The Trail of the Past | Turning Points in History

History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.

— Winston Churchill, The Second World War, Book Two —

Welcome back to 15-Minute History! I’m Jon Streeter, and it is a pleasure to be back with you today to walk in history’s footsteps fifteen minutes at a time. This season, Joe and I wanted to share some of history’s great turning points with you and to show how individuals and groups have shaped our lives by their actions. As always, we hope that this labor of love brings you a new appreciation for history and opens your eyes to the amazing stories of the past.

Turning points are events in which the general course of history is altered. The term is often applied to military history where battles like Saratoga, Gettysburg, or Stalingrad shifted the balance of power from one side to the other. In many ways, every time we get out of bed in the morning we are turning history, because history is shaped by each one of us. Historians can identify turning points only in hindsight (unlike cable news anchors, who regularly say that “America is at a crossroads” or such and such an event is a “turning point” in a presidency).

It is important to bear these facts in mind. We can never know how the events which shape our world, our nation, or our own lives may change the direction of our destiny. We may never see how our own actions—positive or negative—will affect other people. Most of the men and women we will be discussing this season did not seek to make dramatic changes in the course of human events (though some did), but by their actions they created our world today. Bear that in mind as you listen this season. You never know if your actions might just be a turning point in your life or the life of someone close to you.

Today, I would like to present you with three short turning points in history. Two of them certainly deserve their own full episode and, hopefully, will be given this honor in a future season; the third is an interesting counterfactual, a “turning point that could have been.” It is important to note that this season will not be a run of alternative histories or speculations about “what if” such and such had happened. As always here on 15-Minute History we stick to the facts, but by exploring each of these selections today and in the full season, and indeed by asking ourselves occasionally what may have happened if history had taken a different turn, we can see the importance of each one of these events and the role they played in shaping our world.

“Like a Ray of Light”

Around the year 1439, a German goldsmith living in Strasbourg hatched a plan to sell holy relics from the Emperor Charlemagne to religious pilgrims visiting the imperial city of Aachen. He found investors from across the Holy Roman Empire to fund his collection of these relics, but each time they asked to be repaid, he claimed he needed a bit more time. Medieval historians record that when he was confronted by an irate Swiss businessman, Johannes Gutenberg insisted he did not have the money but promised that he would share a secret with his colleague, one that had come to him “like a ray of light.” That secret is believed to have been movable type.

The Swiss businessman’s reaction is not recorded, but given that Gutenberg was not sent to debtor’s prison—at least as far as we know—he was likely satisfied. There are, however, many court records which survive from the period that indicate Gutenberg was a bit of a fraudster; he swindled a wealthy tradesman who had paid to be taught how to polish gems, had broken a marriage promise to a Strasbourg maiden named Ennelin, and later in life he was sued by a moneylender from Mainz called Johann Fust for the large sum of sixteen hundred guilders that had paid for his inventions.

By 1450, Gutenberg had completed his first printing press and used it to create copper engravings and a paper copy of a German poem. His first printed book was his most famous: the Gutenberg Bible, of which 180 copies were printed on paper or vellum. However, five years later, Gutenberg was bankrupted by the Fust lawsuit and lost control of his printing press and half of his Bibles. This led to serious competition between the two men, both of whom claimed to have printed the first copies of holy Scripture, with Fust working in his new shop in Strasbourg and Gutenberg now set up in the Bavarian city of Bamberg. Historians differ on who actually invented movable type because these records are sparse and often contradictory.

Whoever invented movable type—whether Gutenberg, Fust, or a Dutch inventor called Laurens Janszoon Coster from Haarlem who is also sometimes credited with the discovery—this new way of disseminating ideas quickly turned the entire course of European history. It allowed Italian Renaissance scholars like Francesco Petrarch to spread their ideas of humanism and begin to loosen the Roman Catholic Church’s vice-like grip on European civil society; it gave revolutionary scientists like Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei a chance to challenge scientific orthodoxy; and it gave voice to religious reformers such as Jan Hus and Martin Luther. Moving forward, the printed word brought about revolutions in the areas of politics, economics, and history but also in medicine, fine arts, and even sports. Until the invention of radio, television and the Internet, the printing press was inarguably the greatest invention in the history of man’s ability to communicate.

“A New Birth of Freedom”

The American Civil War was more than a year old in September 1862. The Union had suffered major reversals in its efforts to capture Richmond earlier in that year, and their hopes that the Confederate rebellion could be crushed quickly were fading. General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had invaded the border state of Maryland, and the War Department in Washington was scrambling to confront Lee and hold the state in the Union. On September 13, 1862, two soldiers of the 27th Indiana infantry regiment outside Frederick, MD, found a bundle of cigars lying in a grassy meadow wrapped in some paper. Thrilled at having stumbled on some excellent Southern tobacco, they unwrapped the cigars. Corporal Barton Mitchell, then looked at the paper and realized to his shock that it was a signed order from General Lee to one of his corps commanders containing the entire Confederate plan for the invasion. The soldiers passed the order up the chain of command to General George McClellan, who reportedly announced to his staff, “Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home!”

Of course, McClellan did not “whip” General Lee, and the battles of South Mountain and Antietam a few days later were bloodbaths on both sides. The war raged on for another three years. Most historians point to the battles at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863 as the turning points in the conflict, but in fact the war had already turned as a result of the order’s discovery and the resulting battles in Maryland.

The Confederate States of America stood little chance of winning a war against the Union because of the latter’s overwhelming industrial might. This might offend our Southern audience, but the fact is that the South’s only real chance of victory was with help from Great Britain or France. Jefferson Davis’ government had been courting London and Paris since the war’s outbreak, and both countries were debating entering the war to strike a blow at America’s growing might. In Washington, the Lincoln administration was doing its best to keep the Europeans out of the war, and the president knew that the best way to achieve this goal was to shift the entire purpose of the war away from preserving the Union. Abraham Lincoln needed a cause that would both preserve European neutrality and unite his own Northern population, which at that time was growing evermore pessimistic about the chances of victory. That cause was the abolition of slavery.

From the beginning, abolitionists had been lukewarm about the war, believing (correctly) that Lincoln was ambivalent about the evils of slavery and the necessity of abolishing it everywhere in the United States. So when President Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, five days after the victory at Antietam, and transformed the war from one of national versus state power to one of freedom for enslaved Africans, they rallied to the cause. Enlistments rose, and the Union Army’s recruitment swelled, reaching over two million by the war’s end. Equally important at the time, now that the war pitched the profreedomNorth against the pro-slavery South, Britain and France refused further Confederate diplomatic efforts to bring them into the war; they could not support a slave power, having already abolished slavery in their own countries.

When the Emancipation Proclamation was finally issued on January 1, 1863, it did not actually free a single slave. The proclamation’s text stated that “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” This meant that only slaves living in areas still under Confederate control but who would be liberated by the Union Army in the coming years would be automatically freed. Nevertheless, the Emancipation Proclamation was the true turning point in the American Civil War because it united the North for the first time and ensured that the war would remain an American conflict. More than that, the proclamation is one of the greatest turning points in American history, paving the way for the abolition of slavery everywhere in the United States in the Thirteenth Amendment and ultimately for complete legal equality between white and black Americans with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

“No Definite Guarantee of Safety”

The winter of 1931 in New York was one of the warmest on record, which was certainly appreciated by the hundreds of unemployed and homeless workers living on the streets of America’s largest city in the middle of the Great Depression. The night of December 13th was dark, and the streets of New York were slick with recently-fallen rain. Mario Constasino was driving down Fifth Avenue in his mid-sized car between 76th and 77th streets. He was on the right side of the road, running at about thirty miles an hour when suddenly, “a dark figure appeared immediately in front of him.” Constasino hit the brakes but could not avoid a collision, and he struck a short but large man.

Winston Spencer Churchill, a Member of Parliament for Epping and formerly the President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Minister of Munitions, Secretary of State for Air, Secretary of State for War, Secretary of State for the Colonies, and Chancellor of the Exchequer in His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom, had been hit by a car. According to an article Churchill published in The Daily Mail in January 1932, those who witnessed the accident believed he had been killed. Churchill provided a typically-vivid account of the event in the article.

I do not understand why I was not broken like an egg-shell or squashed like a gooseberry. I have seen that the poor policeman who was killed on the Oxford road was hit by a vehicle travelling at very much the same speed and was completely shattered. I certainly must be very tough or very lucky, or both. Meanwhile, I had not lost consciousness for an instant…This mind is in possession of the following conclusion: “I have been run over by a motorcar in America. All those worries about being late are now swept away. They do not matter any more. Here is a real catastrophe. Perhaps it is the end.” The reader will observe from this authentic record that I experienced no emotion of regret or fear. I simply registered facts without, except for a general sense of disaster, the power to moralize upon them.*

Churchill went on to state that he had forgotten that in the United States, cars drive on the right side of the road and that he was unfamiliar with the red lights used on New York City streets that were then almost unseen on British roads. Churchill bore Mr. Constasino no ill will and, later in life, sent him an autographed copy of his book My Life. Mario Constasino, whose real name was Edward Cantasano, was an unemployed mechanic from Yonkers who had probably spent the day in New York looking for work. An exhaustive search of records in 2008 by a video game company which had produced a game about what might have happened had Churchill been killed discovered that Mr. Cantasano had later enlisted in the Army in 1942 and served in the Second World War, and that he had died in 1989 and is buried in Long Island.

One need not delve too deeply into counterfactuals to consider what might have been had Winston Churchill not been present for the decisive years in world history of 1939-45. The outcome of the Second World War may have been the same, but it might have been very different had another man been at the helm of the British state for those years. The lesson in this last story is this—sometimes a turning point in history involves what did not happen as much as what did, in fact, take place.

Trends and Turning Points

History has a weight and a sense of momentum just as much as a car, train or ship. And yet, like any of these vehicles, it can turn on a dime if someone takes the wheel. It need not be a world historical figure or leader of a nation—it can be a simple German swindler, a boy in a log cabin who had lost his beloved mother, or a young man whose parents repeatedly left him in the care of others; it could even be you or I. As we talk about some of the important turning points in history this season on 15-Minute History, I hope you will think about the role you can play in your own history, that of your family, and of your community. Each one of us can turn the wheel of history by our actions.

* Quoted in “My New York Misadventure” by Winston S. Churchill. Retrieved from the International Churchill

Society website,