This Month in History: Jamestown, Constitutional Convention, Bleeding Kansas, and More by Garrett Smith

As Americans, we have a goal to properly educate future generations about our history and heritage. The month of May is filled with significant historical events. The formation of the first major English colony, the Bleeding Kansas crisis that led to the Civil War, and many more events are found within this month’s history. I hope you enjoy rediscovering the month of May throughout America’s past.

May 1, 1945
Adolf Hitler is pronounced dead via German newsreader. In his Fuhrerbunker in Berlin, Hitler shot himself as Soviet forces pushed into the city. His wife, Eva Braun, also committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide pill. This occurred just one day before their deaths were announced. Their bodies were later carried to the Reich Chancellery Garden and burned. On the same day that Hitler’s death was announced, Soviet troops raised the victory banner over the Reichstag. Alongside this, Western Allies continued their push toward Berlin.

May 2, 2011
Osama bin Laden is killed by US Navy SEALs in Abottabad, Pakistan. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, a nearly-10-year hunt for bin Laden began. The Iraq War, War in Afghanistan, and Global War on Terrorism were all launched as a result of his attacks. On May 2, 2011, Navy SEALs discovered his location. President Barack Obama was informed and the compound was raided. After bin Laden was killed, his body was buried at sea. Following bin Laden’s death, the Iraq War ended that December. The War in Afghanistan and Global War on Terror, however, continue. In June 2014, US troops began another military operation in Iraq.

May 4, 1970
As with the good events in US history, we must remember the bad, so that we may never repeat them. On May 4, 1970, the Kent State Massacre occurs. Following the Nixon Administration’s announcement of the Cambodian Campaign, many students began protesting. Due to the political controversy of the Vietnam War, protests had been underway for several years. When students began protesting at Kent State, the Ohio National Guard was sent to the university. Not long after the students were given orders to disperse, the soldiers opened fire. Approximately 67 rounds were fired in 13 seconds. Four students were killed and nine others were injured. As a result, more than 450 campuses closed for demonstrations.

May 5, 1863
Cinco de Mayo is first celebrated in California. This occurred one year after the Battle of Puebla. Following the Mexican Civil War, Napoleon III of France sought to use Mexico as a puppet state. With the US busy fighting their own civil war, the Monroe Doctrine could not be enforced. During the Second French Intervention in Mexico, French troops originally maintained the high ground. At the Battle of Puebla, however, things changed. Mexican troops gained a foothold and won a significant victory. Not long after, Mexico won the war. Cinco de Mayo was established in recognition of Mexico’s victory.

May 6, 1863

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=179824


The Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, comes to an end. This is often considered to be the greatest Confederate victory of the Civil War. Under the command of General “Stonewall” Jackson, Confederate forces attacked Union troops under General Joseph Hooker. With an overwhelming victory, this convinced Robert E. Lee to take the fight to the North. As a result, the most defining battle of the Civil War would be fought at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, just two months later. Though Lee’s troops had gained a victory for themselves, the battle also dealt Lee one of his hardest blows. On May 2, Stonewall Jackson was accidentally wounded by friendly fire. His arm was amputated and he later died of pneumonia. Lee stated, “Jackson lost his left arm. I’ve lost my right.”

May 7, 1915
The RMS Lusitania is sunk by a German submarine. At the outset of World War I, Britain formed a naval blockade around Germany. In response, Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare on Britain. The ship, carrying over 2,000 passengers, sunk in less than 20 minutes off the coast of Ireland. Roughly 1,198 of the passengers were killed. Some of the deceased were US citizens, and this tragedy increased the pro-war populace in America.

May 8, 1945
VE (Victory in Europe) Day is celebrated for the first time. Just one day earlier, Nazi Germany had surrendered to Allied forces. Upon Germany’s surrender, Japan remained the sole Axis superpower. Fighting in the Pacific remained strong for several more months, until President Harry Truman made the ultimate decision to drop the atomic bombs.

May 10, 1801
The Tripoli Pirates declare war on the US, starting the First Barbary War. Following America’s Independence, pirates around the Barbary Coast began capturing American sailors. From there, the sailors would either be sold into slavery or held for ransom. American ships were also taunted into paying tribute. When President Thomas Jefferson refused, the pirates declared war. The conflict ended in June 1805 with an American victory, but a second Barbary War would begin during James Madison’s presidency. This was America’s first military conflict following independence. The first line in the Marines’ Hymn – “…to the shores of Tripoli” – pays tribute to those brave American soldiers who fought in the First Barbary War.

May 12 – Mother’s Day
Mother’s Day was officially established in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson signed a declaration. The day was first celebrated in 1908, however, when its founder – Anna Jarvis – held a memorial ceremony for her mother, who had passed away three years earlier. To all of our mothers out there, we love and greatly appreciate you!

May 13, 1862
Robert Smalls steals a Confederate Ship, freeing himself, his family, and his crew from slavery. When the Civil War broke out, Union ships blockaded Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. This trapped the CSS Planter, a Confederate supply ship. After taking control of the ship, Smalls sailed to Hilton Head, which was under Union control. The CSS Planter later became a Union warship. Following the Civil War, Smalls served as a Republican in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1868-1870; South Carolina Senate from 1870-1875; and US House of Representatives from 1882-1887.

May 14, 1607
The English colony of Jamestown, Virginia, is established. This was the first permanent English establishment in North America. It came not long after the failed Roanoke Colony of North Carolina in 1585, which disappeared; the whereabouts of its inhabitants remain a mystery to this day. At Jamestown, the settlers often suffered from starvation and disease. The colony was briefly abandoned in 1610, but later became the state capitol of Virginia until 1699.

May 15, 1869

Susan B. Anthony

The National Woman Suffrage Association is founded by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Its founding was held in New York City and occurred not long after the drafting of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. Both Anthony and Stanton opposed the amendment unless it included the right for women to vote. Women’s’ suffrage would finally go into effect on August 18, 1920, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

May 16, 1843

The first major wagon train sets out on the Oregon Trail. Starting in Independence, Missouri, the Oregon Trail stretches over 2,000 miles. Today, wagon ruts can still be seen in parts of certain states, such as Wyoming. For most travelers, their journey would lead to the Willamette Valley in western Oregon. Others, however, would break off shortly after Fort Bridger, Wyoming, or Fort Hall, Idaho. From there, many of those immigrants would travel to Salt Lake City, Utah, or Sacramento, California. The Oregon Trail’s use came to an end in 1869, when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed.

May 18, 1933
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Tennessee Valley Authority Act. Headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee, the TVA was originally tasked with providing electricity and economic recovery to the Tennessee Valley, an area heavily impacted by the Great Depression. One of the TVA’s greatest projects was the construction of Fontana Dam, located on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. Construction of the dam began in 1942, and though controversial at its outset, provided electricity to the region and produced jobs for the war measure.


May 19, 1963
Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is published. Written just three days earlier, this was the source of one of Dr. King’s most famous statements: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King also stated his belief that people have a right to break unjust laws.

May 21, 1881
The American Red Cross is established by Clara Barton in Washington DC. During the Franco-Prussian War, Barton traveled to Europe and began working with the International Red Cross. This gave her the idea to establish a similar company on American soil. When John D. Rockefeller and a few others donated to her cause, the national headquarters opened in Washington DC. Frederick Douglass offered his personal advice and help to Barton. Today, the ARC continues to provide many services to the armed forces and Disaster Response.

May 22, 1804
The Lewis and Clark Expedition begins. Departing from St. Charles, Missouri, the Corps of Discovery was tasked with finding a route through the newly-acquired land, as well as establishing trade with Native tribes. Lewis and Clark would travel through the area that covers present-day Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, and Oregon. Upon their departure, the land was so untamed that the woolly mammoth was just one of the species they expected to find.

May 23, 1900
William Harvey Carney becomes the first African-American to win the Medal of Honor. Born a slave in Norfolk, Virginia, Carney escaped to Massachusetts through the Underground Railroad, where he reunited with his father. In 1863, he joined the Union Army and became a sergeant. During the Battle of Fort Wagner, South Carolina, Carney was wounded, but retrieved the flag. Upon returning to his line, he said, “Boys, I only did my duty. The old flag never touched the ground!”

May 24, 1856
The Pottawatomie Massacre begins. Following the Sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, by pro-slavery forces, John Brown led anti-slavery forces to Pottawatomie Creek. On the night of the 24th and into the early morning hours of the 25th, Brown’s men killed five pro-slavery settlers. The massacre was part of a larger conflict known as Bleeding Kansas, during which anti-slavery Jayhawks and pro-slavery Border Ruffians fought violently to establish Kansas as either a free or slave state. Bleeding Kansas gained John Brown recognition in the east, and just three years later, he led an armed revolt at Harpers Ferry, in what is now West Virginia. Both Bleeding Kansas and the Harpers Ferry Raid contributed greatly to the outbreak of the Civil War.

May 25, 1787
The Constitutional Convention convenes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The delegates who participated included George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin, among many others. Their original goal at the outset of the convention was to revise the Articles of Confederation. As time passed, however, the many flaws with the articles were realized, and a new constitution was created, with Hamilton and Madison being the primary architects. Washington was unanimously elected to be the first president, and the convention ended on September 17 of that year. When the convention was over, Franklin was asked what the framers had created. His response was iconic: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

May 27 – Memorial Day
Celebration of Memorial Day goes back to the Civil War, though its exact origins are unknown. Known then as Decoration Day, both Union and Confederate soldiers held it as a day of remembrance. Beginning in 1868, large gatherings of veterans were held at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to commemorate the largest battle of the war. In 1971, Memorial Day was established to be celebrated on the last Monday in May. To all of our veterans who have served or given their lives for our nation, thank you so much for your service. Many Americans are unaware of how many conflicts our nation has been involved in. May we always remember the sacrifice of our veterans.

May 29, 1917

John F. Kennedy is born in Brookline, Massachusetts. After serving in the Pacific Theater during World War II and being awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, he served in the US House of Representatives from 1947-1953. He then served as a US Senator from 1953-1960. A member of the Democratic Party, Kennedy served as president from 1961-1963, during which time he faced some of the highest tension of the Cold War, including the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the construction of the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, by Lee Harvey Oswald on November 22, 1963, and his body was moved to Arlington National Cemetery several years later. He remains one of the most popular US presidents.

May 30, 1922
The Lincoln Memorial is dedicated in Washington DC. Designed by Daniel Chester French, it was architected by Henry Bacon and carved by the Piccirilli brothers. Inside the memorial are two of Lincoln’s most famous speeches: the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address. It has also been the site of many other famous speeches, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream. President Warren G. Harding spoke at the dedication.

May 31, 1864
The Battle of Cold Harbor begins. Fought in Hanover County, Virginia, Union troops under General Grant were tasked with attacking a heavily fortified Confederate position. The battle ultimately ended with a Confederate victory, but Union forces had already gained several victories in the east, following the war’s turning point at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Battle of Cold Harbor was just one in a series of large battles fought between Generals Grant and Lee, known as the Overland Campaign. Though Lee’s troops won the battle, Grant’s forces won the campaign.

May is a very eventful month for American history. We reflect upon the first conflict fought by US troops after the American Revolution; the deaths of Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden; the start of the Constitutional Convention; the heroic actions of Robert Smalls and William Harvey Carney; and the observation of the holiday we have dedicated to our service members who gave their lives to defend our great nation. America is our story, and it is up to us to inform our future generations.

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