distinction in the Mexican War.  He briefly was commandant at West Point when the war began, but left the post for his home state. Beauregard was in charge at Fort Sumter when the first shots were fired. As said above, he commanded the forces at First Manassas where the smoke and haze of the battlefield made it difficult to distinguish the Confederate National Flag from the Stars and Stripes. 

Afterwards, when home in New Orleans, he designed the battle flag, using the St. Andrew’s Cross on a field of red with thirteen stars. This became what is generally thought of as the “Confederate Flag,” and first flew over troops at Shiloh in April 1862. Here Beauregard served and took the reins as senior field officer after Albert Sidney Johnston died shortly after a mortal wound. 

After the war, Beauregard returned home and worked for civil rights and reconciliation. After the war he wrote, “With regard to the suffrage of the freedmen, no matter how objectionable it may be at present, it is an element of strength for the future.” 

McDowell was a West Pointer (also class of 1838) from Ohio whose previous education had been in France. He taught tactics at the Military Academy—many of his students would use their lessons against him at Manassas—and served in the Mexican War. He had a good military record yet had almost no experience commanding in the field. Nevertheless, he received an appointment as brigadier in May 1861. He had a reputation as being somewhat odd, and in many ways, did not fit in well with his fellow officers. He had a questionable attention span and sometimes gave listeners the impression that he was disinterested in their conversation. When nervous, he would turn red and slur his speech, perhaps appearing inebriated. However, McDowell was a teetotaler who not only abstained from alcohol, but avoided tobacco, coffee and tea. On the other hand, he was gluttonous when it came to food and eagerly maintained his ample girth.

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