The American Eclipses of 1780 and 1806

June 16, 1806: Pleasant morning—total Eclipse of the Sun & the stars twinkled at noonday. Wonderful are the changes of nature but more astonishing the wonders of redeeming love.

Entry in the diary of Mary Avery White (Boylston, Massachusetts)

Elsewhere in this book we have seen that superstitious beliefs concerning eclipses have enabled certain nations or armies to gain an advantage over their opponents. Let me add another two examples to the litany.

Ever since Byzantium had been adopted early in the fourth century by Constantine the Great as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, that city (renamed Constantinople) had been in Christian hands, despite internecine squabbling. The residents largely believed, however, in an ancient prophecy that said the city was safe from its enemies during the waxing phase of the Moon. In May 1453, while defending their walls against the marauding Ottomans, the Byzantines were horrified to see that the rising moon was in eclipse. Their morale was broken and a week later the city fell into the hands of the Turks, who have held it ever since. It was the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and then Turkey, until 1923 (when the capital was shifted eastward to Ankara), and then renamed again in 1930 as Istanbul.

That was an instance of an eclipse aiding the Ottomans. During the First World War, a counterexample occurred. On July 6, 1917, Lawrence of Arabia and his Bedouin troops overran the ancient city of Aqaba, located at the northern tip of the Red Sea. One of their advantages was that, having crossed the Sinai by camel, they attacked from the inland side, whereas the Turkish armaments were pointed out to sea to repel a maritime assault. Their other advantage came from the fact that as they approached from the north, on the evening ofJuly 4 there had been a total lunar eclipse. This preoccupied the defenders with banging together pots and pans and otherwise making loud noises in order to scare off the shadow that was darkening the Moon.

Those were both lunar eclipses. In this chapter we will be considering the significance of solar eclipses in the early history of the United States. In Chapter 1 we learned that the ancient Chinese would shoot arrows into the air in order to scare away the dragon they imagined to be devouring the Sun during an eclipse. Similarly, the Native Americans of the Chippewa/Ojibwa tribes thought that the Sun's flames were being extinguished, and so during an eclipse they would launch skywards burning arrows in order to replenish it. We will see below that the total solar eclipse of 1806 was one of the pivotal junctures in the Indian wars provoked by the spread of the white man westwards through Ohio and Indiana.

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