Above: Confederates capture a Union battery during the Battle of Glendale
ON THIS DATE in 1862, seventeen-year-old drummer Benjamin Levy of the 1st New York Infantry snatched a rifle from an ill Union soldier and joined the fight at the Civil War Battle of Glendale in Virginia. Under heavy fire, he “carried the colors and saved them from capture,” according to his Medal of Honor citation. Levy has been credited as the first Jewish American to be cited for and later receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, America’s highest military decoration.
Six other Jewish soldiers would receive the Medal of Honor for Civil War valor: David Orbansky (Shiloh and Vicksburg); Henry Heller (Chancellorsville); Leopold Karpeles (Battle of the Wilderness); Abraham Cohn (Battle of the Wilderness and Battle of the Crater); Isaac Gause (Berryville, Virginia); and Abraham Greenawalt (Franklin, Tennessee).
“HIS NICKNAME MEANS nothing in any language but evokes images of genius and gentility in them all,” wrote Hank Hersch of Sports Illustrated in 1999. On this date in 1958, the seventeen-year-old soccer virtuoso known as Pelé scored two goals as Brazil defeated Sweden 5-2 for the first of the nation’s five World Cup championships.
The youngest player in the 1958 World Cup, Pele´ would be declared a national treasure by Brazil’s president in 1961. His world popularity became so profound that the two sides in the Nigeria-Biafra war agreed to a cease-fire when he came to Africa in 1968. In soccer, where 400 career goals is considered a terrific feat, Pelé scored 1,280, then came out of retirement in 1975 to play for the New York Cosmos, where his presence brought big crowds to the North American Soccer League.
Many insist that Pele, not Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali, is the greatest world athlete of all time.
ONE DAY in 1886, Buffalo Bill Cody got a glimpse of a rifle-shooting girl he just had to have for his traveling show. The daughter of a shooting-gallery owner, fifteen-year-old Lillian Smith “made my own efforts (with a weapon) seem like the attempts of a novice,” said Cody, whose Wild West Show had made himself and his headlining sharpshooter, Annie Oakley, “America’s first superstars,” according to Western writer Larry McMurtry.
Cody’s touring show, which he’d debuted in 1883, included flamboyant horseback riding and crack shooting demonstrations by Oakley and others. Debuting with the show on June 28, 1886, Smith initially entertained crowds between main acts before earning a spot in the regular lineup. Billed as “The California Girl” and the “Champion Rifle Shot of the World,” Smith’s aim was so true that Cody offered $100,000 to anyone who could outshoot her in public.
Smith presented a flashier (some would say trashier) image than Oakley, who despised her rival. The younger woman’s “mere presence on the lot irritated Annie to an extreme,” McMurtry wrote in 2005’s The Colonel and Little Missie. Smith’s wardrobe was a particular irritation to the conservative Oakley. During a shooting demonstration at the Wimbledon sporting club in London, Smith shocked the British onlookers by wearing “a dress that sported a vivid yellow sash, and a plug hat the likes of which had never been seen in this august club before,” McMurtry wrote. Smith also spoke coarsely, saying such things as “Swing de apple dere, young fellers, an’ let me bust his skins.”
Smith never matched Oakley’s popularity and quit the show in 1889. In 1902, the women sharpshooters competed at a shooting contest in Kansas City, with Oakley winning. Almost unrecognizable, Smith had darkened her skin and adopted the stage name “Princess Wenona, the Indian Girl Shot.”
ON THIS DATE in 2009, eighteen-year-old Eric Gordon England flew a glider that reached 100 feet in the air. This is regarded as the birth of gliding as a popular sport.
ON THIS DATE in 1911, nineteen-year-old John McDermott became the youngest person as well as the first American to win the U.S. Open golf tournament.
McDermott nearly won the U.S. Open as an eighteen-year-old in 1910, losing in a tiebreaker, then took it in back-to-back years in 1911 and 1912. Sportswriter Grantland Rice called McDermott “the greatest golfer America has ever produced, amateur or professional, when it came to a combination of nerve, coolness and all-around skill from the tee to the green.”
The young golfer could be abrasive, however, and was prone to rages. In October of 1914, he blacked out on entering an Atlantic City golf shop. He would be diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia. In 1916, McDermott was committed to a Pennsylvania mental hospital. He would remain a patient in hospitals and rest homes until his death in 1971.
ON THIS DATE in 1961, seventeen-year-old Gladys Knight and the Pips topped the R&B charts with “Every Beat of My Heart.”
Eight years earlier, Knight had formed a singing group called the Pips with a brother, sister, and two cousins, with the sister leaving the group two years before the breakthrough success of the doo wop-flavored single, “Every Beat of My Heart.” The Pips, renamed Gladys Knight & the Pips in 1962, recorded a number of hits in the 1960s, including the original version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in 1967. In 1973, the group achieved superstar status with the singles “Neither One of Us,” which peaked at number two, and “Midnight Train to Georgia,” which spent two weeks at number one on the Billboard singles chart; both songs resulted in Grammy awards. Another single, “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” went to number three in 1974.
ON THIS DATE in 1776, fifteen-year-old Joseph Plumb Martin enlisted in the Continental Army.
Martin would have been your typical, forgotten-to-history Revolutionary War soldier if not for a memoir he wrote late in his life that provides some of the liveliest description of what it was like to be on the front lines of the Continental Army.
Based on diaries he kept from ages fifteen to twenty-two, Martin’s book tells of the travails he endured during his seven years as “one of the lowest in station in an army, a private.” He discovered that for a foot soldier, war really was hell, only colder. With insufficient shoes, uniforms, tents, and blankets, and a constant shortage of food, Martin nearly starved at Valley Forge and almost froze at Morristown. During a British siege at Pennsylvania’s Fort Mifflin in 1777, the teenage private, in his own words, endured “hardships sufficient to kill half a dozen horses.” (Fort Mifflin withstood five weeks of the heaviest bombardment ever unleashed on American soil).
Martin’s narrative intersperses grim details with personal reflections and includes his own style of homespun humor. Lacking sleep makes him “as crazy as a goose shot through the head” and he calls Pennsylvanians “foreigners” who “can’t hardly speak English.” Martin, who grew up in Massachusetts and Connecticut, admits, “They don’t like me either. They call me that ‘damn Yankee.’ That’s about the nicest thing they say.”
Published anonymously in 1830, Martin’s narrative was forgotten until revived and published in an illustrated version in 1957. In 1995, it was republished by Holiday as Yankee Doodle Boy: A Young Soldier’s Adventures in the American Revolution Told by Himself.