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Charles Morris

The American Army and Navy in Action

After the war with Spain in 1898 and the subsequent insurrection in the Philippines a period of profound peace settled upon the United States, an era free from war, though not from rumors of war. This state of quiescence was rudely broken in April, 1914, by the insult to the flag at Tampico, described in the preceding chapter, and the refusal of Huerta, the Mexican dictator, to do honor to the insulted standard in the manner prescribed by President Wilson. The demand for reparation was followed by the despatch of the powerful fleet under Rear-Admiral Badger to Tampico, as already stated. On his way thither Badger's destination was changed to Vera Cruz, which had become a center of immediate interest.

A squadron of American battleships and other naval vessels, under Rear-Admiral Fletcher, already lay in Vera Cruz harbor, in readiness to defend the interests and dignity of the United States, and as the Mexican dictator evidently did not propose to comply with President Wilson's demand, it was decided to seize and hold that port as a first step towards obtaining suitable reparation.


The harbor and waterfront of Vera Cruz, showing the point at which the American attacking force landed.

Immediate action was necessary, as a German ship, the Ypiringa, laden with military stores for the Mexican government, was rapidly approaching Vera Cruz. Its cargo included 10,000 rifles, 15,000,000 cartridges, and other warlike material, which it was important to prevent from reaching Huerta. As the Ypiringa  was known to be near at hand, President Wilson wired Admiral Fletcher to seize the custom-house and take possession of the port before the cargo of the Ypiringa  could be landed.

Shortly after 11 o'clock on the morning of April 21st this act of virtual war took place, a force of marines and bluejackets landing from the transport Prairie  and the battleships Florida  and Utah and taking possession of the custom-house. Fletcher had previously notified General Maas, in command of the Mexican garrison at Vera Cruz, of his intention to seize the city, and asked that it should be surrendered without resistance. This request was refused, and within an hour after the landing the Mexicans began firing on the American sailors and marines, a street battle beginning which lasted until late at night and cost the lives of four Americans and the wounding of twenty others. The Americans returned the fire, the Prairie  taking part in the action with her five-inch guns, the Mexican loss being more than a hundred. The American dead in this engagement consisted of George Poinsett, a seaman of the Florida, from Philadelphia; John P. Schumacher, a coxswain of the Florida, from Brooklyn; Daniel A. Haggerty, a marine, from Cambridge, Mass., and Samuel Martin, a marine, from Chicago.

During the afternoon and night 3,300 men in all were landed, and the next morning these were added to from Admiral Badger's fleet, which arrived early on the 22nd, until the force on shore numbered 5,250. These proceeded to take general possession of the city, all its important public buildings and locations being occupied, despite the persistent fire kept up by sharpshooters, or "snipers," from housetops and other places of vantage.


The United States army taking possession of Vera Cruz. The regulars of the Fifth Brigade marching through the streets of the city for guard duty at the outposts.

The most active firing of the 21st had come from an old tower at one time used as a light-house, but a few shots from one of the warships in the harbor soon put this ancient stronghold out of commission. On the 22nd a number of naval cadets and others concealed in the Naval College fired at short range on a party of American sailors. Seeking places of shelter, the bluejackets signalled to the Prairie  and Chester in the harbor. Those vessels at once opened upon the building with their five and six-inch guns, and parts of the walls were soon tumbled upon the heads of the occupants, of whom a considerable number were killed, the remainder taking flight.

The intention of seizing Tampico was no longer entertained, one city being deemed enough to hold with the force at hand. In fact, fears were entertained that the men holding Vera Cruz might be endangered by an attack in force upon them by the army under General Maas, and it was decided to reinforce the marines and bluejackets without delay by a strong military contingent from Galveston. General Funston, a hero of the Philippine war, was chosen to command this expedition, the first section of which, consisting of a brigade of three regiments, embarked on the night of the 23rd.

The effect of the decisive act of seizing Vera Cruz soon made itself widely felt throughout Mexico. Huerta on 22nd sought to enlist the people in his support by issuing a proclamation in which it was denounced as a "war on a free people," and amnesty was offered to all who should join him in defence of their mutual country. Carranza, the Constitutionalist chief, took a similar stand, declaring the American act one of hostility to the Mexican people and calling on the United States to withdraw its forces from Vera Cruz. An immediate result of his defiant attitude was an order restoring the prohibition against commerce in military stores. The United States did not propose to furnish arms that might used against its own soldiers.

Villa, the chief leader of the Constitutionalist army, lost no time in expressing an opposite view. He declared that the action of the United States was not an injury but an aid to the revolutionary cause and a few days later he held a probably stormy interview with Carranza. Whatever the kind of argument that the redoubtable Villa used, it proved effective. Carranza declared that which he had said had been misunderstood, and backed down incontinently from the stand he had taken. But the suppression of commerce in military supplies continued. He had done that much harm to his cause.


The navy leaving Vera Cruz after being relieved by the Army brigade. The sailors returned to their ships in the harbor with a record of having captured the city, re-established order, taken over and exercised all the functions of a civil government in the short space of little more than a week.

While the events described were taking place in the south, the war went on in the north, and its chief events need here to be described. One effect of the new American attitude was shown on April 24th, when the Federal troops at Nuevo Laredo dynamited and set fire to that city and tried to blow up the railroad bridge across the Rio Grande at that place. This brought them into sharp conflict with the American soldiers stationed on the bridge, who first warned them, and then fired on them when they persisted in placing dynamite on the bridge. An interchange of shots took place, the Mexicans retreating after a number of them had been killed and wounded.

At Tampico the hostile feeling against Americans was shown on the 25th, the warships, with the exception of the cruiser Des Moines, having left the harbor under orders to proceed to Vera Cruz. Encouraged by this movement, bands of Mexicans began to parade the streets, shouting insults at the Americans, who had sought shelter in the principal hotels of the town. An attack on the hotels had been instituted when Captain Von Kohler, of the German cruiser Dresden, sent officers and marines ashore, sternly bidding the mob to disperse. They obeyed and the imperilled Americans were rescued.

Meanwhile the cause of the Constitutionalists was making progress elsewhere. The attack on Tampico had been resumed and the city of Monterey, one of the remaining Federal strongholds in the north, had been taken by the Constitutionalists after a five days' assault, the Federal army being driven out with heavy loss. Previous to this they had seized and imprisoned Philip O. Hanna, the American consul general at that place, and had torn and burnt all the American flags found. Hanna was released from prison by the Constitutionalists after their victory.


American soldiers shooting at Mexican snipers. Some of the first detachment of jackies who landed at Vera Cruz firing from behind a huge boiler at Mexicans who perched on the roofs and took pot shots at the Americans as they landed.

On May 6th, news of three important victories for the Constitutionalists reached the United States. Most important of these was the reported defeat of an army of 3,600 Federals at Panazcos, near San Luis Potosi, with the capture of the Federal commander, all the officers of his staff, and 1,800prisoners. The defeat of a strong force of Federals near Saltillo was also reported, with important captures of arms and ammunition. On the west coast Acaponeta, 100 miles south of Mazatlan, was taken, with its garrison and large quantities of ammunition. General Obregon, to whom this success was due, was besieging Mazatlan with a large army and prospects of quick success.

The most important operations, however, were those at Tampico and Saltillo, two cities the capture of which was essential to the Constitutionalists, since the taking of Tampico would give them a port through which munitions might be obtained, while Saltillo was the only important stronghold then held by the Federals in the interior north of San Luis Potosi.

Later advices were to the effect that General Torres, with 8,000 men and twenty field pieces had begun an attack on San Luis Potosi, and that General Villa was at the head of 30,000 men, of which 26,000 would be concentrated in the attack on Saltillo. It was his purpose to surround that city so closely that, in the probable event of its capture, the garrison would find no avenue of escape.

The most immediately important of these operations was the fall of Tampico, which Carranza's forces had for months been seeking to capture. This city is on the Panuco River, some miles above its mouth, and beyond it lie a number of the most prolific petroleum wells in the world. On May 13th, a general assault was made on the city by an army of 6,000 men under General Gonzales, in the face of desperate resistance by the Federals under General Zarogoza. The Constitutionalists advanced under heavy artillery fire and succeeded in driving out their opponents only after a hard and deadly hand to hand encounter in the streets. The losses were very heavy on both sides.

The story of the ill treatment of the United States consul at Monterey was only one among numerous instances of injury and outrage to Americans. Despite the opportunities that had been given to leave the distracted realm of Mexico, very many had remained, held by claims of business and probably fearing no injury while Wilson's "watchful waiting" policy continued. But the sudden change of policy, the seizure of Vera Cruz, and the wave of hostility that succeeded, changed their position of seeming safety into one of imminent peril, and on all sides were evidences of panic flight. Hundreds, thousands, sought safety, making their way by every available channel to the seashore, while Congress hastened to vote a sum of $500,000 to be used for their relief and escape.

The numbers were greater than any one anticipated, and on April 30th the statement was made that approximately 10,000 refugees, mostly Americans, had left Mexico during the preceding week. The state department estimated that practically all Americans had by that time left the republic, but others showed themselves in the succeeding days. Among them were a large number of women and children, some of whom suffered severely.

Many of these came by train to Vera Cruz, having to walk in the tropical heat over the spaces in which the track had been destroyed. Others sought the more southerly port of Puerto Mexico, the line to which remained intact. Still others made their way to the border line in the north and crossed to safety in that direction. Many of them were exposed to insult, injury, petty torture of various kinds. Some were seized, imprisoned, threatened with death, one party escaping only by being crowded into a cattle car, their guides telling the crowd that they were taking them out to be executed. When Mexico City was reached the insults continued. Eggs were thrown at them, their faces were spat upon, and the crowds yelled at them, "murder the gringos." Every party had its own tale of petty torment and. insult to tell and most of them were glad enough to escape with their bare lives.

Fortunately, at the request of the British secretary of legation, Huerta was induced to set free Americans who had been imprisoned and furnish guards for train-loads of fugitives, thus greatly reducing the danger and injury to which they had been exposed.

Meanwhile Vera Cruz was settling down into a more peaceful state as the American occupation became an assured condition and the people began to find that these invaders were disposed to treat them with friendly consideration. On the 24th Admiral Fletcher reported the Mexican losses during the three days of hostile relations at 126 killed and 321 wounded. The American losses were much less, a report made on the 30th giving them at 16 dead and 70 wounded.

A new element was introduced into the situation on the 25th, that of the use of hydro-aeroplanes, the pioneer practical use of this method of observation in the American navy. As for the Mexican citizens of Vera Cruz, no such thing as a flying machine had ever been seen by them before and they rushed into the streets in thousands as the two bird-like machines sailed gracefully away above their heads. Rising to a height of several hundred feet, the aviators swept in curves over the city and sped away across the sandy region to the westward to inspect the region supposed to be occupied by Mexican troops. They were provided with bombs, to be used only in case of their being fired at by the Mexicans. As it proved, however, scarcely a trace of Mexican soldiers was visible. During the days that followed these air pilots made numerous ascents and kept the Americans well informed as to surrounding conditions.

While the city had returned to a comparatively peaceful status, the "snipers" kept up their dangerous work at night, causing so much annoyance that it was ordered that men of this kind, caught with arms in their possession, should be shot on the spot. It became necessary, indeed, to put the city under martial law, with Admiral Fletcher in absolute command, and orders were issued that any kind of unruliness should be visited with sharp and severe punishment, also that all arms in possession of citizens should be turned in by noon of the 26th. The result was a huge heap of guns of all makes and kinds, while the work of the "snipers" ceased, there being thus no occasion for the summary action decreed.


How the American sailors and marines were killed at Vera Cruz. The Mexicans are good shots and excel at this kind of warfare.

On the 27th the transports bearing General Funston's brigade reached the harbor of Vera Cruz. The landing of the troops was delayed until the afternoon of the 30th, when, in a brief ceremony, Admiral Fletcher transferred to Funston the shore command. As a result most of the naval forces were returned to their ships and the soldiers, weary of their close quarters on the transports, gladly stepped ashore. In Fletcher's statement of the work done by his men, he said:

"In nine days' work the city of Vera Cruz was occupied by the navy, lawlessness and disorder were suppressed, 11,000 fire-arms taken possession of, and a line of defences established around the city against an army threatening to recapture it. Business was resumed and normal conditions restored. The municipal government of the city has been re-established under the control of its people and a civil government formed to carry out the laws of the State and Federal government. In turning our work over to the army the navy extends its best wishes and good will."

Vera Cruz, roused for a while from its tropical drowsiness by the stirring events narrated, had sunk back into its old conditions of lethargy, its dancing and promenading. There were few evidences that a crisis had come and passed. The shops were open again, gaining profit from the foreign occupants; the women, who had hid in terror from the invaders, were walking safely abroad; even the favorite bull fight was resumed, Americans elbowing Mexicans among its observers. News of the splendid deportment of the Americans and the security of life and property under them quickly spread to the surrounding country and the farmers began to come in with eggs and chickens, fruit and vegetables for sale. But these were only from the immediate vicinity and in the days that followed food grew so scarce that the invaders were obliged in a measure to feed the people, a genuine bread-line being established. Death had been threatened by the Federal leaders to any one caught taking food to Vera Cruz.


Scene from the Battle of Vera Cruz. American soldiers guarding the Naval Acadamy after they had driven the cadets from their position. The fight which occurred here was the hottest of any during the occupation of the city.

An unpleasant part of the duties devolving upon the invaders was that of investigating the ancient fortress of San Juan de Ulua, long used as a political prison. The conditions found there were horrifying. Among the inmates of its dungeon-like cells were men who had once been prominent but whose names even had been almost forgotten, men who had been in that horrible prison so long that their minds were blank, and their bodies so enfeebled that it became necessary in some instances to transfer them from the prison to the hospital. The appearance of the prisoners was pitiable. Emaciated creatures stumbled feebly forward to thank the inspecting officers for their delivery. When set free they walked about the streets like beings lost in the sunlight. They were clothed in rags and with their matted hair and unkempt beards presented a distressing aspect. No fewer than three hundred and twenty-five prisoners were found with no crime charged against them, and these were set free in a world which had forgotten them, waifs without money and without friends. If for no other reason, the occupation of Vera Cruz was well justified in the release of these victims of a medieval political system.

While Vera Cruz had sunk back into its accustomed calm, its inhabitants regarding the Americans more as a blessing than a curse, there were some evidences of Federals in the district surrounding, but little to show that they amounted to the dignity of an army. The only danger of a hostile dash appeared at the Tejar pumping station, nine miles from Vera Cruz, the focus of the water-supply of that city. Here two companies of marines were on duty, and on May 2nd a Mexican lieutenant and corporal appeared there with a white flag and demanded that the Americans should surrender within ten minutes.

"Hurry right back," was Major Russell's reply. "Do not waste any of the time stipulated."

Apparently some 500 men awaited the report of the officer, but these retired with a few scattering shots. General Funston, on hearing of this incident, immediately sent a strong reinforcement to Major Russell's aid. Other information received was that the railroad to Mexico City had been mined at short intervals and that artillery was being forwarded towards Vera Cruz. At once Funston requested a supply of artillery from the warships and measures were taken for sending a second brigade of troops from Galveston to strengthen his force.

Meanwhile a new situation, of much wider scope, had developed, one looking towards mediation by external nations and an attempted settlement of the hostile relations existing. The difficulty caused by the hasty action of the Tampico colonel had spread into almost a world issue. The offer came on April 25th, from the three great South American Powers, Argentina, Brazil and Chili, known throughout the negotiations as the A-B-C diplomats. These Powers, which like the United States had declined to recognize Huerta, now tendered their good offices as mediators between the United States and the Huerta government. This offer was favorably received by both governments with the suggestion of the American Secretary of State, that the mediators should seek to restore peaceful conditions throughout Mexico and bring that distracted land again into a state of peace and happiness.