Battle of Fort Riviere: U.S. Marines Capture Haitian Rebel Stronghold

 
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Battle of Fort Riviere: U.S. Marines Capture Haitian Rebel Stronghold

Assault on Fort Riviere by (l to r) Sgt. Iams, Major Butler, and Pvt. Gross
Artist unknown, from the USMC Art Collection
Image courtesy of http://yellowlegs-and-others.com
(Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations/images are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: November 17, 1915

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2010]

In the early twentieth century, America kept a close eye on the political and economic goings-on of the many nations of the Western Hemisphere, often citing the Monroe Doctrine as the basis of this paternalism. The words of Theodore Roosevelt, "Speak softly and carry a big stick," were used as the background for many of these interventions. Often, U.S. military forces were involved in civil wars in these nations. These involvements were called "gunboat diplomacy," "big-stick diplomacy," and other names. Another term which has recently gained some notoriety is "Banana Wars." One of these interventions took place in 1915, in the small nation of Haiti.

Background

Map of Haiti, courtesy of http://www.operationworld.org/hait
Map of Haiti, courtesy of http://www.operationworld.org/hait

Discovered in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, Haiti occupied the western third of the island of Hispaniola. This territory was settled by the French in the early seventeenth century. Many of these French towns became havens for pirates and privateers operating against the Spanish (likely the most well-known was the isle of Tortuga on the northern coast). Haiti's main economic contributions to the world economy were gold, sugar cane, coffee and indigo.

The advent of the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars required most of the troops occupying the small nation to return to France. As a result, a native revolution took place in Haiti, led by Toussaint L'Ouverture. By 1804, the Haitians had successfully achieved their independence, the only nation in the Western Hemisphere to be founded from a successful slave revolt. However, like a teenager trying to act like a grown-up, Haiti was a virtual basket case, politically and economically. Many wealthy French landowners fled the country, virtually annihilating the small nation's ruling class.

In 1915, a succession of rulers led to political chaos in the country. Local militiamen, known as Cacos, helped overthrow several strongmen in quick succession. The unrest brought U.S. military intervention, mainly U.S. Marines. After a brief ceasefire in early October, Caco rebels renewed their activities in northern Haiti, attacking government-held towns as well as American military patrols. Because of this, Col. Littleton Waller – commander of the First Provisional Brigade of U.S. Marines in Haiti – ordered increased patrols throughout the central and northern areas of Haiti, seeking to locate and destroy the Cacos. On October 28, a Marine patrol received a tip from a former Caco rebel-turned-guide. Acting on the former guerrilla's information, the patrol quite accidentally came upon a relic of the former French occupation, Fort Riviere.

Prelude to the Battle

Fort Riviere was an old bastion fort, about 200 feet square, with stone walls 25-foot high with loopholed masonry walls, and was built on the summit of Montaigne Noire (Black Mountain). It was in disrepair, the crumbling parapets were overgrown with trees and brush, and the original northern entrance of the fort was clogged with dirt and rubble. To access the fort, the Cacos had dug a 15-foot long passage through the weakened western wall. This entrance was not wide enough for two men to enter abreast. Inside, the parade ground was overgrown with high grass and bushes. Fort Riviere's front was reachable only by a steep, rocky slope; the other three sides fell away so sharply that an approach from those directions was considered to be impossible. "General" Josephette, a former Haitian cabinet minister, had formed a guerrilla band of about 200 men to oppose U.S. military operations, and was using Fort Riviere as his headquarters.

Smedley Butler,
Smedley Butler, "Old Gimlet Eye"
Photographer unknown; Photo courtesy of http://fair.org

When the intelligence on Fort Riviere was reported to Col. Waller, he consulted his subordinates for their opinions. Some Marine officers argued that the stronghold should be assaulted by a regiment supported by artillery, but Captain Smedley Butler stated he would attack and capture the fort with just four companies of 24 men each, plus two machine gun detachments. Col. Waller selected Capt. Butler for the assignment of taking and destroying the old fortification. Butler, who was awarded a Medal of Honor during the Veracruz expedition of 1914, was allowed only three companies and some Marines and sailors from the USS Connecticut (BB-18). He chose elements of the 5th, 13th, and 23rd Companies. Altogether, Butler's force totaled about 76 Marines and about 20 sailors. They were armed with M1903 Springfield rifles, bayonets and M1909 Benet-Mercie light machine guns.

M1903 Springfield rifle, caliber .30.06; in service 1903-1974; From the collection of the Armémuseum (Swedish Army Museum), Stockholm
M1903 Springfield rifle, caliber .30.06; in service 1903-1974
From the collection of the Armémuseum (Swedish Army Museum), Stockholm

Arriving at the base of the mountain in the wee hours of November 15, Capt. Butler divided his command into three parties. At about 4:00 am, he ordered his men to begin the ascent of Montaigne Noire. By 7:30 am, the three groups were in place. Butler and four squads of the 5th Company and elements of the 23rd were 800 yards west of Fort Riviere. Portions of the 13th Company under Captain Chandler Campbell, and the Marine detachment from the Connecticut under Capt. Frederick Barker, had taken positions 800 yards southeast of the fort. The northern face of the fortification was covered by the sailors of the Connecticut under Lieutenant (j.g.) Scott McCaughey, also covering a jungle trail that would be the likely avenue of escape.

Battle of Fort Riviere

At about 7:45 am, the quiet jungle morning was pierced by three quick blasts of a whistle, Capt. Butler's signal for the attack to commence. Immediately, Campbell's and Barker's force began a steady barrage of gunfire on the fort. The Cacos responded with heavy, but highly inaccurate fire of their own (apparently, most of the Cacos did not understand the use of gunsights). Capt. Butler then led his 26-man section across the open ground to the west of the fort, which sloped slightly upwards. Butler and his men made their way to the base of the fort's wall, which offered them the protection of a "dead spot" near an old storm drain.

Peering through this narrow entry way into the masonry walls by the Cacos, the Marines were momentarily nonplussed by the fire of a single Caco rifleman, trying to hold up the invaders by himself. Butler later wrote, "I had never experienced a keener desire to be some place else. My misery and an unconscious, helpless pleading must have been written all over my face. [First Sergeant Ross] lams [of the 5th Company] took one look at me and then said, ‘Oh, hell, I'm going through.'"

1st Sgt. Ross Iams
1st Sgt. Ross Iams

Sgt. Iams bolted through the tunnel, followed closely by Private Samuel Gross of the 23rd Company, with Capt. Butler not far behind. After quickly dispatching the lone Caco defender, the trio of Marines rushed into the fort, followed by men of the 5th and 23rd Companies. The Americans then charged between 60 and 75 Cacos, who emptied their rifles at the Marines, then charged them. Many of the Cacos were now armed only with clubs, machetes, and rocks. A deadly, but surprisingly short, hand-to-hand melee ensued.

Once Butler's detachment was inside the fort, the other two groups began advancing on Fort Riviere. Realizing they were surrounded and losing the fight, many of the Cacos tried to escape by jumping from the fort's walls or climbing down the many trees that had overgrown the dilapidated parapets. However, most of them were cut down by the Marines under Capt. Campbell and the sailors under Lt. (j.g.) McCaughey. Within fifteen or twenty minutes, the battle was over.

The Aftermath

Casualties for the Cacos totaled 51 killed, none captured, an unknown number wounded, and the rest escaped into the jungles. Amazingly, there were no Marine casualties in this operation, with the exception of one Marine lieutenant struck in the face by a rock, losing two teeth. Immediately after the fort was secured, Capt. Butler, Navy Lt. Homer Wick and the demolition squad of the 5th Company rushed back to their base for explosives. They returned before first light on the morning of the 18th, with a ton of dynamite. By the end of the day, the demolition of Fort Riviere was complete.

Footnote #1: This successful attack essentially ended the First Caco War. However, after the battle and because of the high Haitian losses, the U.S. government ordered the Marines to cease offensive operations against the Cacos without direct permission from the War Department.

Footnote #2: For their brave acts during the battle of Fort Riviere, Capt. Butler, Sgt. Iams and Private Gross all received Medals of Honor. This made Capt. Butler the first Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor twice, one of only three Marines to achieve that distinction.

Footnote #3: As commandant of Quantico Marine Corps Base after World War I, Butler enjoyed restaging Civil War battles to keep his men in the headlines. At Gettysburg in 1922, five thousand Marines reenacted Pickett's Charge while President Warren Harding and other dignitaries enjoyed the spectacle – and a case of illegal bourbon – from the shade of a sixteen-room temporary mansion Butler had ordered built for them of wood and canvas.

Gen. Butler 'supervising' the 1922 Pickett's Charge reenactment, Gettysburg PA; Photographer unknown; from the Prints and Photographs division of the Library of Congress
Gen. Butler "supervising" the 1922 Pickett's Charge reenactment, Gettysburg PA
Photographer unknown; from the Prints and Photographs division of the Library of Congress

Footnote #4: Butler's Medal of Honor citation for the battle of Fort Riviere:

For extraordinary heroism in action as Commanding Officer of detachments from the 5th, 13th, and 23d Companies and the Marine and sailor detachment from the U.S.S. Connecticut, Major Butler led the attack on Fort Riviere, Haiti, 17 November 1915. Following a concentrated drive, several different detachments of Marines gradually closed in on the old French bastion fort in an effort to cut off all avenues of retreat for the Caco bandits. Reaching the fort on the southern side where there was a small opening in the wall, Major Butler gave the signal to attack and Marines from the 5th Company poured through the breach, engaged the Cacos in hand-to-hand combat, took the bastion and crushed the Caco resistance. Throughout this perilous action, Major Butler was conspicuous for his bravery and forceful leadership.

Footnote #5: Iams' Medal of Honor citation (Sgt. Iams was 36 years of age at Fort Riviere):

In company with members of the 5th, 13th, 23d Companies and marine and sailor detachment from the U.S.S. Connecticut, Sgt. Iams participated in the attack on Fort Riviere, Haiti, 17 November 1915. Following a concentrated drive, several different detachments of marines gradually closed in on the old French bastion fort in an effort to cut off all avenues of retreat for the Caco bandits. Approaching a breach in the wall which was the only entrance to the fort, Sgt. Iams unhesitatingly jumped through the breach despite constant fire from the Cacos and engaged the enemy in a desperate hand-to-hand combat until the bastion was captured and Caco resistance neutralized.

Footnote #6: Gross' Medal of Honor citation (he was 24 years of age at Fort Riviere):

In company with members of the 5th, 13th, 23d Companies and the marine and sailor detachment from the U.S.S. Connecticut, Gross participated in the attack on Fort Riviere, Haiti, 17 November 1915. Following a concentrated drive, several different detachments of marines gradually closed in on the old French bastion fort in an effort to cut off all avenues of retreat for the Caco bandits. Approaching a breach in the wall which was the only entrance to the fort, Gross was the second man to pass through the breach in the face of constant fire from the Cacos and, thereafter, for a 10-minute period, engaged the enemy in desperate hand-to-hand combat until the bastion was captured and Caco resistance neutralized.

Gross, whose real last name was Marguiles, is the only Jewish Marine to receive the Medal of Honor.

Footnote #7: After his retirement from the Marines in 1931, Smedley Butler (now a major general) made a name for himself outside of his military career. In 1935, Butler wrote a book entitled "War is a Racket," where he described and criticized the workings of the United States in its foreign actions and wars – such as those for which he was a part – including the American corporations and other imperialist motivations behind them. In a magazine article published in late 1935, Butler claimed he could have given pointers to Al Capone. After retiring from military service, he became a popular activist, speaking at meetings organized by veterans, pacifists, and church groups in the 1930s. He died in the Philadelphia Naval Hospital in June of 1940.

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