Leap Day History

Facts About February 29th

LD_MacArthur2If you ask most people how long a year lasts, they’ll probably say 365 days. But if you want to get technical, there are actually 365 days, five hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds in a Gregorian calendar year. The extra time is rounded off for simplicity’s sake, but still has to be accounted for, since it quite literally represents how long it takes the earth to make one trip around the sun. That’s why we have a leap day once every four years.

Some of the math wizards out there may notice it still doesn’t add up quite right. There’s another layer of complexity, but it gets a bit confusing. If the year is divisible by 100, but not by 400, then it is not a leap year. For example, 2000 and 2400 are leap years but 1800 and 1900 are not. This subtlety means leap years happen 97 years out of every 400, which evens out the math.

In any case, today is one of those rare extra days. But why do they take place in February? We have the great Roman emperor Julius Caesar to thank for that. In 45 BC, he ordered his astronomer, Sosigenes, to come up with a solution to account for the difference. Sosigenes proposed adding an extra day every four years. February was picked because, at the time, it was the last month of the Roman calendar.LDDouglasMacArthurON THIS DAY

Rare as it is, many important events in world history have happened on February 29. Here’s a timeline of key leap days as they relate to American military activity.

  • 1704: Queen Anne’s War was the second part of the French and Indian Wars; the North American theater of the War of the Spanish Succession. French and Native American forces teamed up to lead a raid on Deerfield, Massachusetts. They destroyed the settlement, killed 56 locals and took more than 100 captive. Retaliation from New England militias on French colonies would fuel the conflict for years to come.
  • 1864: The Dahlgren Affair, also known as the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid, happened during the Civil War right around leap day in 1864. The Union cavalry took on an ambitious mission to storm the Confederate capitol at Richmond, Virginia, in attempt to free 15,000 of their fellow soldiers being held captive as prisoners of war. The raid was poorly executed and Col. Ulric Dahlgren was killed. Confederates found papers on his body that detailed plans to burn the city to the ground and assassinate Jefferson Davis.
  • 1944: Codenamed Operation Brewer, Gen. Douglas MacArthur (pictured above) led the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division on a mission to occupy the Admiralty Islands during World War II. The first wave of troops landed on shore on February 29. The island’s capture played a vital role in the Allied advance against Japan by providing remote air and naval bases to coordinate missions.
  • 1968: This date marks the official end of Robert McNamara’s time as the Secretary of Defense, when he resigned in the wake of the Tet Offensive while America was still at war with Vietnam. He was awarded both the Medal of Freedom and the Distinguished Service Medal on his way out.
  • 1972: In cooperation with President Richard Nixon’s plan to end the Vietnam War, South Korea withdrew 11,000 of its 48,000 troops from the area starting on February 29, 1972.

Do you know of a historical leap year fact we missed? Tell us about it in the comment section below.

Jake Butler

About the author: Jake Butler

Jake Butler is a staff writer at Pioneer Services who understands the challenges facing modern military families. He writes informative and entertaining pieces about military life, financial education and everything in between. Follow Jake on Google+.

Contact: Jake Butler


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