Saturday, March 30, 2013

Beware the Ides of April!

We have safely passed the Ides of March.  In Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, a soothsayer warns the dictator to beware the ides of March.  Although Caesar was very superstitious, he ignored the warning and was assassinated right on schedule in 44 B.C.  Someone should have warned Caesar that it was bad luck to be superstitious.

Ignoring the fact that Caesar had destroyed the Republic and ruled as a dictator, perhaps Caesar deserved to be killed for what he had done to the calendar.  Under the self-named Julian calendar, which Caesar had just imposed on the empire, the days of the month were not counted sequentially, but counted backwards from three points of the month; the nones (roughly the 5th or the 7th day of the month depending on the length of the month), the ides (the 13th or 15th day of the month), and the kalends (the first day of the following month).  So where we would say March 10, the Romans would say “Five days before the ides of March.”  Except of course they said it in Latin and used Roman numerals.  This made writing checks very difficult.

Since Shakespeare has already warned us of the ides of March, I thought I might warn you of the twin dangers of the ides of April—specifically April 14th and April 15th.  Together, these are peculiarly rough days.  I should confess, of course, that since April has fewer days than March, that the true ides of April is April 13, but such honesty is so rare today that we should husband it carefully and not waste it unnecessarily.  Many a good story has been ruined by too much truth.

On April 14, 1861, the Union forces of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor were forced to face the inevitable.  For two days, soldiers under the command of General Beauregard of the newly declared Confederate army fired on the tiny unfinished masonry fort.  After enduring over 3000 artillery rounds, Major Anderson
formally surrendered the fort.  The next day, April 15, all Union forces evacuated the fort.  This first small battle began the four year nightmare of the Civil War.    By the time the Union retook the fort, on April 14, 1865, over 600,000 Americans died—all of them killed by other Americans.

On April 14, 1865, a war weary Abraham Lincoln sat in Ford’s Theater watching a play:  Our American Cousin.  The president, who appeared to have aged a decade in just the previous dozen months, was clearly exhausted, but still elated by the surrender of General Robert E. Lee just five days earlier.  During Act III, Scene II, at 10:25 PM, John Wilkes Booth shot the president and made his escape.

Mortally wounded, Abraham Lincoln was carried on a door across the street to the Petersen Boarding House where the president was placed diagonally on a bed too short for his tall frame.  A series of well-meaning but incompetent doctors attended his wound, each pushing an unwashed finger into the wound to determine the exact position of the bullet—each reopening the wound and pushing the bullet further into the president’s brain.  Abraham Lincoln died at 7:22 AM on April 15, 1865.

Just twenty minutes before midnight on April 14, 1912, the H.M.S. Titanic was steaming toward New York on her maiden voyage.  The largest passenger liner ever built, the ship carried 2,224 passengers and crew.  Despite having received numerous reports of sea ice in her vicinity, the doomed ship was traveling very close to her maximum speed when she struck an iceberg. 

For two hours and forty minutes, the passengers and crew tried to save themselves.  When the ship sank early in the morning of April 15, over 1500 people died in the frigid waters before a rescue ship arrived an hour and a half too late.  The loss of the Titanic is still one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history.

As a historian, all of these events play endlessly in my thoughts as I struggle to gather what remains of last year’s receipts and financial statements.  General inertia, incompetence, and overwhelming sloth will prevent me from actually starting to prepare my taxes until April 14th in order to have the silly form in the mail by the ides of April—April 15th.

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